For the majority of scenarios in life, I like to remain as optimistic as possible. After all, a bag of cookies that is half-full is much more inviting than one that is 50% empty. With that said, when it comes to the future of Michigan basketball, I can't help but morph into the most cynical fan on the planet right now. And it just kills me.
Any Michigan fan who was paying attention during the regular season saw it coming. Freshman point guard Trey Burke was going to flirt with the allure of the NBA lifestyle, and we would all be powerless to stop him. With the way analysts and scribes around the country were fawning over this game left and right, this much seemed inevitable.
That's not to say Burke is making a terrible decision by testing the waters (he isn't), or that he still won't return to Ann Arbor in the coming days (he might). But with the possibility of losing such a promising talent so soon now all too real, it's not a stretch to say that the future of Michigan hoops, or at least a sizable portion of it, hangs in the balance.
Manny Harris left Michigan with a year of eligibility remaining. Darius Morris had two. And if Burke bolts for greener pastures this spring, he will have done so with three years of college hoops lying on the table. Aside from how easy it is to label this as a result of the rampant roster turnover across college basketball that plagues every single program, keep in mind that the Wolverines simply don't recruit well enough to recover from losing players early to the NBA. And that's the main problem here.
This isn't Kentucky or North Carolina we're talking about. Before five-star 2012 recruit Mitch McGary signed, Michigan was largely irrelevant on the national recruiting scene. The byproduct of this has been that instead of running out four-star 6-foot-8 forwards who are athletic and can play multiple positions, you end up with undersized shooters that are forced to play multiple positions. For as great as it is to have glue guys like this around doing dirty work, it didn't ever seem feasible to compete for a title with players like Douglass, Vogrich, and Novak playing significant minutes. And in many ways it feels like we knew this all along and just never wanted to admit it.
The campus, the program's history, and the academic side of things are all great drawing cards, but without Final Four appearances and Big Ten titles to fall back on, the Wolverines just don't have the ammunition to land a handful of starters in every recruiting class like elite programs can. So when a cornerstone player like Morris or Burke flourishes early in his career and then suddenly leaves before anything tangible is accomplished, it makes it impossible for the program to remain consistent enough to compete.
It can't be stressed enough how lucky Michigan was to find a gem in Burke to replace Morris at a time when it appeared the Wolverines might take a step back. But now, before the program can even bask in it, the search for Burke's replacement could already be underway. It truly is a vicious cycle, and it appears Michigan is really struggling to keep pace. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Take note of the year that Michigan State had for a prime example. Tom Izzo didn't have one of his most talented teams on paper, but he did have star player and leader in senior Draymond Green, a guy who made his team as strong as anybody in the country when he was on the floor. Green maxed out his eligibility in search of an elusive title, despite having the chance to play professionally for the last two years. Without Green, Izzo's team probably never would have even sniffed a Big Ten championship in 2012.
Now parallel this with Michigan's current situation. Will Beilein ever actually find his own Draymond Green? Better yet, are there even top recruits out there who want to dedicate three or four years to Michigan's program at this point in the one-n-done era? Because from where I sit, it doesn't appear likely. When Burke, the 94th overall prospect in his recruiting class, turns in a strong freshman campaign and immediately leaves for the NBA, how can Michigan fans ever have any hope that this won't happen again and again in the near future? Maybe that's cynicism. Or maybe that's just the harsh reality of what we're dealing with.
Fringe draft picks have been known to take one step toward the NBA before coming back to school with a laundry list of areas to improve upon from scouts and GMs. So in some aspects this entire pre-draft process is crucial for any player that has NBA aspirations, regardless of whether they act on them or not. But Burke's situation feels different on the surface. Mainly with how swiftly the Morris defection killed our collective morale a year ago, but more so because of the way Burke judiciously put aside the NBA right before tossing his name in the pool earlier this month. The whole thing felt, well, rather calculated. Aside from being an undersized point guard by NBA standards, how can you not fear for the worst with a kid who showed such immense promise in just one collegiate season?
Regardless of who is running the offense over the next few years, fans will at least be thankful that Beilein has finally started to assemble some talent in upcoming classes. Four-star prospects Glenn Robinson, Nick Stauskas and Derrick Walton will arrive on Michigan's campus in addition to five-star McGary over the next two seasons, so the future, while not as bright as it might be, will hardly be bleak.
But as far as I'm concerned, for Beilein's team to reach the next level and actually build on this recent campaign, it all comes down to Burke's decision. Until Michigan actually finds that rare player who willingly spurns the pros in favor of building something at the college level like we've seen at Michigan State with Green and Ohio State with Jared Sullinger, it seems impossible for the Wolverines to overcome their lack of recruiting power in order to compete for a title.
Burke leaving school would represent more than just the loss of an extremely talented point guard. It would literally suck the air out of a fan base that can't seem to find anything legitimate to hold on to these days. The sad part is that for a short time it actually felt like Burke, unheralded and disregarded by top programs coming out of high school, would emerge as the face of Michigan's resurgence. Instead, with the NBA now firmly in his sights, that scenario is nothing more than a pipe dream.
Reality has set in, folks, and Michigan's best player is about to leave school for the second year in a row. Barring a surprise change of heart, it looks like it's time to move on. Again.