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In review: Evaluating the Michigan basketball season

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 29, 2012

Tears have dried, and brackets have been sworn at, crumpled and thrown into bodies of water. It’s been more than two weeks since the Michigan men’s basketball team was stunned by Ohio in the second (really, the first) round of the NCAA Tournament, and now, with the tournament over, we can take a step back.

Norfolk State captured our hearts, broke them, un-broke them and re-broke them. So did Wisconsin. So did Gus Johnson, after it was determined that he wouldn’t be calling this year’s tournament.

Enough of the shock has worn off, and Michigan fans can take solace that the Wolverines beat the only team that beat the national champions in the regular season. We’ve regained our composure and are now able to get back on the podium and pass down judgment for the Wolverines’ 2011-12 campaign.

How did Michigan do this season? Tough question.

If you were told at the start of the season that Michigan would beat Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, win all but one home game and bring home its first Big Ten Championship in 26 years, it’d be an easy answer. The Wolverines met, exceeded and jumped giddily on top of their preseason expectations.

But what people cared about was whether Michigan would improve upon last season’s third-round NCAA Tournament appearance. That didn’t happen, so it’s easy to say the Wolverines fell short of their goals.

However, what the team did in one game against an unfamiliar opponent in an unfamiliar city shouldn’t negatively color perceptions of Michigan’s season as a whole. It was clear that the program made big strides in becoming a Big Ten powerhouse, earning a four-seed in the Big Dance on the way.

Grade: A-

Best Game: Feb. 18 wasn’t just a dreary Saturday a week before my half-birthday. It was a day-long Michigan basketball holiday. The festivities began at 5 a.m. with Michigan coach John Beilein passing out donuts to the Maize Rage, continued with College Gameday in Crisler Center in the morning and lasted deep into the night.

It didn’t hurt that the Wolverines also took down then-No. 6 Ohio State, 56-51, behind freshman point guard Trey Burke’s 17 points, vaulting Michigan into Big Ten title contention.

Michigan’s big men stood up to the Buckeyes’ dominant frontcourt, and the team proved that it could compete with and actually beat the top teams in the country.

Worst Game: A week after the win over the Buckeyes, Michigan took the court for senior night (on my half-birthday), and it couldn’t have gone any worse. No Wolverine topped 12 points, and Michigan put forth its worst defensive effort of the season, allowing Purdue to shoot 50 percent and dominate the second half in a 75-61 blowout loss.

Not only did the game send seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass out of Crisler Center with a frownie face, but at the time, it appeared as though Michigan had squandered its chances at a conference title.

Best Moment: With Michigan huddled around the 84-inch television screen in the video room of the Player Development Center, Ohio State guard William Buford grabbed a handoff from Aaron Craft and took two dribbles toward the top of the key. As he drifted left and released a high-arcing jumper over Michigan State guard Keith Appling, the Wolverines’ hopes for a conference title were up in the air. A Buckeye victory would give the Spartans their fifth conference loss and there would be a three-way tie for the Big Ten Championship.

Buford’s shot found nothing but net, and Michigan celebrated its first conference title since 1986.

Worst Moment: In Michigan’s second-round game against 13-seed Ohio in the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines found themselves down three points with a few minutes to go. The fourth-seeded Wolverines had been down nearly the whole game, but in the past few minutes, Burke had scored 12 straight points and reduced a nine-point Michigan deficit to three.

Burke then missed three 3-point attempts in the final minutes, but it still wasn’t over. Michigan corralled an offensive rebound, and sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz wound up with the ball, ready to reset the offense with seven seconds left.

Smotrycz tried a left-to-right crossover and botched it. The Bobcats gained possession, made their free throws and sent Michigan home early. It would also be Smotrycz’s last — and lasting — play as a Wolverine. The Reading, Mass.