Despite bittersweet ending, Michigan’s season was a success

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Dustin Johnston

Maybe you should read this in a few days.

Right now, in the hours after the game or even the next day, the weight and enormity of losing in the NCAA championship game feels crushing. The disappointment is acute and biting and it is very difficult to think about the game without feeling it.

“It hurts a lot,” Trey Burke said after Michigan’s 81-76 loss to Louisville on Monday. “Just to get to the national championship game, just to play for the national championship, it hurts so much.”

Sums up the feelings of Michigan fans everywhere, don’t you think?

In the immediate aftermath of a game like that, a game that eluded Michigan just barely, just enough for the Wolverines to lose it, disappointment is natural. And that’s fine.

You may not want to hear why this season was an unqualified success for Michigan basketball. Not right now. So you can wait until you’re ready, this post will still be here in a few days.

This trip to the Final Four and the championship game will pay plenty in dividends for Michigan as a program. For a university that has only been relevant in basketball for a few years, the way this team played will be a huge boost to national profile as well as recruiting.

“Obviously with recruiting, it’s a huge thing. A lot of TV sets, a young man could be in eighth grade, wanting to be Spike Albrecht,” Beilein said after the game. “There are Spike Albrecht fans all over the world, and there’s obviously Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., Mitch McGary, Nik and all those guys, people who love those kids. We’ve been taking steps in the right direction, but this might have been a bigger-than-normal step.”

But aside from the tangible benefits of exposure and recruiting, Michigan experienced a run that was delightfully unexpected. After the way the Wolverines ended their season, losing a stinker to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament, they were picked by many to struggle even against their round-of-64 match-up with South Dakota State. Even more picked them to lose to VCU.

But they didn’t. And they didn’t lose to Kansas, either, or Florida after that. In the course of getting to the National Championship game, Michigan gave its fans — in basketball’s case, the long-suffering ones — a run packed with moments none will forget.

It was because of this truly remarkable run that Nik Stauskas was able to look into the camera, eyes red and face wet but head held high, and call this season a success.

“I think this season was very successful,” Stauskas said. “Especially considering that, three or four weeks ago, I don’t think anybody would have thought we’d get to this point. Everybody was writing us off in the first or second round. I’m proud of us.”

One marginal benefit of Michigan reaching the championship game was the healing it initiated between two different generations of Michigan basketball. Whatever you think of Jalen Rose’s motives in getting the Fab Five back together for Michigan’s game against Louisville on the biggest stage in college basketball, it was something Michigan’s players genuinely enjoyed

“It meant a lot,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said of the Fab Five coming to the game. “You know, it feels great when you have alumni come back that played in this program before, you know, really show you some love. It was great for them to be in the stands to support us.  Sad we didn’t get the job done, but we were happy they were there.”

One of the most heartwarming scenes was in the locker room after the game, when Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Juwan Howard walked in and met with the players. Rose walked over to Mitch McGary and embraced him, knowing exactly how he felt, having gone through the exact same thing himself.

Was the Fab Five’s move of crashing the title game a bit self-centered? Probably. But it meant something to the players. Those connections between past and present are the kinds of things that undergird a strong program. This game shouldn’t be about the Fab Five, but significant steps were taken toward mending the relationship between that generation and Michigan tonight.

One of the most important things shouldn’t be lost is how incredibly impressive the game actually was. Both sides agreed, it was a masterful display of truly beautiful basketball, something that appeared to have been lacking this season.

“I think what people saw was two really good teams going at it today,” Stauskas said. “It was back and forth all game long. Both teams left everything they had on the floor.”

So Michigan fans: in a few days, when you read this, smile. It was a hell of a season and this was a hell of a team. Beilein was asked when he thinks his team will be able to look at the season beyond this one crushing, heart-breaking defeat. He was optimistic.

“I hope tomorrow when we get on that plane, there’s some smiles on the faces,” Beilein said. “The sun is going to come up tomorrow.”

  • ScottGoBlue

    Good write up. Definitely agree that this season was hugely successful. We were playing with house money in this game, and a few before it. Sure, we all wanted them to win it. But what a great run all the same! Congrats, Team 96!

    I wanted to put my two cents in about the Fab Five coming. I don’t see it as selfish. I think it’s great to have any and all former players coming around to cheer on the current squad. And in this case, to console them after such a tough loss. To me it says, “We’re in it with you, we stand behind you, we want to see you succeed.” Nothing wrong with that, nothing selfish about that. Whenever the Fab Five show up or open their mouths, they are gonna steal the spotlight almost by default. But they’re our guys and they are getting behind our current guys. Kudos to them.

    Go Blue!

  • Well said, Joe. Definitely a great piece, and over time, this will sting less and we’ll be able to enjoy the incredible run the team made before this game.

    Go Blue, always!

  • Mark Worthley

    I don’t care if any of the Fab Five have selfish motives for wanting to rebuild their relationship with the University of Michigan. That is one of the greatest stories in college basketball history. Michigan can only benefit from their continued exposure bragging about Michigan, selling Michigan, and hyping Michigan. Even with the understanding that today’s recruits weren’t born until after the Fab Five were in the pros, there is enough information out there and available of their image to have an impact in recruiting today and probably in the future.