(A few weeks back when Michigan was still finishing off its Big Ten regular season championship I promised a teary-eyed piece on this team. This piece is somewhat me delivering on that promise and has been chipped at for a couple weeks now. With the season over I don't have an excuse not to finish it.)
I guess the biggest compliment I can give to John Beilein and Michigan's current incarnation of its basketball team is that when the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game was still hours away I didn't spend my time nervously trying to put the game into context or measure its importance relative to a 20 year roller coaster ride of suffering, scandal and redemption. I just waited for the game to start.
It was just another game — albeit an important one — and its ultimate reach wasn't that far outside of the thing at hand. Michigan was playing for its conference tournament championship and a chance at a one-seed. It wasn't playing for its place in history.
Of course, this hasn't been the case for most Michigan fans over the past decade. Wins and losses were more than just results in a vacuum or pieces of seasons we as fans hoped would eventually end up being happy memories. Instead, seemingly every game for which Michigan walked out on the court felt bigger. As if these games that occurred over years and years were simply gathering B-roll for what would one day be a sharp montage two-thirds of the way through a movie about Michigan's journey back to national relevance; something to cut out and pin up so we could look back on it later and contextualize. Those games boiled over with meaning and significance that we piled on top in an effort to finally make the argument that Michigan is "back". Moments hung in the air because we put them there, not content to just enjoy them for their transitory brilliance, instead we had to study and arrange things inside a bigger story; all in service of the narrative we had in our heads. "Sure, that win felt incredible, but what did it mean?"
The last couple years of Michigan basketball have been a strange kind of fun, one that flies in the face of how I became conditioned to think about Michigan basketball through my teens and the majority of my twenties. The kind of fun that comes separate from the struggle in your head concerning where your team stands in relation to all others. Michigan hasn't been the best over this period of time, but that didn't matter. At some point during Trey Burke's sophomore season at Michigan it happened. I got lost in the moment.
There isn't one moment to point to. It is more of a series of them that makes me smile. The post-halftime runs Michigan would go on to push a lead from just a few to double digits, the ruthless transition offense that could score from anywhere with remarkable consistency, the moment of realization that Good Tim Hardaway (and later Good GRIII) had shown up that night and I'd better strap in. Michigan basketball had become something it hadn't been in a very long time. It was good. Transcendentally good at times. The kind of good that isn't a fluke and can't be considered "over-achieving". Michigan was the hunter for once in my basketball watching life, and not the hunted. Watching the games last year and being shaken awake by this new reality was one of the best sports-fandom experiences I have ever had.
Granted, nostalgia blurs lines and sharp edges. There were bad times — times when, say, after a loss to Penn State or Ohio State I got angry or sad. And my childlike wonderment at how good Michigan basketball could be was also juxtaposed next to the specter of a conference title or postseason success, sticks with which to once again measure the Wolverines.
Those measuring sticks loomed large last fall. Again, Michigan was expected to be good, but it would be forced to rely on a different cast of characters to lead the charge. Things weren't so smooth in the early going. Michigan took its lumps as Nik Stauskas acclimated himself to the alpha-dog role in Michigan's offense. Mitch McGary played his way into shape, then abruptly left the court altogether due to injury. Glenn Robinson III's offense waxed and waned as his role grew and he became one of the Wolverines on which opposing teams based defensive game plans.
Michigan struggled for a while and in doing so it played its way out of the forefront of the pundits' minds by the time the New Year had come and gone. We all know how that turned out.
I am an adult — at least that is what they tell me — and because of this fact, the odds of my being able to divorce my favorite team's play game-to-game from the larger narrative and place within the sports power structure are low. I have come to terms with this as much as I can (many thanks to the football team for the lesson in humility vis-a-vis this point). As I rooted hard against Wisconsin Saturday night on the sole basis of not wanting Badger fans to have a chance at bragging rights, I was essentially doing the same thing I had been for years while watching Michigan basketball flail about. I was hoping to see the realization of a universe where my team was the best. Barring that, I would be happy with begrudging respect from the rest of the Big Ten. I am a sick and broken man, I know.
But if the last few years of Michigan basketball have taught me anything, it is that it's okay to have fun watching these games. To get caught up in the moment. To anticipate the next game as a spectacle in and of itself; one where I would get to watch players I liked play for a coach I respect in an offense that is an absolute joy to watch operate. It isn't much, but it is the stop-and-smell-the-roses moment that for years I was missing. It was a different way to look at these games and the stakes at hand. It was a relief to look at a postseason game and not be sure for what reason I wanted the team to win more: the further pursuit of team glory/championships, or the fact that every win gave me forty more minutes with a particular version of a team that I had grown very close to over the last few months.
In the aftermath of Michigan's instant classic loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight I had a lot of people talk to me about the game. Most brought it up in that soft, easy way you mention something you just know your friend is going to need 30 seconds to rant about before calming down and continuing the conversation. I couldn't have blamed any of them for approaching me like that — these are the same people that talked to me during football season and knew what was coming when they mentioned Saturday. Nor could I blame them for the nonplussed looks when, the first thing out of my mouth was: "Man, that was a phenomenal game, wasn't it? And that shot to win it, really impressive. That was one of the best tournament games I watched this year." Suddenly, the condolences that were on the ready were choked up in their throats.
In the end there is only one thing that really matters. I won't ever get to watch this version of Michigan's basketball team play ever again. Nik Stauskas, like Trey Burke before him, is likely gone from the team sooner than I would have wanted. Jordan Morgan won't ever get to battle for a rebound or take a charge in maize and blue again. Next year will be some familiar faces and some new. That team will win some games and lose some too; hopefully a lot more of the former. I'll get wrapped up in it all once more, and even if the season ends with Michigan cutting down the nets after a win in the national title game, it will still feel like it is ending too soon.
Now that I've stopped to smell the roses it is hard to turn back up the path and keep walking.
In the last three years Michigan has won two Big Ten titles (one of them outright and by three games), gone to the national championship game once and was a long three-pointer away from having a chance in overtime to punch a second straight Final Four ticket.
In that time Michigan already put two players in the NBA, and it will likely add to that total in a couple months. Michigan has won away games in Columbus, Madison, and East Lansing, and Michigan has won six of its last nine games against it's old tormentor, Michigan State.
I'll never quit worrying about the future, and about Michigan's place in college basketball going forward.
But I think I can finally put something to rest. I don't know if Michigan basketball is "back" or really what "back" means. I do know that none of that matters anymore.
Michigan basketball is here, winning games, dropping incredible highlights, and making me wish above all else for just one more game.
After years of anguish and hand-wringing, this is enough for me. I'm just happy to be along for the ride.