Max Marcovitch: Only tears
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Heartbreak knows nothing of circumstance.
There’s no sense in telling Zavier Simpson, sulked deep into his locker and speaking in a hushed-tone, that his team wildly outperformed any expectation this season. Not as the team with a trophy was 100 feet down the hallway.
Duncan Robinson doesn’t particularly care that the the upstart defensive scheme that came to prominence this year will pay major dividends down the road. That’s no solace for a senior who just lost by 17 in his last game.
Don’t expect Charles Matthews, draped in a towel over his head, to delve deep into the bright future ahead of this college basketball program. He didn’t sit out a year just to ignore the here and now.
With the clock winding down, a graceful end to a slow, painful bludegoning in the National Title Game, fifth-year senior guard Jaaron Simmons could only summon a word to describe his emotion.
The scoreboard read 79-62, an anti-climactic ending to a season that has been anything but.
“At the start of the season there’s a probably handful of teams, 10 teams, that would say ‘We need to be in the National Title Game,” said assistant coach Luke Yaklich.
Michigan was decidedly not one of those teams. But?
“We grew into that team.”
This was a team unranked in the preseason, picked tied for fifth in the Big Ten and labeled as a fringe bubble team. It expected to start a transfer from Ohio at point guard and to be led by a Kentucky washout. This was supposed to be a rebuilding season, left to plug gaps from the departures of Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson and anxiously await next year’s heralded recruiting class.
Instead, it won a Big Ten Tournament, made the Final Four and came one game shy of taking the whole damn thing.
“Hell nah,” Simmons said, when asked if he’d thought about the contrast in preseason predictions relative to the team’s success. “Right now, you’re thinking, ‘We just lost. It’s over.’ But we knew people didn’t expect us to get here. That don’t mean we didn’t expect to get here and we didn’t expect to win.”
Don’t believe him?
“We talked about being national champs and Big Ten champs at our culture meeting in July,” said assistant coach Luke Yaklich. “We referenced that again tonight. It’s been on our mind. The word ‘champion’ has been on our mind at the start of every single meeting.
“Just 40 minutes short of just a perfect ending.”
Monday night, those dreams were shattered by Donte DiVincenzo, a particularly cruel way to bow out. The Villanova guard ended Michigan’s season with a 31-point outburst off the Wildcats’ bench. Instead of national player of the year Jalen Brunson or future first-round pick Mikal Bridges, the players in the locker room were left answering questions about how an Italian guard from Delaware sliced and diced one of the best defenses in the country.
There were self-inflicted wounds, too. It would be hard for any team to win after shooting an abysmal 3-for-23 from 3-point range and allowing 12 offensive rebounds. There was a time midway through the first half when it appeared junior center Moritz Wagner could carry them to glory on his lonesome, scoring nine of his team’s first 11 points, leading Michigan to a quick 11-6 advantage.
That hope, though, continued to dwindle by the minute, with each DiVincenzo heave and bruising team rebound. Villanova ran through the tournament, winning each of its games by double-digits. It was the Wildcats’ night, the Wildcats’ tournament and the Wildcats’ season.
The Wolverines can take some consolation that their season was ended by the clear, unquestionable best team in the country, a team that led the field beginning to end. But that does nothing to ease the harsh, momentary pain.
Michigan coach John Beilein sniffled as he left the locker room to head to the podium, eyes red. He shared the sentiment of an entire team, an entire university.
“That is a very sad locker room right now,” Beilein said, “not because we lost the game, but because they know something special just ended.”
There’s a harsh crescendo with an ending to a run — one so abrupt and defiant that the numbness overwhelms the disappointment. It won’t mask the accomplishments of a special team in the bigger picture. But for the players in the locker room, nine months of work can’t be properly contextualized minutes after the buzzer.
There’s reality, a realm in which this Michigan team — a group threaded together at its seams with transfers and no-name recruits — came 40 minutes short of a national title, running into a juggernaut and finishing as the national runner-up.
That’s a sentence that would’ve seemed preposterous not even a month ago.
“I think that when the pain ends, whenever it is for each person, I know they’re going to look back on this and be thankful for the experiences they had,” Yaklich said, “the relationships that were developed, all of the wins, all of the losses, just the time together.
“They’ll all get to that point when they need to.”
There’s no room in the Michigan locker room for that right now, though. Not while the wounds are still fresh.