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SportsMonday Column: Charmingly fun until the photo finish

Teresa Mathew/Daily
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 30, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — Moments after the game, the sun is low in the sky and Lucas Oil Stadium casts a long shadow across Indianapolis as, inside, Michigan walks off the court for the last time together. Jordan Morgan is first, well before anyone else. Glenn Robinson III gives a quick wave to the crowd and puts his head down. Nik Stauskas is emotionless. Mitch McGary, who was never getting into the game, walks off wearing the uniform his teammates have insisted he wear.

Later, Morgan, held up by his press conference, is one of the last to enter the Michigan locker room. Most of the room is composed except for Zak Irvin, who is emotional in one corner of the room, and for Morgan. He wipes his face with his sleeve and cries in front of the television cameras.

His teammates have said the loss is all the more difficult because it means they’ll never play another game with Morgan. The senior doesn’t know how to respond.

He pauses to wipe his eyes.

“I didn’t expect it to be my last game,” Morgan says.

“It’s over. I don’t know what else to say.”

***

It’s over — much later than anyone anticipated. Without Trey Burke, without Tim Hardaway Jr., without McGary, this team didn’t just win the Big Ten. It dominated. It improved, steadily, each game. The pieces, especially offensively, meshed seamlessly.

A photo comes to mind now from the summer of 2012. The Michigan basketball team’s incoming class is posing together at the basketball facilities, maybe for the first time all together.

Caris LeVert is wearing cargo shorts. Spike Albrecht looks small, even next to the wiry LeVert. All have their arms around each other, except Robinson, who has his hands in his pockets and smiles big. McGary looks like a kid at summer camp. Stauskas stands at the edge and looks moody.

College basketball today is brutal in this regard. Jordan Morgans are rare. Play as well as Michigan has and you risk losing your best players. A two-year-old photo feels like a sepia-toned memory. Almost certainly, some of those players will be gone next year.

***

It’s unclear what Michigan could have done differently against Kentucky. It’s unclear what Michigan could have done better. A few more box outs, maybe. Less foul trouble.

But Michigan played at just about its peak and stood with Kentucky’s size and talent and said beat this. And Kentucky did.

It was hard to ask much more from this team in this game, this season. Michigan’s big men, simply, weren’t big. Kentucky was too much to handle above the rim. The final six minutes on Sunday were the best basketball of this thoroughly entertaining tournament.

Michigan takes a timeout, down seven, the game slipping away. A pretty drive and kick back by LeVert finds Robinson open in the corner. His shooting has been inconsistent for most of the season. It’s good. Four-point game now.

Two possessions later, Morgan gets a put-back and the foul. Free throw good. One point game —and now we’re off.

Aaron Harrison three. Morgan dunk. Kentucky layup. Robinson layup. Kentucky layup. The under-four-minutes television timeout feels akin to interrupting Mozart mid-symphony to sell a few extra bratwursts. Damn your television timeouts.

Back now. Stauskas makes both on a shooting foul. Harrison three. Robinson three. Nine possessions now without so much as a missed shot. How much fun is this?

Michigan needs two to tie now, so John Beilein takes a timeout. And then LeVert goes off. Stauskas misses a layup, but LeVert grabs it and dishes. Stauskas, again, from three rims out and LeVert slashes into the paint, dives after the ball and, falling backward, dishes back to Stauskas. Another miss, but a hand — likely that of Julius Randle of Kentucky — redirects the ball back in. Tie game.

This right here was Michigan’s season. A flawless, smart offense (the most efficient, ever, it turns out, at least since we’ve started keeping track of such stats); a socialist-like insistence on sharing the basketball; and more effort than defense. LeVert was not going to let Kentucky get the ball back before Michigan made a basket.

Then Aaron Harrison — that’s Aaron Bleeping Harrison, to translate for Ann Arbor readers — hit the shot of his young career. Stauskas’ prayer went short. And Kentucky won.

Michigan will be back here again. This feels more certain than it has in forever.

For Michigan, this hurt not because it gave Kentucky anything. It didn’t. It hurt not because it squandered a rare opportunity. It will come again.

It hurts because it won’t be with this team, this thoroughly surprising and likeable team. It hurts, because in college basketball today, teams like this are like comets — brilliant, breathtaking, brief. It hurts because that photo feels nostalgic. And it’s from 2012. It hurts because of Morgan.

Morgan is talking about this team in the press conference after the game. He’s the last one to speak before it’s over.

“Yeah, I mean, just this year has been the most fun time I’ve had, probably, playing basketball, ever,” he says.

It’s over now, and it hurts for Michigan, but I don’t know what else to say except: how much fun was that?

Managing Photo Editor Teresa Mathew and Senior Sports Editor Daniel Wasserman contributed reporting.

Helfand can be reached at zhelfand@umich.edu