If not for a Jordan Morgan put-back attempt that seemingly graced every piece of the Crisler Center rim before the weight of dispassionate luck pushed it down to the hardwood, Michigan would be looking at least a share of its third straight Big Ten regular season title.
It's difficult to come up with comparable feelings toward the team on the gridiron, simply because the success hasn't been there of late. However, the 2011 season was probably the closest point to what I am feeling about this Michigan basketball program right now; the Wolverines went 11-2 that season, vastly overshooting most folks' expectations with steady defense, Denard Robinson and a little bit of luck. It was a best-case scenario in an era in which best-case scenarios have been hard to find.
Yet, this is somehow different. The early days of the Beilein era felt kind of like 2011 Michigan football, as Michigan trotted out Zack Novak at the four and essentially lived and died by the three. It was exciting and unexpected and at times felt a little bit like smoke and mirrors.
Now, though, after winning a share of the Big Ten two years ago, barely missing out last season (but making it to the national title game) and winning at least a share this season, Michigan basketball is no longer a product of vague, shadowy luck or expectations vastly exceeded.
This is a new world.
I've mentioned this many times before, usually at the tail end of these last few seasons, but I have to mention it again. As a freshman at Michigan with season tickets back in 2007, I watched the Wolverines limp to a 10-22 record in John Beilein's first season in Ann Arbor. Michigan won four games in the non-conference schedule (Brown, Radford, Eastern Washington and Oakland). The highlight of the season for me was catching a bland t-shirt that simply read "2007-08 Michigan basketball" during a t-shirt toss, a game in which the Wolverines lost to Central Michigan.
Things were bleak, but even then Michigan went through a stretch late in the season during which they won four of five Big Ten games and later went on to snag a win in the first round of the conference tournament.
Exiting the 2007-08 season, Michigan had that little bit of hope to cling to--and I had a free t-shirt, which I still wear to this day.
Within the cotton of that forgettable t-shirt is a historical milemarker. When met with the howling Midwestern winter winds, it utters a faint whisper: this is where we were.
The narrative this season has been one of surprise, of astonishment that Michigan has been able to do what it's done. You lose two NBA first-rounders, including college basketball's player of the year, and Mitch McGary, who played a central role in Michigan's run to the title game last season, and you would expect hardship.
But, beginning with a win at The Barn on Jan. 2, Michigan has looked hardship in the eye and said no. Caris LeVert has quietly shimmied his way to the basket with devastating crossovers, Nik Stauskas has shot, slashed and dished his way out of sarcastic memedom, Derrick Walton has gone from "talented freshman" to "starting point guard of the Big Ten champion Michigan Wolverines" and Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford have harnessed every bit of upperclassman guile and grit and effort, something I say with the utmost seriousness, without a hint of the Internet's usual arsenal of snark vis-a-vis those attributes.
You could call all of this a best-case scenario, but I think you might be wrong, or, at the very least premature in your assessment. Not only can Michigan lock up an outright title with a single win in its final two games, there's still the conference and NCAA tournaments during which to make some noise.
Of course, the nature of single-elimination tournaments is such that a season of tremendous play can seemingly be erased in the span of 40 minutes. If Michigan bows out early in either tournament, the first reaction will, somewhat justifiably, be one of disappointment.
Even so, this is because Michigan has slowly built itself up over the years to be this thing, this Rasputin of a squad that refuses to be put away by any number of misfortunes.
When Michigan lost to Central Michigan on Dec. 15, 2007, I was a little bit upset, but then I shrugged. That was what Michigan was at that time, a program struggling through the inchoate stages of rebirth, of a vast, sweeping remodeling. John Beilein stepped in to usher Michigan into the future; difficulties were expected. After all, expecting otherwise wasn't really a choice.
Standing there in the student section, I was just happy to be there. I'm happy to be there now, too, albeit in spirit, not among the Maize Rage, which is unrecognizable now from what it was then. But this happiness is a far different kind, one saddled yet uplifted by the excitement of expectation and the promise of expectations fulfilled.
And the thing is, it's not over yet. The best very well might be to come.
This season is like every Glenn Robinson III alley-oop you have ever seen. The ball goes up, impossibly high, destined for a kid in the fifth row eating popcorn. Then Robinson rises up, leaving the reality of the floor with startling ease. He ascends this invisible ladder, one only available to a select few.
He soar and soars and soars. Doubt swirls in your mind, incubating in the lukewarm mindspace of barriers and limitations you know to exist in most situations for most human beings.
Late in the game, it took one dribble and three passes. Jordan Morgan rocketed a perfect pass to Spike Albrect in the middle of the floor. The sophomore backup point guard took one dribble and found Caris LeVert down the left side. LeVert, a couple of feet out from the left block, lofts the orange orb up to the heavens.
It all happened so fast. Robinson jumped, and before you could think no way, the white jerseys headed the other way, and you think the only thing you could possibly think: of course.