Sometimes this season, Michigan’s men’s basketball team didn’t look the way it deserved to play in the NCAA tournament. Minnesota home loss? Narrow escapes from the Northwest?
As the season went down, he was given many opportunities to prove himself and overcome these shortcomings, and repeatedly he succeeded. On his senior night last week against Iowa, he failed to punch his ticket to the NCAA tournament, arranging a final showdown and a mandatory game on Sunday in Columbus.
Then, in the morning of the game, Wolverine struck another blow: second-year center Hunter Dickinson missed the game due to a stomach problem. Without his star player and away the game seemed doomed from the start.
Michigan’s victory over Ohio has thus proven that this team can be more than mediocre, more than a singles show and more than a bubble team.
“I’m just delighted with the nature of the players,” said acting head coach Phil Martelli. “I admire the knowledge of the support staff, Sadie Washington and Howard Aisley.”
The team’s weaknesses are known: it lacks consistency in a 3-point game, it can rely too much on Dickinson, and its depth can be suspicious. But despite these shortcomings, the team has created an identity that is hard to find in college basketball: resilience.
In the preseason of the top 10 teams, the Wolverines started the season 7-7, their best win in a home game over San Diego. Full of highly touted freshmen, they could capitulate. The start obviously didn’t live up to the expectations of those not in the program, and I’m sure it didn’t live up to the expectations of program participants.
Instead, Michigan won three games in a row, including an away game in a noisy assembly hall.
After a good stretch and victory over the then No. 3 Purdue, the Wolverines, seemed ready for re-coronation. But it was followed by a loss in Ohio, in which Michigan scored 23.5% of the three, as well as a hectic life on the bubble.
Two games later, Juan Howard removed himself from the team, striking a Wisconsin assistant coach after Wolverine’s collapse in the second half. Martelli took the helm, and the season again seemed ready for surrender.
But at the end of the next game against Rutgers Michigan came out on top without his coach and two key players.
“Look, they’re good young people – with a focus on the young – and I thought so, but I’m surprised (by their resilience),” Martelli said Sunday. “It was an easy reason not to play well against Rutgers.”
Two weeks of wins and losses followed, and the inconsistency that had disappointed the team all season raised its head as it alternated victories with defeats before the Big Ten Tournament.
“We don’t want to strain too much because we know we’re going to have a good game, but in the next game we’re going to fall apart,” guard Devante Jones said Sunday after the victory in Ohio. “So we’ll try to just stay on the same level.”
There is good reason to doubt Michigan’s ability to keep his balance until the end of the season. Given his track record, after all, there may be two more games this season. But after each obstacle, when the Wolverines stumbled and got stuck, they rose again.
At this point, Michigan almost certainly received an application for the NCAA tournament and avoided complete disappointment. The big dance is magical, mythical and full of races, like Wolverine.
But one of the most important elements of the tournament is the ability to withstand confrontations, to be stable, despite the possible end of the season. On Sunday, Michigan did so with a return to the second half and exit into the tournament. Throughout the year he was resilient in the face of setbacks after setbacks, refusing to give up the season.
Maybe there is still some magic in the dance.
You can contact Daily Sports author Kent Schwartz on Twitter @nottherealkent
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