Jacob Shames: Putting things in perspective

Tuesday, April 2, 2019 - 9:26pm

When John Beilein was first hired in 2007, Michigan hadn’t seen an NCAA Tournament bid in nine years, something that is now a regular occurrence  for Beilein's teams.

When John Beilein was first hired in 2007, Michigan hadn’t seen an NCAA Tournament bid in nine years, something that is now a regular occurrence for Beilein's teams. Buy this photo
Natalie Stephens/Daily

What will we remember about the 2018-19 Michigan men’s basketball team?

Like, really remember?

I only ask because .... in terms of memories, Wolverines fans have had it pretty darn good lately.

You’re going to be telling your grandchildren about 2013 and Trey Burke toppling mighty Kansas. Your heart’s probably still racing from that wild 2017 run triggered by near-disaster. You’re never going to forget where you were last year when Jordan Poole ran laps around the arena in Wichita, Kan.

But when you look back on Michigan’s 2018-19 season, which ended with a 63-44 loss to Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen last week, there likely won’t be a specific game, moment or player that sticks under your eyelids above any other.

Maybe it’s Charles Matthews roaring as he hung on the rim at Villanova. Maybe it’s the Wolverines running North Carolina and Purdue out of the gym. That all happened by December. And sure, Michigan started out a program-record 17-0, but you can learn that in a book.

That torrid start was certainly impressive. In terms of banners, championships or indelible moments, though, it ultimately meant little.

It might sound like I’m about to imply that a lack of memorable moments makes a season disappointing. That’s hardly the case, and I’ll get to that later. But it can serve as something of a proxy for how we view the Wolverines’ most recent campaign, and it’s especially key in understanding the ending.

On Jan. 13, when Michigan rolled Northwestern behind a barrage of Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske 3-pointers, it looked almost invincible. That was its 17th win, and at the time, everything was seemingly in play — promised, even. John Beilein’s teams don’t start out like this team did. There were blemishes like always, but fixing them is exactly what the Wolverines do under Beilein. Who could even imagine how good they would be in March — and maybe April?

The games, players and plays that are a part of recent Michigan lore were accompanied by triumphs both expected or improbable. The Wolverines played for a national championship in 2013. They hung Big Ten banners in 2014, 2017 and 2018. The symbols of those successes are easily brought to memory, and they happened when it mattered most.

This season had none of that.

That historic start was the high point, and while it wasn’t all downhill from there, Michigan never made it back. Its depth issues were never fully resolved. The question of who would score when the Wolverines needed a bucket was never litigated to satisfaction. In the Sweet Sixteen, they were beaten by the Red Raiders and their top-ranked defense with almost eerie ease.

The season’s first three months set up the potential for a supernova. Instead, Michigan, on that court in Anaheim, Calif., more closely resembled a candle being blown out swiftly and simply.

Is that a disappointment?

Thirty wins? A school-record start? A Sweet Sixteen run?

The answer to that question depends a lot on the person being asked. But the fact that it’s even being asked is a bellwether for where the Wolverines are right now. And your answer says a lot about the memories you’ve made over the last few years and before then.

I’ve only lived in Michigan since I’ve been in college, so I’m not going to pretend to totally understand this part. But when Beilein was hired in 2007, Michigan hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament in nine years. It won 10 games his first season. Even in 2012, Beilein’s future with the Wolverines wasn’t entirely certain. Now he’s headed for the Hall of Fame and he’ll be Michigan’s coach until he doesn’t want to be anymore. It’s easy to overlook how this reality was hardly fathomable less than a decade ago.

This next part, though, is much easier for me to understand: 2019 was supposed to be something of a rebuilding year.

The Wolverines lost Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson from what already wasn’t the most talented Michigan team in history. Even with the addition of Ignas Brazdekis, a brash freshman from Ontario, this was still a limited roster, as every key player suffered from some glaring deficiency.

But somehow — despite Simpson and Matthews’ come-and-go shooting, Brazdeikis’ inability to pass, Teske’s still-developing offensive game, Jordan Poole’s wildness, Isaiah Livers’ passiveness — that roster came together to the point where a second-place finish in the Big Ten feels lacking.

The Wolverines were greater than the sum of their parts, but their deficiencies were still present. And when Michigan lost, it was easy to see why. Everything went wrong against Texas Tech, yes, but in ways that weren’t hard to see coming — only one 3-pointer in 19 tries, for instance — even if it was to a much greater extent than predicted. It was simply a loss to a better team.

“How many wins, 28 wins, right?” Beilein asked after the Wolverines lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game on March 14. “We lost four pretty good players from last year, that took us to the Final Four and now all of a sudden, we’re not a new team, but we’re not an experienced team in playing games like this.”

Beilein expressed that sentiment more frequently as the season drew to a close. Through all of Michigan’s shakiness in Big Ten play, dwelling too much on that could feel like nitpicking. This was still a top-10 team that few people outside of the program saw coming.

Taken by itself, there’s no reason to regard the 2018-19 season as a disappointment. But with the way it began — and the years that preceded it — it’s easy to be left wanting more. It’s natural to be yearning for the indelible memories and unforgettable successes of years past that didn’t come this season but often felt like they should have.

So if we don’t remember the 2018-19 Wolverines in the same way we remember other great Wolverine teams of recent years, we’ll still remember them. Not as a moment, necessarily, but as a group of the greatest era of Michigan basketball history.

Even without the titles. Even without the single enduring image. Even without NCAA Tournament glory.

This was a damn good Michigan basketball team. It deserves to be remembered that way.

Shames can be reached at jacosham@umich.edu or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.