rundown of Michigan's riser
The Basketball Season So far…as told by basketball movie posters
So this was something I wanted to do since about the first MSU game, but a combination of grad classes and not wanting to jinx anything conspired to delay me until today. But with an NCAA Tournament-clinching win against the Waffling Webers and [insert OSU results], I figured it was high time to recognize the magical run by the most inspiring UM team since 1997 in the only way I knew how – through a schmaltzy montage of posters from basketball movies and TV shows. Call it a retroactive .
After last season’s cosmic nad-kicking as the team well woefully short of expectations and lost both Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims to the professional ranks, hopes were not high for this year’s Wolverines as they embarked on an offseason European tour. Not only had the team lost approximately 99% of its scoring from last year, but the best most pundits could say about this club was that they might be able to “grit” and “hustle” their way to double-digit wins if they could steal a couple of wins against the likes of Harvard and Oakland over the pre-conference schedule. That’s right – credible thought was given to UM’s prospects being tied to the unlikely scenario of slaying both Tommy and the Fightin’ Amakers and the school I passed on my way to Meadow Brook to see “Weird Al” Yankovic in concert when I was in high school. So yeah, this was not expected to be a banner year for Beilein’s crew.
But a funny thing seemed to happen over the summer. and all the sights – this team figured out how to play together. Darius Morris emerged as a legitimate leader at the point, role players like Novak returned with 100% more gruis, coeur, and zähigkeit, and a faint buzz could be heard surrounding this ho-hum 3* freshman with the famous father who once made a cameo on .
Of course, there is a big difference between playing international ball in exhibition games and competing against legitimate NCAA teams, and after a couple of cupcakes to start the season UM battled a Syracuse team in the Legends Classic. UM played them tight throughout, ultimately falling 53-50 after leading 31-29 at halftime. While some saw this close loss as proof that the team was better than preseason expectations, others argued it was an aberration against a disinterested opponent, a characterization that gained support from a subsequent loss to “meh” UTEP in the consolation game. And to make matters worse, UM was going to travel to NCAA tourney-quality Clemson as part of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. The conditions were ripe for the wheels to come off, and yet they didn’t.
Displaying the type of mental toughness and, um, s that belied their experience, the team took care of Clemson and followed up that with a 7-game surge that put them at 10-2 entering league play. Sure, the wins weren’t against elite competition (though Oakland did make the tourney and Harvard probably should have), but considering how low expectations were coming in it was a pleasant surprise.
Of course, any optimism garnered from this hot start was extinguished by a 1-7 stretch to start the season, punctuated by shellackings at home to Purdue and at Wiscy. But those were top-10 teams the thinking went, so the losses were at least expected. But during this streak, there were also 19-point losses to the battling Jamie Macs…I mean and the Northwestern “Just as good as Brown” Wildcats. These were not juggernauts draining bucket after bucket against UM, and the general sentiment that the 10-2 start was a red herring and this was an NIT team if they could steal a couple of wins gained purchase with the UM faithful.
But part-and-parcel with all of this doom and gloom was a faint ember of hope kept alive by close losses to top-5 teams OSU and Kansas. A team like UM, playing without an established inside presence and streaky, young shooters, had no business taking the JayHawks to overtime or making OSU sweat for every bucket. And while the Wolverines shot pretty well against the Buckeyes, neither game would be thought of as a fluke in the classical sense – they were games where good teams find a way to stick around against elite squads and nearly steal a win. But as Jesse Ventura used to say “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”, and 1-6 to start B10 play was close to the bottom of the B10 standings. If UM had any hope of postseason play, they needed to from this losing streak and right the ship immediately.
To do so, though, they would need to beat Tom Izzo’s MSU squad at the Breslin Center, a veritable house of horrors for UM since its opening. Even though the Spartans had failed to live up to their preseason #2 ranking, in East Lansing was still thick with anticipation, smugness, and AXE body spray of another MSU victory against the Wolverines.
It has often been said that you don’t see the true mettle of a team until it has overcome adversity, when it is has succeeded in the face of imposing odds, when it has emerged victorious of competition. On a day when nobody would have blamed the young Wolverines for folding in hostile territory, Darius Morris showed Sparty that to the tune of a 17-4-8 line while masterfully running the offense, and Zack Novak went all and scored a season-high 19 points to go along with 6 boards, in a 61-57 upset.
As UM basketball fans, we are all conditioned to be immensely reticent when it comes to the cagers; years of false starts and false hopes under Amaker and Ellerbe have conditioned us to remain stoic and, frankly, a little pessimistic regardless of the magnitude of the victory. Having lived through the car wreck that was the last few Ellerbe years and the growing pains of Amaker’s first two years, I had watched this team devolve from a consistent NCAA tourney team to a squad that lost to Western Michigan two years in a row. Two years ago, upsets against top-10 squads Duke and UCLA were met with a "let’s not blow it” mentality as the year progressed and the team slid into the NCAA tourney.
But it was impossible to underplay the importance of this win for both this season and this team. This might not have been a vintage MSU team, but UM still went into Breslin and beat MSU straight-up; no lucky bounces or last-minute tip-ins. UM was the better team that day, and gave a performance nobody expected coming off 6 straight losses. It was as if the Wolverines had pulled a on the Spartans, stealing the resolve and confidence that usually flowed from veteran squads and imbuing this team with it instead.
You know the rest of the story – UM went on a 7-3 tear, with two of those losses by a combined 3 points, and this team emerged as a legitimate NCAA-caliber team. Jordan Morgan showed he had the to compete down low against rugged competition, and the bench continued to evolve as Evan Smotrycz found a little bit of his shooting stroke. Novak, constantly undersized and outmuscled by PFs throughout the season, disproved the notion that by making the key defensive play against Minnesota and grabbing big rebounds amongst the trees every game. This was still a dangerously-shallow crew, but it played like a team and bought into Beilein’s system in a way no other team had. And nobody grew more as a player than Hardaway, who scored in double figures in every game and was the catalyst for wins over Iowa, Indiana, and Minnesota, playing and being absolutely unconscious at times from beyond the arc.
Riding this wake of momentum, the Wolverines welcomed the Spartans to Crisler to end the regular season. Both teams were nursing legitimate NCAA hopes, and some viewed this matchup as a “bubble buster” for the loser. All the talk leading up to the game was the MSU that had been to two straight Final Fours would emerge, that the Wolverines had a nice run but that there was no way Sparty was going to lose twice to UM in the same season. Statistics, efficiency metrics, and even our own eyes be damned, the perception was that MSU would find a way to win this game.
Looking back, of course, all of this bluster and worry seemed foolish. UM raced out to a 33-25 lead, and while MSU made a couple of runs late in the second half, the Wolverines never relinquished the lead. Every time Kalin Lucas or Durrell Summers made a play, UM answered with a nice feed from Morris to Morgan for a dunk or Hardaway taking the ball into traffic and making MSU pay at the foul line. s Smotrycz and Vogrich provided a nice boost from the bench, and as the game wound down and Morris scored some nice
on a coast-to-coast layup as time expired, even the most jaded UM fans couldn’t deny that this team was special. That still might not translate to an NCAA bid, though, and that was why the BTT was essential.
In the first game of the tourney, UM was pitted against a far more experienced and taller Illinois team, with both teams knowing that a victory would punch their respective tickets to the tourney. At the half Illinois held an 11-point lead, and there were some (me included) that thought maybe the magic had run out on the season one game too soon. But as they had done all year long, this team just kept battling. Led by an always-underrated defense, the Wolverines stormed back in the second half, outscoring the Illini by 16(!) to win 60-55. In the immortal words of Rasheed Wallace, , and it was saying UM was going to be in the NCAA tournament. A close loss to #1 overall seed OSU did little to damper this optimism, and the only surprise on Selection Sunday was UM earning an 8 seed as opposed to the 10 or 11 seed most expected.
It has been an amazing season so far by the Wolverines, one made sweeter by the low expectations and the realization that this team is positioned to continue this resurgence well into the future. A masterful coaching job by Beilein, he guided a young squad through myriad of potential landmines and is recruiting the type of high-end recruits that will be needed to sustain this success going forward. Any doubts about his coaching ability were laid to rest this year, and hopefully for good.
But perhaps the most important product of this magical run is that it let a large portion of the UM faithful, those scarred by the Ed Martin scandal and the subsequent dark years, to believe again in this team. That might sound sappy, but even the tourney bid in 2009 felt like a tease after the team stumbled through a mediocre season last year. But this team is different, this coach is different, and this program is different than it was since Steve Fisher walked the sidelines; it is a healthy program with a bright future, free of the cancers that plagued it for over a decade. I don’t know how the team will fare against a schizophrenic Tennessee squad or a third-round clash with mighty Duke, but what I do know is that UM is back as a basketball school, and saying that after all these years is .