I’ve never been a fan of the legacy talk that abounds in the postseason. Assigning permanent virtue or failure to players and coaches based on what often boils down to pure chance flies in the face of traditional notions of merit. While Jordan Poole will rightfully carry the glory of his heroism to his grave, I know that throughout the ages there have been forgotten players in similar situations who put in the thousands of practice reps Poole did only to see their shots draw iron.
Of course, Poole’s shot found twine. Miraculously, no matter how many times I watch the highlight, no matter how aggressively Corey Davis Jr. undercuts him as he rises and fires, it always ends with Wolverine victory and Cougar agony. While this memory may be tinged bittersweet by Monday’s shellacking at the hands of the Wildcats, it will remain the climax of one of the most enjoyable sports campaigns in recent memory.
The NCAA tournament is an imperfect evaluator. It is also impeccable in assessing John Beilein, who, since the last Tommy Amaker recruit left the program in 2011, has outperformed his seed more than any active coach not named John Calipari. His attention to detail and adaptability stand out even in an adapt-or-die profession. Michigan fans are privileged to enjoy the labor of a man who gets everything possible out of every team he has and, on top of it all, is a genuinely good dude. Playing with house money since a February beatdown at Breslin, he’s added two more banners to a now-unimpeachable résumé. After failing to MacGyver his way past one final foe, he has also once again fallen one game short of the banner that means most. While these next few iterations of Michigan basketball will be some of his best, at 65 years of age, every Michigan fan knows there’s a finite number of bullets left in the proverbial chamber. If Beilein never wins a title, the Trey Burke block-foul on Peyton Siva will still resonate painfully years from now. To me, however, his career will be defined by the men he helped mold on the way to those title tilts, not the results themselves. That may sound cliché, but the best part of John Beilein is that he truly embodies the clichés commonly used to paper over the cynical corruption of college sports.
As for the molded men: it would have made for a delicious cherry on top of the careers of Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Moritz Wagner (whom I would advise to leave, and would assume is gone), and Duncan Robinson to bring home a national championship. Much has already been made of their unheralded origins; taking down Nova would’ve been some fairy-tale stuff. In a world where grit and effort often fail fighting well-coiffed abundance, they have already broken through every conceivable chandelier-adorned glass ceiling.
Rahkman had already amassed commendable accolades as a supporting-cast starter on some very good teams. When Michigan needed an offensive identity after their February loss to Northwestern, the unassuming senior emerged from the periphery and, without any sacrifice in efficiency, somehow became The Guy on a team that wouldn’t lose for another two months.
Midway through his junior year, hampered by an ankle injury, it seemed as though Wagner would never consistently capture the form that put the nation on notice against Louisville. He then burned down Breslin, submitted the strongest defensive performance of his career against a Florida State team that would have previously bullied him out of the game, then single-handedly kicked Cinderella to the curb. When he erupted at the start of the Nova game, he damn near had me convinced he could drop 50. Wagner has always leaned into the persona of the sneering, domineering German, but his work to complement his offensive versatility as a rebounder and rim protector on a top 5 defense lent terrifying substance to the charade.
I will admit, I said some things about Duncan Robinson in November that I would like to take back. The dude was a defensive sieve who had seemingly lost his shooting stroke, with little else to offer. As a guy who started his career playing at Williams, it was impressive he even made it to Michigan. He lost his spot to a freshman in Isaiah Livers, playing a season-low 8 minutes in a 92-88 loss to Purdue that immediately preceded the inflection point of the season in Evanston. When Livers turned his ankle, Robinson was forced back into action and, with strategic help from Luke Yaklich, suddenly became a stopper in the post. Lineups with Robinson were now not only viable, but active positives. His scoring served to stabilize the team, and his steady hand at the charity stripe probably prevented an untold number of cardiac events, but his highlight rejections were a chapter in his story that no one saw coming.
The small sample size of March often serves to validate or repudiate lifetimes of work. Narratives naturally build toward one shining moment in a crucible that posits philosophical conflict diluted through the physical efforts of tall teenagers. It’s terrifying, euphoric, and devastating all at once. It’s also a woefully incomplete summary. In a thousand years, the only remnants of these basketball seasons will be those that make the record books. But sports, and life, are so much more than that. I think John Beilein, perhaps more than any other college basketball coach, understands that the joy of life is in the filler, that the richest narratives are the ones in which the author agonizes over every last sentence. The stories that define us, the ones that will hopefully get told at our funerals, talk about all the stuff in between the exposition and the climax, a collage of seemingly insignificant moments that, when assembled, reveals something profound.