The NCAA tournament is a fragile yet unforgiving contest of absolutes. The finality of the tournament is a far cry from the college basketball regular season which is a battle of attrition, consistency and steadfastness over more than 30 games. One bad performance during the regular season is a bump in the road, one bad performance in March is enough to end seasons and careers. Michigan’s season, one defined by winning close games in a dramatic fashion, came to an abrupt finish in Nashville as the Wolverines fell upset victims to the No. 13 seeded Ohio Bobcats.
After playing over 1300 minutes of basketball this season, statistics generally paint a pretty informative picture of teams and players. We track shooting percentages to the decimal and measure efficiency to the tenth of a point per possession but eventually every game comes down to just a few plays. The statistical outliers are what truly decide any game. DJ Cooper, a 31% three point shooter, hitting three-of-six NBA range triples. Or TJ Hall, a 27% three point shooter, knocking down a critical second half three, his only shot of the game. Add in Michigan, the ninth best two point shooting team in the country, missing nearly a dozen layups and Ohio, a 68% free throw shooting team, hitting 15-of-17 freebies. More often than not, those statistical anomalies combine into a perfect storm and make this tournament what it is. Michigan, like Duke and Missouri on the same night, learned a stern lesson of the cruelties of March.
From the tip off, one thing was clear: Ohio was the aggressor. The Bobcats took the floor with confidence and hit a couple of early shots from their two most important players – DJ Cooper and Ivo Baltic. Michigan started on the wrong foot and was always trying to fight its way back. Cooper began the game with a deep three, his first en route to 21 points on 11 shots, and never looked back. His numbers were particularly remarkable given the degree of difficulty of the majority of his attempts and he will fully deserve every bit of praise that he earns during the 36 hour media whirlwind leading up to Ohio’s game against South Florida.
On this night, Ohio was the better team. The Bobcats hit big shots and, most importantly, Michigan looked hapless defending DJ Cooper on the screen and roll. The Wolverines tried to double Cooper which led to defensive breakdowns, late rotations and open threes across the court. A similar double team look to the one that’s given Michigan’s screen and roll action problems on the other end all season posed no problem to Cooper and Michigan was simply unable to adjust. Michigan tried zone at times but it was generally not much more effective.
Despite woeful defense throughout, the loss was especially painful because the game was there for the taking in the final four minutes. The Wolverines had fought back into the game and were down just three points with 4:12 on the clock but would fail to score again.
Out of a timeout, Michigan ran a great set to get Evan Smotrycz an easy look at the basket. He couldn’t finish. The Wolverines got Zack Novak a corner three point look – his favorite spot on the floor – and he missed. Twice Trey Burke found himself guarded by a bigger Ohio defender after a pick-and-roll switch and he missed a pair of deep threes. Like it or not, that’s Burke’s shot. The same one that he hit minutes earlier to get the Wolverines this close and the same one that he’s hit many times throughout his freshman season. The Wolverines had a seemingly endless number of chances but came up short. It was Ohio’s night.
The final four minutes were so agonizing because they were the antithesis of Michigan’s season. Whether it was against Michigan State, Ohio State, Northwestern or Minnesota, the Wolverines have prevailed more often than not in late game situations. The things that had gotten Michigan this far suddenly dried up and took a turn for the worse. Trey Burke, who had willed Michigan back in the game, came up short for what seemed like one of the first times all year.
The final opportunities will likely be analyzed ad nauseam but here’s my quick take. Ohio played good defense and I don’t think the Burke shots were as awful as some seem to say – although they weren’t great – but it’s inexcusable that Tim Hardaway Jr. didn’t have at least one serious touch in that final stretch.
For Michigan’s seniors, it wasn’t supposed to end like this. The very fact that it could end seemed to leave Michigan a bit uneasy. Stu Douglass said after the game that he thought the team was “anxious” and the nerves certainly crept through. While Ohio played with nothing to lose, a mindset that the Wolverines have embraced in previous tournaments, Michigan was faced with the reality of expectations. The Wolverines seemed just a little tight which could help explain at least some missed opportunities.
This loss wasn’t bittersweet, it was downright rotten. Michigan’s two previous tournament losses have come with some acceptance. They were in the round of 32 and came on the end of incredible late season runs. It’s tough to feel truly heartbroken when you lose to Blake Griffin or Kyrie Irving. Being upset in the round of 64 leaves an entirely new sort of hurt.
Life, and basketball, goes on. Zack Novak and Stu Douglass will move on but what they accomplished can’t be overlooked. Michigan’s career leaders in minutes and games played, respectively, more than left their mark on this program. They were never stars but they’ll graduate with three NCAA appearances and a Big Ten title. Not bad for a pair of kids fighting for any scholarship offers in high school. 136 games later, the duo that has defined John Beilein’s career at Michigan to date will never wear a maize uniform again.
The disappointment hurts but the future remains bright. Trey Burke, Evan Smotrycz and Tim Hardaway Jr. all return and combined to score 45 of Michigan’s points on the night. They’ll be joined by Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas who arrive on campus in a couple of months. Michigan will be bigger, taller, faster and more athletic next season but for now that’s a conversation for the spring, summer and fall.
In the present, the retrospection and drooling about the future can wait. This one hurts and there’s no sugarcoating it.