"When you are winning a war almost everything that happens can be claimed to be right and wise."
~ Winston Churchill
Trey Burke works the ball up the court, and crosses mid-court with just under nine seconds left. Jordan Morgan sets a high screen on Oladipo, and in an instant the much ballyhooed pre-game narrative is wiped out of the picture. This will no longer be a symbolic battle for the Big Ten Player of the Year. Indiana's best defender is a bystander. Instead it is Cody Zeller on Burke 30 feet from the basket.
History may be written by the winners, but in sports the winners rarely read the history they write. For the victor, the simple fact of the victory can obscure whatever came before. The foibles and missteps were merely a part of the rich tapestry that was their inevitable triumph. It is the character-building fire that forges their mettle. It is for the loser, rather, to lament the components of their fate. Almost exactly a week before Jordan Morgan set his screen, Keith Appling was dribbling the ball up that same court, in a tie game, with the shot clock off, when Trey Burke stole the ball and turned the tables on all the percentages. And when a second Burke steal sealed the game, no one cared that Michigan had frittered away a ten point lead in the last four minutes, or that they had missed the front end of a one-and-one to give Michigan State one last chance. It was Sparty, rather, who spoke with the bitter tinge of "what if" of their blown opportunity to win on what should have been a final possession.
Burke gains the corner on Zeller, but only by a bit. Yogi Ferrell starts to sag off of Stauskas, but thinks better of it. Ferrell knows full well that Burke is taking this one to the rack, but Stauskas is not to be left. Christian Watford is under no such restriction on the far side against Glenn Robinson III, and he helps down. Burke isn't going to leave this one in the hands of a jump shot from a freshman, no matter how talented that freshman may be. Zeller extends an impossibly long arm over Burke, who responds in kind with a fully extended flip of the ball. Jordan Morgan has reached the free throw line.
If you are anything like me, dear Michigan fan, then there is a part of you that is relieved that it got this far. The recent history of Michigan basketball is one of repeated crashes to reality. A first NCAA berth in a decade is followed by a 15-17 season. A first Big Ten title in centuries and a four-seed leads to an early exit against Ohio (YTO). So when Michigan came out of the gates this year as an unstoppable hell-beast, there remained a little voice in your head that urged caution. Like the slave used by Julius Caesar to ride on his chariot to remind him of his mortality, the little voice kept whispering in your ear, "they are not Gods. They are merely human." When Ben Brust hit a half-court heave and Michigan was run out of the Breslin Center and utterly collapsed in Happy Valley, those whispers became screams that could not be ignored. And when Michigan went down 10-3 early, there was a part of you that said, "please not this again."
[After the jump, not this again]
Perhaps he would have had a better look if he had pulled up for the one-handed six foot floater he has been featuring lately. Maybe he was looking for contact, or maybe he thought Ferrell was going to continue to help and be in a position to block his shot. Or maybe he just figured these things must be decided at the rack, where men are men and where he is at his most All-American. Burke's shot hovers over the bucket, but hits the back of the iron and hops out. Jordan Morgan has completed his rim run in front of Oladipo, and Zeller's momentum has carried him out of the play. It's just Morgan and the ball and a moment of destiny. He takes a bump from Ferrell, but it falls squarely in "you can't call that there" territory. Having played too large a role to begin with, the referees are sitting this one out.
But the Michigan team that showed up on Sunday was not the one that nearly lost to Penn State and then actually lost to Penn State. The team that showed up was the Michigan team that had won the Preseason NIT and disemboweled its early season schedule with brutal athleticism. Once again they had too MUCH energy. They were carrying play. They were playing DEFENSE. They were playing the #2 team in the country and looking like the better team. It doesn't erase the sub-.500 February or the Penn State loss that would have embarrassed lesser Michigan teams than this one. It doesn't answer all the questions about this team: the defense is still suspect, their shooters are streaky, free throws remain an unconvincing proposition, and they still might want to grab a defensive rebound every now and then. But for 40 minutes, they once again felt like those demigods who heard those whispers of mortality and responded, "WE ON."
The ball hits of the square. And the front iron. And it begins to roll along the rim. For a full second, the ball offers no clues as to its intentions. A half-inch either way would be enough to provide some clarity, but the ball refuses to relent to the subconscious demands of the thousands looking on breathlessly. Perhaps a butterfly flapped its wings in Central Park, or perhaps quantum mechanics dictates that sometimes that ball has to fall away. Or perhaps shit happens. But for whatever reason, or for no reason whatsoever, it rolls off the rim.
Don't get me wrong; this sucked. It sucked on a number of levels. It sucks to lose a close game. It sucks to lose winnable games to good teams. It sucks to feel like you gave one away (because you gave one away). It sucks to feel slighted by the refs and fate and the general bloody-mindedness of the universe, but to have no recourse. To fall one point short of a second consecutive Big Ten title is almost by definition heartbreaking, and to do so in this fashion was simply cruelty for the sake of cruelty. An inch away from not having to watch Tom Crean stride around the court smiling and casting aspersions on Michigan assistants for sins long since forgotten. An inch away from a banner. An inch away from not letting down Michigan State and Ohio State... okay, so not everything about it sucked. But almost.
The clock expires. Indiana celebrates. Michigan stands stunned, seemingly unable to contemplate the fickleness of what just happened. The crowd looks to court, the scoreboard, the clock, and back to the court. Those of us at home sit, mouth agape. It was unlike so many finishes with fouls and timeouts dragging the last 30 seconds out for 20 minutes. They had a lead, and then it was gone, and the game was over. Quickly. Finally. Mercilessly.
Some people also took it as a sign that this team can't close. After all, Trey Burke had a one-and-one with Michigan leading by one, and missed the front end. Winners close. Winners finish. Never mind the fact that Michigan nailed nine of ten free throws, most of them by Burke, in the last two minutes of its previous game to slam the door. Never mind the fact that Michigan had missed the same front end of a one-and-one against Michigan State in an identical situation, but were hailed for their gritty grit after the game because scoreboard. The winner doesn't need to look beyond the score. Quick, describe the first three quarters of the Under the Lights game. Describe the first 52 minutes of Braylonfest. [ed-S: There was Stanton and lots of spread 'n shred, and then suddenly there was no more Stanton]. Earlier this year Johnny Adams tried to say Michigan's win over MSU wasn't that impressive because Michigan didn't score a touchdown. And the universal response was, correctly, "scoreboard."
The temptation is to rely too much on wins and losses for purposes of predictive value (see: Notre Dame football, 2012). Michigan outplayed mighty Indiana for 40 minutes. They outscored mighty Indiana for 39 minutes and 46 seconds. And as that ball sat on the rim, you couldn't ask for a more pure coin-flip of an outcome. Did Michigan play that much better or worse of a game depending on what happened in those last nine seconds, let along whether a coin came up heads or tails? Trey Burke missing that free throw is a 21% event. Trey Burke stealing that ball from Keith Appling is, what, a 5% event? Should Michigan feel that much different about the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA tournament because this time the long odds came in on the wrong horse? This was probably the best game Michigan has played in six weeks. It was easily their best defensive performance in recent memory. They had their foot on the throat of the giant after a sub-par game from their workhorse, and there aren't many teams out there with a throat as invulnerable as Indiana. And yet they could not finish. This felt like equal parts soul-crusher and springboard. There may be no moral victories, but surely a return to form that challenged the best means something for the coming weeks.
But perhaps I am being overly optimistic. After all, scoreboard.