Great Expectations: 2012-13 Michigan Basketball and The End, Whenever It May Come

USA TODAY Sports

This team has come a long way, beginning the season with Slippery Rock on Nov. 9. Fast forward several months later and Michigan has reached its first Sweet 16 in almost two decades. Given the way the season has gone, this break provides a good opportunity to think about the nature of expectations, especially in a sport like college basketball, which ends its season with a single elimination tournament that tends to inflate and deflate perception in strange ways.

Most teams are not the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats, who went 38-2 en route to a national championship season and a tournament run with an average margin of victory of 12 points per game. Last year's Wildcats floated along, weightless, immune to the laws of gravitation that bind the rest of us the cold, hard earth. It was easy, methodical and practically ordained.

The drama lay not in the tension leading up to games and whether or not someone, anyone, would knock Kentucky off its perch in any meaningful way. The drama, if there was any, was wrapped up in individual feats of ability and not the pendulum of ultimate team success or failure. Look at how far that Anthony Davis block just went. Look at Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in transition. See how Marquis Teague traverses the floor, a speedy, unseen wisp.

Spectators awaited individual moments, raucous sequences of moments, so that every bit of their reserves of awe and wonder were spent by the time the clock read zeroes; after all, Kentucky had probably won by double digits, and so no one had use for either of those things anyhow.

This year is different. There is no Kentucky, looming over the rest of the country like a Cthulhu. As you've surely heard hundreds of times this season, there are no "elite" teams. And so, the drama rises.

If the 2011-12 season was a monophonic Gregorian chant leading to an inevitable end --a Kentucky national championship-- then this one sees the return of polyphonic texture, of crescendoes and decrescendoes and constantly shifting themes and movements. You are comfortable one moment and uncomfortable the next.

You are 16-0 during one stretch, 10-7 in the next. Michigan vacillated between invincible and not so, immortal to decidedly mortal. The freshmen were young and plucky; then they were just young. Through it all, Michigan held serve at home, until they didn't in the last game of the season, the stakes spelled out plainly in the gray skies.

Trey Burke has been the only constant through it all, so much so that we might as well have called him Planck. Minus a few non-conference blowouts and Michigan's first round game last Thursday against South Dakota State, Burke scored 15 or more in every game this season. He's 19 and 7, consistency and cool. I can't help but continue to compare him to the guy who pilots my other basketball team (or did before he got hurt), Derrick Rose. Yes, Rose is a different player, but the the cool demeanor that occasionally gives way to pointed paroxysms of fire is something they share.

In a season defined by twists and turns and incessant recalibration, Burke stood tall for Michigan whenever it needed him to do so. He literally stole a victory from Michigan State, he picked Michigan up off of the sweat-stained mat at Mackey Arena and generally laid waste to everyone else in the conference. Michigan more than survived a weak performance from Burke against SDSU, which was just fine given the opponent and the fact that Michigan has some other guys that can play.

However, from this point forward, if Burke doesn't bring his at least an average Burke performance, Michigan will almost certainly fall. Given the schedule Michigan has played, there is very little reason to believe that he won't do exactly that on Friday in Dallas. Burke and Michigan have seen it all, so do your worst.

Unfortunately, college basketball's final tournament does not offer the measured five-part dramatic structure of a classical play. There is exposition and rising action --the regular season-- and then there is a climax and nothing else. Everything leads to that pinnacle, and there is nothing on the other side, no denouement to bring the principal characters back down from the rarefied air of the hyperdramatic. You reach the end, and if you haven't been pushed off the edge, you stand and admire.

You win and you keep playing. The drama builds and builds, the actions rises and rises. Michigan picked up wins against South Dakota State and VCU, both in impressive fashion. Some are even calling Michigan the favorite to make it out of the South region, despite being in competition with two other higher-seeded squads in Florida and Kansas.

You lose and you're done. There is no return to normalcy; you're ushered off the stage and forgotten, which is what this all is. One by one, the players are driven off the stage until there is only one left. The climax, the championship game in Atlanta, is the final act in this play.

With Michigan starting the season with a 16-0 mark and attaining a No. 1 ranking on multiple occasions, expectations became unmanageably unruly weeds beyond pruning. In a way, perhaps it was a good thing that Michigan finished the season in the manner that it did, because it provided the spark to torch those expectations altogether.

And yet, here are again, on the doorstep of Expectation. Michigan won its first two games with ease, looking like perhaps the best team in the tournament thus far. Suddenly, the humble 4-seed attached to Michigan's name, like a mop in a king's hands, falls away, and the old habits of extrapolation return. Will Michigan go all the way? Can they? Yes they can, yes they will. Or, so you might say.

There is no doubt that given the way Michigan has played, a win against Kansas would certainly bode well for the Wolverines' Final Four aspirations. Once in Atlanta, anything can happen.

A pesky alternate reality exists, one which we must consider: a Michigan loss on Friday. The 2012-13 season will have ended with Michigan's first Sweet 16 appearance since 1994, but no Big Ten championships and without a trip to the Elite 8 (let alone the Final 4) for a team that spent the entire season near the top of the chaotic college basketball heap.

When the tournament began, I thought to myself: anything less than an Elite 8 appearance would be a disappointment. I redact this thought. Perhaps it is convenient to do this now, during the interim period between Michigan's wildly successful first two games and its next against first-seeded Kansas and its towering giant of a center and potent blend of athleticism, skill and experience.

It sort of reminds me of how I felt back in late 2010, when the Rich Rodriguez era was in its death throes and some seemed to consider the bowl game against Mississippi State as a potential ticket to safety. I thought it was silly then and think it is silly now: either the era was dead or it wasn't. One game does not possess the heft to shift the tectonic plates of reality.

While a loss on Friday would be difficult to swallow, especially if Burke et al don't bring what we know to be their best game, I've found it easy to dispense with the useless consideration of what is and isn't disappointing. Or, what has or hasn't met expectations. Expectations are fleeting, protean and perhaps not even made of any substance that is real. They go on the move without warning like wraiths in the night; thinking about them at all turns shadows into nightmares.

I expect to sit down and Michigan play basketball against the mighty Kansas Jayhawks, in a game that matters and people will watch. I expect to watch Trey Burke in a Michigan uniform one more time. I expect to be more excited about a Michigan basketball game than I have ever been in my entire life.

Other than that, I expect nothing. The time for expectations passed long ago.

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