When I was younger — younger than 22, that is — and played recreational basketball, at the end of every season, I got a trophy. That’s right — undefeated or winless — if I showed up for Tuesday night practices and for games on Sunday mornings, I walked away with hardware at the end of the season. And get this — I made the playoffs, too, because, well, every team did, records be damned.
I liked the idea of being rewarded regardless of my effort or my team’s result.
Show up. Run around. Thank Nathan’s mom for bringing the postgame snack (Gushers and Capri Sun!). Clinch a guaranteed spot in the postseason. Get a trophy.
Now, nearly the same height but a few years wiser, I get that’s not how things work and not how they should have back in my young hoops days.
Trophies are reserved for winners. The postseason is earned.
Showing up isn’t enough. Talking about winning isn’t enough. Perform at a high level, and you get rewarded with the opportunity — the privilege — to continue playing.
The Michigan men’s basketball team doesn’t deserve a postseason. Not after it had a spot in the NCAA Tournament wrapped up and sitting on its doorstep, but squandered opportunities to finish out the season.
But what about the National Invitational Tournament — the NCAA Tournament’s little brother that brings 32 teams who weren’t good enough to sit at the big kids’ table together for a second-rate postseason?
That seems like a likely landing spot for the Wolverines (10-8 Big Ten, 20-11 overall) after they dropped games to Wisconsin on the road and then to Iowa to close out their regular season.
Michigan coach John Beilein said on Sunday that his team would embrace any opportunity for postseason play. But the NIT feels like a massive second prize when a spot in the NCAA Tournament was its for the taking. A win against either the Badgers or the Hawkeyes would have given Michigan 11 conference wins, a number with which no Big Ten team has ever missed the NCAA Tournament.
But instead, last Sunday in Madison, the Wolverines squandered an opportunity to steal a rare game on the road. A one-point lead in the second half was erased by a 13-3 Wisconsin run.
Six days later, with a whole week to regroup, the Wolverines fell flat against Iowa, which was riding a four-game losing streak into Crisler. Instead, Michigan made the Hawkeyes look like their old selves, the ones who kicked off Big Ten play with seven straight wins, including upsets over then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 14 Purdue.
After its own win against Purdue three weeks ago, Michigan looked poised for a spot in the tournament. In a gritty battle against a bigger Boilermakers team, the Wolverines fought for rebounds and outscored Purdue in the paint to clinch their ninth conference win.
The rest looked easy. Michigan had games against Ohio State, Maryland, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa to close out the season. Win any two, and it would almost be guaranteed to hear its name on Selection Sunday. It would have earned it, by any measure.
But against Ohio State, Michigan looked as bad in person as it did on television from ESPN’s sideline angle. At Maryland, the Wolverines were unable to close out after clawing back in the second half.
Michigan edged Northwestern by single digits after letting it hang around late into the second, locking up win No. 10, but it couldn’t get No. 11 in its final two contests.
When Michigan pushed, opponents pushed back harder. When Michigan had margin-closing scoring streaks, opponents had game-ending runs. And when Michigan needed to buckle down late in games, it couldn’t. Its two seniors sat injured on the bench for all but two conference games, and no one else appeared to provide the needed mental toughness on the court.
Saturday’s matchup with Iowa was a perfect showcase. It was a must-win game, but Michigan played it like a sort-of-maybe, sure-would-be-nice-to-win game. Eleven turnovers — including one late in the second half by junior guard Zak Irvin when the Wolverines were threatening a comeback — were too much to overcome. Shooting just 24 percent from 3-point range didn’t help either.
When the final buzzer sounded Saturday night, Michigan looked far from a team deserving of a postseason.
Beilein has long said he doesn’t lobby the NCAA Tournament selection committee on behalf of his team. After losing to Iowa, though, he made the case that Michigan might still deserve a shot.
“We do have 10 wins in a very good league,” Beilein said. “We do have some wins over top-25 teams. We’ve played a lot of top-25 teams. And I’m sure (other teams) have similar arguments.
“I really trust the people in that (selection committee) room. They’re really talented at what they do. They don’t get too many of these things wrong.”
If Beilein’s right, and the selection committee doesn’t make mistakes, his team shouldn’t get a shot at the big kids’ tournament. It doesn’t deserve it.
Save for two wins in the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines don’t have business being there. To win three, they would need to beat a top-seeded Indiana in their second game — a team that pummeled Michigan at home earlier in the season.
History isn’t on the Wolverines’ side either. Michigan has won more than one game in the conference tournament only once under Beilein. The way this team has been playing, it doesn’t look like that will change this year.
What will happen instead is that Michigan will accept an offer to play in the NIT with the have-nots — a prize more befitting a team of the Wolverines’ stature, but still a prize, nonetheless. One Michigan doesn’t deserve.