With one shot from the right wing at the Breslin Center, it all changed for Michigan.
Prior to January 27, 2011, Michigan was mired in obscurity. After surprising folks with its first NCAA Tournament appearance in over a decade in 2008-09, which was only John Beilein's second season in Ann Arbor, Michigan quickly returned to irrelevance, where it had been for so long after the Ed Martin scandal wrecked the program. In 2009-10, in spite of a preseason rank of No. 15, the Wolverines fell way short of their elevated expectations and stumbled across the finish line with a losing record, earning the label as one of the nation's most disappointing teams that season. Then, in 2010-11, after Beilein shook up his coaching staff by promoting Jeff Meyer and hiring Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan, Michigan tripped out of the gates, winning only 11 of its first 20 games.
Michigan seemed destined for a second straight losing season. The Wolverines were 1-6 in the Big Ten and had lost their previous six games. The idea of a trip to the NCAA Tournament that season was ludicrous, and there were whispers among Michigan fans that maybe Beilein wasn't the right man to return Michigan basketball to prominence. And, to make matters worse, Michigan's next game was a road date with rival Michigan State at the Breslin Center, where the Wolverines hadn't emerged with a win since 1997. Another loss to the Spartans seemed to be on deck, and Michigan's slide would persist.
But, on January 27, 2011, when Michigan met Michigan State in East Lansing, things did not go according to script. Thanks to Darius Morris' 17 points and eight assists and Zack Novak's six three-pointers and "aneurysm of leadership," Michigan found itself leading the Spartans, 57-55, with 34 seconds left on the game clock, 14 seconds left on the shot clock, and possession of the basketball. With a bucket here, Michigan would extend its lead to two possessions, essentially sealing a monumental upset win. So what happened? Stu Douglass received a pass from Morris on the right wing and let the basketball fly:
Nothing but the bottom of the net.
Michigan edged the Spartans, 61-57, and earned its first win in East Lansing in 14 years.
The Wolverines were ecstatic in the locker room afterwards. "I don't know if I've experienced a win like this before," Douglass said. "With any team. Ever." The usually stoic Jon Horford agreed, describing the game as "amazing" and the "best win of my life." And Novak, who generally maintained a one-game-at-a-time attitude throughout his career, couldn't help but think about "how big of a win this is for our team."
It was an incredible win for the Wolverines. But the logical question the Michigan faithful began to ask in the immediate aftermath was whether it was a pivotal one for the Wolverines. Should Michigan's upset win over Michigan State just be chalked up to the "any team can win on any given night" cliche? Or was this the start of something special?
We didn't wait very long for the answer.
Everything changed after that Douglass three. It lifted the Wolverines out of their rut and injected them with a level of confidence they had never before experienced. They now knew that, if they could stroll in to the Breslin Center, which is one of the toughest venues in college basketball, and walk out with a win, they could beat anyone, anywhere.
And that's what Michigan began to do: beat anyone, anywhere. Behind Morris' fantastic point-guard play, Tim Hardaway, Jr.'s scorching shooting, Jordan Morgan's ability to run a mean pick and roll, Novak and Douglass' leadership, and Beilein's coaching, Michigan won eight of its next 12 games and finished with a 9-9 conference record and semifinal exit in the Big Ten Tournament. The only teams Michigan lost to during this stretch were No. 1 Ohio State twice outside Ann Arbor, a top-20-on-KenPom Illinois team in a two-point loss in Champaign, and No. 12 Wisconsin in a back(board)-breaking one-point loss after Josh Gasser banked in a three at the buzzer. Not only was this turnaround enough to earn Michigan an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed, which seemed out of the realm of possibility less than two months earlier, Michigan entered the NCAA Tournament as one of the most dangerous teams in the nation.
The Wolverines demonstrated this in the NCAA Tournament. In their first round contest against an athletic Tennessee team coached by Bruce Pearl, who had recently been charged by the NCAA with unethical conduct and would soon be dismissed, they crushed the Volunteers by 30 points. Then, in the second round, Michigan faced No. 1 seed and reigning national champion Duke in Charlotte in what was a virtual home game for the Blue Devils. Notwithstanding, Michigan took Duke all the way down to the wire, and, trailing by two points in the final seconds, Morris' floater that would have sent the game to overtime was just a tad bit too long and hit the back iron. Season over for Michigan.
But the impact of Douglass' three at Michigan State on January 27, 2011, did not end there. Oh, no. Michigan had enjoyed its taste of success and was just getting started.
In 2011-12, an unheralded freshman by the name of Trey Burke arrived. He, along with Hardaway, Jr., Douglass, Novak, and Morgan, none of whom received much, if any, interest from high-major programs as recruits, put their heads together and willed their way to a 13-5 Big Ten record and Michigan's first Big Ten championship since 1985-86.
In 2012-13, Novak and Douglass had graduated, but a group of talented freshmen nicknamed "The Fresh Five" entered the picture. Thanks to the instant contributions of these five freshmen and a sophomore Burke's transformation into the National Player of the Year, Michigan opened the season with a 20-1 record, earned a No. 1 rank in the polls for one week, won 12 conference contests, was a Morgan putback against Indiana in the regular-season finale away from capturing its second straight Big Ten championship, and enjoyed a magical NCAA Tournament run to the national championship game.
In 2013-14, with no Burke, no Hardaway, Jr., and no Mitch McGary, who was sidelined for the the season with a back injury in December, Michigan still posted a 15-3 conference record, ran away with the Big Ten title by a three-game margin, had another Big Ten Player of the Year winner in Nik Stauskas, and appeared in its second straight Elite Eight, where the Wolverines fell four points shy of another trip to the Final Four.
And, this season, though Michigan has had more downs than ups with losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan and injuries to its key players, including a season-ending fractured foot for Caris LeVert, the Wolverines are still 6-3 in the Big Ten, sit in third at the midway point of the conference season, and own an outside shot at an NCAA Tournament bid.
January 27th was two days ago, meaning we just celebrated the four-year anniversary of Douglass' three against Michigan State at the Breslin Center. And it can be argued that no Big Ten basketball program has been better than Michigan in the four years since Douglass drilled that shot. In that time frame, Michigan has won two Big Ten titles, won nine NCAA Tournament games, appeared in two Elite Eights, and made one trip to the Final Four. The only other Big Ten school that can compete is Ohio State, who has identical credentials the past four years. But, if you need a tiebreaker to separate the two rivals, you can look at the fact that Michigan has the best Big Ten record in that span:
|Rank||School||Big Ten Regular-Season Record||Win Percentage||Games Back|
All of this success for Michigan, which the program hadn't experienced for two decades, can be traced back to that Douglass three-pointer. Sure, a claim can be made Michigan would have made it here once Burke arrived even if Douglass missed that shot and the Spartans won on the final possession. But that'd be vastly underestimating the effect that win had on that locker room and the impressionable culture of Michigan basketball.
If Michigan had fallen to Michigan State in heartbreaking fashion on that date like it had so many times before, it would have been Michigan's seventh straight loss of the season and one that very likely would have crushed its spirit. Without that win, Douglass, Novak, and Morgan may not have developed into the leaders they became. Burke may have entered a Michigan program with a crumbling foundation the next season and not flourished as a true freshman like he did. And Beilein may not have been able to survive three losing seasons in his first four years with no light at the end of the tunnel.
But Douglass did bury that shot. And now Michigan is here.
It's quite the coincidence, too, that the four-year anniversary of Douglass' three falls on the week leading up to Michigan's road contest at Michigan State this season. As a team far outside the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Wolverines will head to East Lansing as underdogs this Sunday in need of a quality win that will enhance their resume. A road win over the Spartans would not only inform the ailing, inexperienced Wolverines that they can compete against any team in the nation but could also change the entire trajectory of their season and propel them to another NCAA Tournament appearance.
And, if these Wolverines need a reminder that one game, one shot can change everything, Douglass' clutch three-pointer against MSU at the Breslin Center should do the trick.