The pain of Thursday night’s loss to Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen is one that is going to haunt the Michigan Basketball program and its fanbase until they start playing games again, and potentially a little bit beyond that.
Losing the way they did with one of the historically bad performances in program and NCAA Tournament history is a bad, bad look, and there is no other way to sugarcoat that. It was as if all of Michigan’s concerns from throughout this season re-appeared at once. They had no go-to player offensively, the shot selection stunk, the ball was not moving well and the defense crumbled a bit under the pressure the failing scoring attack put on it.
In a lot of ways, it summed up Michigan at its worst from this season.
Michigan started the year 17-0 with a group that nobody expected to be that good that early in its development. They blew out Villanova and North Carolina in thorough and impressive fashion and also Purdue in early December. For whatever reason, after that, the basketball that was played, quite frankly, was average and inconsistent.
We saw flashes of what this team could be early in the year at times, but never enough of it once the calendar flipped to 2019. Michigan went 13-7 down the stretch after Thursday’s defeat, with road losses this year at Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State.
And then there were the ones that hurt the most.
The Wolverines, who had Michigan State’s number a bit in the last few years, lost all three times they played the Spartans, the final two of which had banners on the line. Each game was the same, and a microcosm of the season. Compete, show flashes, but never have it be enough and crumble with big leads down the stretch.
No Big Ten regular season title. No Big Ten tournament title. Historic loss in the Sweet Sixteen. 13-7 record down the stretch. That’s the legacy of this season.
And you will see the takes of “wow, but could you have imagined this a decade ago?” or “we still won 30 games so it was successful” or “well, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year.”
Nope, won’t have it. They were not able to get it done and now they have to wear that this offseason.
Expectations change when you start out as hot as Michigan did to start the year, but now it is evident it was a group that simply peaked early. Everyone was talking Final Four in November, people were even penciling them in potentially this year as recent as a few weeks ago. We do not get to move the goal posts now and say, “welp, it’s all good guys. It was a rebuilding year.”
It stopped being a rebuilding year when you routed UNC and Purdue, two teams that are still alive as of this posting, mind you.
This hurts, and it is embarrassing. But that’s okay.
It means you have arrived as a program and have huge expectations now. This program went to a National Title game last year, returned most of that roster (Moe Wagner, Duncan Robinson and MAAR being gone was obviously huge, though) and lost only once in almost a calendar year. The expectations changed. The narratives changed.
The biggest issue with this team was that it never had an alpha dog or a go-to guy when the going got tough. Sure, there were a bunch of guys that thought they were that, but nobody truly emerged. That’s disappointing, especially given that this was such a talented group.
I know that Michigan is a football school. Regardless of the jokes, it always will be that, no matter what the basketball team does. With that being said, that is no excuse to write off what was a pretty brutal end to the season. It really bothers me that there are people in this fanbase that treat hoops as if it is simply an appetizer to get them closer to football season. Those folks are kind of the worst, honestly (yet those are the ones you hear from the most when things go bad).
The fact of the matter is that what happened 25 years ago doesn’t matter. What happened 10 years ago doesn’t matter. In the last seven years, the Wolverines under John Beilein have been to the Sweet Sixteen five times, the Elite Eight three times and the Final Four and title game twice.
That’s the bar. That’s the expectation. Or at least it should be.
Make no mistake about it, those guys hold themselves to that standard now and fans should, too. The silver lining in all of this is that once again, they should wind up returning most of the roster. Charles Matthews is expected to go pro after he graduates and Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole will likely at least dip their toes in the water and see what is out there. With Brazdeikis, people seem to forget he is already 20-years-old. The NBA wants guys like that now, and if he gets a grade in the first round somewhere, he probably should go. Poole’s future is a bit less certain, but we will see what happens there.
Regardless what happens, 2019-20 is an opportunity again for something special. It means big summers are on the way for guys Zavier Simpson, who needs to become a better shooter, Isaiah Livers, Jon Teske, David DeJulius, Brandon Johns and Colin Castleton, to name a few. New names will emerge, some guys may transfer out. It’s the name of the game.
However, those who stay will have the fuel of what 2019 wound up being moving forward and it is up to them to make sure it does not happen next year. Beilein did all he could with this group, but he and his staff must once again evolve. A once powerful offensive attack has had trouble scoring the last few seasons and the ball has to move better with less iso and hero ball situations.
We saw what happened when it was time to get serious about improving defensively. Now they’re an elite defense. They just need to find a way to get a bit more punch offensively. I’m putting my money on that being figured out for next season.
You have to beat your rivals. You have to find a way to put a banner up in Crisler. You have to play four games and give yourself a chance at a Final Four. That’s where this is at now and that is the standard that our green and white friends up the road hold themselves to. If you want to have staying power, these are the things you have to do. This is not 2011 anymore where you just get into the tournament and anything that happens from there is gravy.
Michigan took a bit of a step back this season, but that may have been expected coming off of what was in a lot of ways a dream run last year. As is always the case after a humbling defeat, all that matters is what comes next.
The way that it ended for this group was a failure, but I’m betting on Beilein moving forward. Here’s to Michigan fans doing the same.