In a heartless hotel somewhere in Metro Chicago, 11 coaches and hoards of media gathered to talk about the upcoming Big Ten Basketball season. It was Oct. 28th. John Beilein was there, talking about his young team that would ultimately be picked to finish among the bottom three in the conference. He opened his remarks with a statement of youth:
Thank you. Good morning. This is a very young team. This is probably one of the younger teams I've ever coached, and maybe one of the younger ones in the country. I think we have no seniors. We have two juniors, two sophomores, and six freshmen. So it's going to be there's going to be very challenging moments. And we're replacing trying to replace a lot of points and a lot of rebounds in two very good players. But we've practiced so hard and we're fortunate enough to make a European trip that we learned a lot about ourselves. Many positive things, and also a lot of work to do.
When the Wolverines took the court for the first time, they were expected to be a solid team defensively with no offensive presence. They did not have a big man, they had no proven swing man, and their best player was a 6'4" guy wearing "0" playing the 4-man out of position. Michigan, for those first few games, largely lived up to the hype. They played solidly at times, but were prone to long droughts and an offense that relied too heavily on emerging star Darius Morris to just do something. Defensively, and despite what the media will incorrectly tell you, they relied on a man-to-man defense that was not the swarming 1-3-1 that everyone predicted they would utilize. In other words, their offense was as-predicted and their defense was not as good as predicted. This is how they began their season.
When the Wolverines hit conference play, they had somewhat out performed expectations - notching nice wins against Clemson, Harvard, and Oakland - but were still expected to be a bottom dweller in what many considered the best conference in the land. They lived up to that expectation for the first 7 games, winning only one. However, through the tough losses it became clear that this Michigan team was not about to fold up the tent and wait until next year. You could just feel the improvement through those losses until they finally put it together in the Breslin Center for a season-turning point victory against Michigan State. They never looked back, and fittingly if the turnaround started with a victory over Michigan State, it ended with the first sweep of the Spartans since 1997. Rarely is there ever a point so defined for a team as there was for Michigan. With two paths to choose from and a 1-6 conference record, they could have folded up shop, and I'm not sure anyone would have blamed them. Instead, Beilein got his team to believe that they could do something special, and they ended up being "the Michigan team I feel good about" for the last 3 years. I did not anticipate that going into this season.
When that shot rang off the back of the rim to end Michigan's tournament, I had a brief flash of anger towards Duke's general Duke-ness, but immediately felt an overwhelming sense of pride in this team. That sentiment was echoed across the internet. That's a rare thing, man. For most teams in the tournament, their season ends in disappointment. There can be only one winner, after all. For this team though, knowing what they overcame and how they fought that disappointment took on a different tone. The disappointment wasn't selfish, it wasn't that "my team" got eliminated. It was disappointment for those kids out there on the floor who looked at their preseason expectations and said "eff that." Then they took the defending champs to the brink. It was disappointment that they were not - could not - get what they deserved for their effort this year. Because if you followed this team closely, you know they were already champions.
A common thread around the Michigan universe is one of "man, I wish I could just see them play one more game." The good news is that you will, next season. With everyone returning and a few key recruits, Michigan is looking to be a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten, which is expected to not be quite as strong as they were this year. One thing is for sure: Michigan has put the Big Ten on notice. They will not be ignored again. They will be expected, next year, to take the step from plucky under dog to conference favorite. My hope is that a small part of them stays behind, with their backs against the wall, fighting for every minute.