When only 3,000 people from a 40,000 plus school turn out to see a post-season tournament, you have to believe something is wrong.
During last night's NIT game, which I swore I would not watch but did nonetheless, ESPN harkened back to three years prior when Michigan had appeared in and won the NIT. There they were. All the seniors we saw on the floor last night, four years younger, hungrier, and energetic. During the brief highlights ESPN aired, you saw a fierce competitiveness in Courtney Sims eyes, a fast step to the basket by Harris, and a hard rebound by Abram. Watching those highlights made me as depressed about this program as I have been all season.
As much as we all tend to forget, myself especially, four years ago these young men believed they launching themselves onto the national spotlight. They wanted to win the NIT to show everyone they would be a force to be reckoned with in the NCAA's for the next three years. They cared so much. They believed they were starting something special and that in three years, when they reached their senior seasons, the rafters would be packed with people as they played for a national championship.
To look at them now, to listen to them speak, it's as if that NIT championship and those dreams occurred 30 years ago rather than three.
Last night's attendance was the lowest at Crisler Arena in 23 years. If you were at a bar in Ann Arbor, chances are the Wings were on every channel. As Brian said, it's as if the tournament really doesn't exist. And if that's the case, neither does last night's win or this team.
There were frightening similarities between this team and the one that won the NIT. Though this team is dominated by seniors, on both squads it was the freshmen that made them interesting. Previously, it was Petway, Harris and Courtney Sims who made us excited for the future of Michigan basketball. Yesterday, DeShawn Sims finally emerged from his self imposed coma over the past few weeks and displayed an all around game that makes me drool over his potential. Then there is Freshman all-everything Ekpe Udoh who over the course of the year was Michigan's best player. The thought of Sims and Udoh on the floor with the incoming Harris and Legion makes me very excited about next year.
But, even with hope there is something to squelch those dreams. Udoh has shown a recent penchant for settling for 20' jumpers rather than developing his inside game. Sims hasn't played well all year until the last four games. Of the four seniors on the floor to start the game, I cannot point to a single one of them and say "he's improved", even a little. And that makes me fear for the two young men whose futures look so bright.
Facts are all four seniors were better as freshmen than they were yesterday.
Yet when I looked at the old highlights I saw hunger in those freshmen eyes, just like the hunger in DeShawn and Udoh's eyes. But as I looked into the Seniors' eyes last night I saw commitment and resignation. Mark my words, they are committed to winning the NIT. They want to go out with something to hang their four and sometimes five years of college on. They don't want their freshman year to be their highpoint. Even so, their eyes betrayed them. Deep down you can see they are resigned to the fact this is all they could muster. As they step toward their final good night, toward leaving Michigan regardless of how the season ends, they are all resigned to the fact they never reached their goals despite their abilities. After four years they're right back where they started.
I saw the grin on DeShawn's face last night. I saw the hunger. But I've seen it before on Courtney's, Lester's, Dion's and Daniel's faces before him.
I can only pray that his journey will be different. Pray that in three years, when I look at him as he gives a post-game interview, behind his eyes I will see pride and accomplishment rather than resignation to his fate.