12/3/2008 – Michigan 70, Maryland 75 – 5-2
Well, they lost, but they did so in encouraging fashion. This is the place Michigan basketball finds itself in ten years after its last tourney appearance: losses to meh ACC squads—no one really expects Maryland to make the tourney—are signs of encouragement. Eh… I'm okay with that.
I hardly remember a good Michigan basketball team. I remember sitting in a couch stolen from the South Quad lobby and watching three-seed Michigan lose to UCLA in the second round, and then it's a black hole of Dom Ingerson and Pete Vignier and Maurice Searight and Courtney Sims and so forth and so on. Even that one year in which they looked pretty good and briefly led the Big Ten was followed by an epic, tourney-bid crushing collapse down the stretch. At work I listened to Michigan lose their first-round Big Ten tournament game to Minnesota, at one point giving up four straight fast-break buckets off turnovers.
And, honestly, I hated that 1998 team even before it became clear that Taylor, Traylor, and Bullock were strangling the program by taking money from a guy they had been explicitly told to avoid. Taylor was a sullen loafer who would become the NBA's worst-rebounding power forward; Traylor would lose 50 pounds right before the draft in order to get some idiotic team to pick him, then immediately gain it all back after he got that cheddar.
It was little surprise he was convicted of tax fraud for helping a drug dealer launder money. These guys were hard to root for even when they won, and that broken backboard picture is a perfect metaphor for what they did to the program: it's pretty now, but picking up the shards is going to be long, bloody work.
I haven't actually liked a Michigan basketball team since Jalen Rose was around. So I sort of like these guys and they might be sort of okay, and this seems just fine to me.
Last year Michigan lost for a lot of reasons, from terrible fundamentals to lack of talent to walk-on point guards. The walk-ons remain, but just for another three games. The fundamentals are better. The lack of talent remains apparent at certain spots in the rotation.
Add it up and you get a really fringe NCAA team that needed a couple of lucky games to slide in as a ten seed. They managed to get one against UCLA, and entered the second half against Maryland up six, opportunity beckoning. The NCAA tournament lay prostrate, saying "just finish this off and go .500 in the Big Ten and you can make a brief, unsuccessful appearance in me." Michael Scott materialized and exclaimed "that's what she said!" Two minutes later Michigan recovered from the shock naturally caused by the spontaneous appearance of a fictional character; they were down five and couldn't dig out.
This happened last year, too: I remember a competitive game with Boston College that went horribly awry early in the second half. That game got blown open, though, and this one see-sawed between one and four points for most of the second half until Maryland got a dagger three with the clock winding under three minutes. They stuck close, and had a chance. Having a chance is the difference between 10-22 and the NIT; taking it was the difference between the NIT and the NCAAs.
And I'm okay with that. The team is going in the right direction and there is a guy who wears 0 and another one who looks like Spock and another one who will probably play in the NBA but, like, be a good rep for the program. Ben Cronin is going to be endearingly awkward for four years. And the tourney will beckon again.