Well, now that the college basketball season is over, it’s time to reflect. Reflect upon life, friends, and Michigan Basketball. It was a fun and surprising year for Wolverine fans of all ages. Now, to be fair, I am not the biggest college basketball fan. For the most part I find the games boring and riddled with mistakes that stem from lack of skill and the fact that all of these players are now younger than me. I would be a hypocrite to sit here and shame kids for making mistakes because they aren’t that long in the tooth, but, on the whole, it makes for a less appealing game. That being said, sometimes a team can have the right mixture of players and flair to capture my attention and heart. This year’s Michigan team had me captivated more so than the 2013 Michigan team. Why? Im not sure I can say. Maybe the fact that they were overlooked for most of the year? Is it that each player considerably developed over the season into someone with identifiable skills instead of a collection of potential? Once again, I cant say so stop asking.
Lets start in January. In the first week of January, the Michigan Wolverines received exactly zero votes for the AP Top 25. Despite being 15-3 after the opening week of B1G play, the Wolverines were not one of the 25 best teams in the country. That is when this team finally started to take its form. Despite his glaring lack of shooting skill, Zavier Simpson was quietly locking opponents up on a nightly basis like he was a corrupt, power-hungry czar. Moe Wagner was starting to annoy rival fan bases with his tongue-sticking-out-ness and flexing on and-1s. MAAR was still his emotionless self that he has been his four years and was quietly playing at a level that we won’t quite appreciate until he is gone. They were out there winning conference games, building hope in the fan base for a NCAA Tournament appearance. While Purdue and Michigan State were grabbing all of the national headlines for the B1G, Michigan was building their resume and were getting ready to expose the frauds that resided in East Lansing. The second ranked Spartans had everything you needed to be a dominant basketball team. Two NBA lottery picks, a Hall of Fame coach, role players who were better than other team’s stars. As me and a few other Michigan grads were sitting in a bar in Austin, Texas, we loudly discussed how there was no possible way Michigan could lose in EL to the supposedly second best team in the country. Some of us were so positive that multiple units (gambling term) were put on the Maize & Blue. Sure enough J.B. and the Boys went into the Bres and kicked ass from start to finish. It was glorious. Little did we know, it was sign of much better things to come. Later that month, Michigan battled Purdue for the second time tough but ultimately lost again. It was at that point, most people nationally knew what the Michigan faithful had knew all along, that this team had a chance.
As the final days of the first month of 2018 passed by, the snowball that was Michigan basketball started to roll downhill. Picking up wins along the way, this team’s confidence and resume was growing and growing and growing. A dominant win over Ohio State here, and waltz over Penn State there and closing out the season with a drubbing over a lowly Maryland team to end February set Michigan up for a run that will not soon be forgotten.
As Michigan barreled into March, it was a given that they had stamped their ticket into the NCAA Tournament. Now, everyone is dreaming of how fun a B1G Tourney run would be. First opponent was Iowa and while Michigan struggled, they sent the Hawkeyes back to Corn Town. Next up Nebraska was promptly sent to Further West Corn Town. Now time for the much anticipated rematch against Michigan State. There is no way that TWO lottery picks would be swept by this Michigan team. Hell, some MSU pundits were saying that not a single UM player would start for MSU and the only one that MIGHT play is Wagner. Well, to the tune of another double-digit victory “Mr. February” Tom Izzo was swept by his in-state rival. No biggie, State isn’t concerned about the B1G Tournament, their eyes were set on the national prize. Michigan still had work to do in their first tournament run. After slaying David, the Wolverines set their eyes on Goliath. Purdue had beating Michigan both previous times these teams had faced off. But, as I learned from a wise man in Buffalo, you can’t beat a team 3 times. Oh boy, did that ring true on the 4th of March. John Beilein had just captured his second B1G Tournament title in as many tries. In January if you told Michigan fans that they would win the B1G Tourney, most would say it had been a successful season. But now, after winning 9 games in a row, many had their eyes on a much bigger prize.
With Michigan earning a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the imagination of Michigan fans ran wild. Sweet 16? Elite 8? Both of these would be fine end caps to a fun season. But, before Michigan reaches the point of satisfaction, they had to get through Montana and Houston. Montana came out tough. Had Michigan on the ropes early but the defense dug in, the offense grinded it out and despite playing a painful 40 minutes, they advanced with a double-digit win. Next on the menu was Houston and Rob Gray. What a battle it was, my goodness. Michigan couldn’t seem to get anything to go in. Down the entire second half but they kept it just close enough. A pair of missed free throws, a time out, and then a miracle. That’s all it took to dispatch H-Town. Pretty easy stuff actually. Not only did Jordan Poole give me one of the most memorable sports moments I’ll ever have, Michigan State lost the next day to the juggernaut that is Syracuse basketball. Combine those two with the fact that it was St.Paddys on Saturday and 50 degrees and sunny on Sunday, it made a damn near perfect weekend.
Second weekend of the Tourney. Most of the high seeds are falling to “lower” opponents and Michigan’s path to the 3rd weekend is looking easier by the day. The flood gates opened against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. Its nice to have a game that’s over in the first 10 minutes, on to the Elite 8. Easily the weirdest game of the tournament. It felt like Michigan was playing the worst game of the season, yet they were ahead almost the entire game. Not a whole lot of drama, no spectacular performances or season-saving-shots. Just a hardnose defensive battle.
The Final 4 posed the greatest matchup problem this season. Sister Jean aka Mrs.God. How would this team defeat one of the most worshiped deities in history? The start of the game did not look good for the Boys in Blue. They played lackadaisical and seemed shocked by the pressure being put on the perimeter by Loyola. Going into halftime the Ramblers held a seven point lead and it was nothing but doom and gloom in the group chats/conversations I was in. The first 10 minutes of the second half were not any better. Loyola had the lead up to 12 at one point and the Wolverines season was going to be stopped short by an 11-seed. Charles Matthews had a different idea. Through stifling defense and clutch offense, Michigan dominated the final 10 minutes of the game and ended up cruising to an easy victory. Dreams of a National Championship still alive, but little did Maize & Blue Nation know, they would soon be meeting a Goliath that couldn’t be slayed.
Villanova is an absolute beast of a program right now. Every single player on that team is a threat to go off and DiVincenzo proved it on April 2nd. He had 31 off the bench and now has the very real option of going to the association. I’m not going to get into the Championship game itself, Villanova was the better team. Plain and simple. I thought Michigan gave a valiant effort and wasn’t able to pull off the upset. Somehow, after the final buzzer went off, I didn’t feel defeated. I didn’t feel like Michigan had let me down. A sense of pride came over me. I know that probably isn’t a very popular sentiment but watching this team grow from an unranked, unvoted for team in January to having one chance to win it all is something that I can’t say I’ve ever experienced. The closest thing I guess would be the ’06 Tigers but even then I was only 12 years old, I didn’t really care about sports back then.
So, another season has come and went. Michigan’s roster will certainly change next year. MAAR and Duncan are for sure gone. I hope Mo comes back but ya can’t fault him if he wants to leave and get paid. It will be interesting to see the development of Teske, Poole, Livers, and Z. Then, throw in the new, highly touted freshman and Beilein could have some fresh ingredients to cook with. But, until next January (when the college basketball season actually starts) I’ll have to entertain myself with the NBA, MLB and NFL. Not a bad deal by any means but it was one hell of a ride and I think it’s safe to say all Michigan fans are upset that it’s over.