By now, you've probably seen the picture juxtaposing Trey Burke's shot against Kansas with Aaron Harrison's from this past Sunday's game in Indianapolis. If that isn't a perfect distillation of sports, whittled down to their very essence, I don't know what is.
For the third time in as many games, most predicted calamity on the boards for the Wolverines--this time, it happened. Kentucky's size was too much to overcome, and it was apparent from the very beginning. The thing is, that actually wasn't the only thing that propelled the Wildcats to victory. Despite being yet another "big team that can't shoot" tournament opponent for Michigan, Kentucky shot a Michigan-esque 7-of-11 from beyond the arc.
As fans, we invest in the storylines of our players: their struggles, their talents, their triumphs. Sometimes we forget that now and again, you get the other guy, but, sometimes, you just get got.
I like to think that Jordan Morgan's putback to tie it up at 72 with 31 seconds left to play was the Universe's karmic refund for the missed putback against Indiana to close last season. When you see things like that --and the aforementioned Burke and Harrison shots--it's hard not to believe in symmetry, a game defined by rules put to some dusty parchment hidden away in some secret dungeon somewhere, the kind of thing that would either crumble if you looked at it or would crumble you.
But, really, everything is random. Play this game enough times and you're bound to find something approaching symmetry and logic among the white noise.
Michigan tied the game, but I was overcome with dread. The game was tied with 31 seconds to play. This was a good thing, especially after Michigan went down seven about six minutes prior.
But, Kentucky had the ball, and Michigan had to play defense. As soon as that tying shot went in, elation evaporated before the ball hit the cold floor.
It's an excruciating feeling, being that time without the ball. You can play defense, sure. You can play it so well that in any other situation, the possession would surely end in a positive outcome: a hurried shot, a turnover, an offensive foul.
Even so, there's a tiny but insurmountable gap in agency separating the time with the ball and the one without it. And, on Sunday, Kentucky rode that gap to the Final Four. Every perimeter shot Kentucky took felt like a win for the Michigan defense; that is, until they kept falling and falling.
With Caris LeVert playing the role of Kansas's Kevin Young, Aaron Harrison drilled an impossible shot. The lights dimmed, and when the players exited the darkened stage and back to the light of the locker rooms, the weight of change bore down.
You never really know the end is coming until bam. There's no preparation for it, no Bacari Alexander motivational ploy or Jon Horford Zen-ness to ward it off.
And so, here we were. Michigan just missed out on putting up a second straight Final Four banner, in a season they played without their star big man and sans Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., who went on to ply their trades in the NBA.
This season was a wild success, not simply because the Wolverines blazed through the Big Ten with a 15-3 record, but for the added assurance that John Beilein is exactly who Michigan fans believe him to be.
John Beilein is Gandalf in a tie. Oh, No Burke, Hardaway and McGary? Here, ride these awesome eagles to a dominant Big Ten title run, a trip to the Big Ten tournament final and a spot in the Elite Eight (and not a fluky underdog Elite Eight bid, but a "if they weren't there it would be kind of disappointing" sort of thing).
Yes, Sunday's loss hurt. Honestly, I don't know if I've even 100 percent gotten over last year's loss against Louisville. The thing about college basketball is it takes so many things happening all over the country to come together just right or the whole thing collapses; a tournament run is a fragile thing.
On a macroscopic, program level, dips and misses in recruiting and talent departing early for the NBA makes each chance at a deep run in the tournament especially important. Look at Florida--after three straight losses in the regional final (last year, of course, against the en fuego Wolverines) and they're finally back into the Final Four since winning the second of back-to-back titles in 2007. All you can really do is accumulate those chances and hope to strike gold at least once.
Speaking of Florida, even if they don't come away with the title this year, they have one major thing going for them: consistency. Not just that, they've maintained a level of success that has seen them go from being a pretty solid program to a national power.
Which, going back to Michigan, is exactly what the Wolverines have with John Beilein. Sure, Michigan is still searching for the elusive shooting big guy, but there's a chance Mark Donnal might be that guy next year and beyond. Even if he isn't, the point is Beilein can pick 'em--if anything, that much is fairly obvious.
With Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III likely gone, Michigan will have to reload a bit. You don't just replace a cold-blooded shooter and all-around playmaker--speaking of, if he goes to the NBA will he go back to being Just A Shooter?--like Stauskas or an athlete/transition game maestro like Robinson.
Or do you? Zak Irvin needs a lot more versatility to his game, but he was not far behind Stauskas in the three-point shooting department--more importantly, he hit more than his fair share of meaningful shots this season. Irvin's 42.5 percent mark from downtown wasn't compiled against scrubs in blowouts.
Then there's Caris LeVert, who at various points this season was Michigan's savior when all else failed. He will put on a little more weight, but his expressions will still exist within a vary narrow range, bounded by the great extremes of "unperturbed" and "null set."
My guess is McGary returns--do I need to say what that would mean? Losing Stauskas and Robinson will hurt, but an exponential increase in post production will mitigate that somewhat.
Jon Horford might not be Jordan Morgan, but players with that much experience are hard to find; for what it's worth, Horford notched six points on 3-of-5 shooting and three rebounds, not a bad game at all against the rumbling squad of hyperathletic Ents that is Kentucky.
Add Donnal and Michigan's 2014 class or recruits and you've got another team poised to make some noise.
Oh, and how could I forget Michigan's freshman point guard Derrick Walton, who many thought should sit on the bench in favor of the less-heralded Spike Albrecht earlier this season?
Look up there at that picture: that face.