SportsMonday Column: An unconventional senior class
There are certain occasions that all athletes look forward to in their careers. Senior Day is near the top of the list.
The celebratory affair — fit with framed jerseys, cardboard cutouts and individual plaudits — represents the exclamation mark at the end of a long chapter.
But in a sport known for its one-and-done culture, it can be a rare experience to be a senior in college basketball.
Even for Michigan, a top-tier program that isn’t often associated with lottery picks, only one of its past six first-round NBA Draft picks played a senior year as a Wolverine. And if it weren’t for a string of injuries, now-Brooklyn Nets forward Caris LeVert likely would have left early as well.
That’s why Michigan coach John Beilein makes sure that Senior Day is memorable for those who reach it.
“What’s sad is they think this goes on forever, and I know that some of the guys I’ve seen only once since then and that’s it,” he said. “The rest of their lives, the next 80 years of their lives, you may only see them one time. So it’s really important that we embrace one of these last opportunities to play a home game.”
More often than not, the players that stay for four years aren’t the stars. They don’t come into the program as highly-touted recruits expected to make a flashy entrance and then a speedy exit. They are the players who work day in and day out to lay the building blocks for the foundation of the program.
That is especially true of Beilein’s senior class this season, even if theirs are more unconventional stories.
An underrated starter, a reliable sixth man, a graduate transfer and a living miracle made up the four-player contingent honored Sunday in front of a sold-out crowd at Crisler Center as No. 22 Michigan earned a 74-62 win over No. 8 Ohio State.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson, Jaaron Simmons and Austin Hatch didn’t come in together four years ago, but they all have left their mark in Ann Arbor.
In 2014-15, it was Hatch who made his mark. He had to reclassify after surviving a plane crash that took the lives of his father and stepmother and ultimately cut his playing career short. Once one of the best high school sophomores in the nation — having just received a scholarship offer from Beilein — he could only play in five collegiate games, but he served as a source of inspiration for the team.
In 2015-16, it was Robinson, who became the first player in NCAA history to receive a scholarship after transferring from Division III to Division I. He became a regular starter as a redshirt sophomore and ranked second in the Big Ten and ninth in the nation as a 45-percent 3-point shooter.
In 2016-17, it was Abdur-Rahkman, who turned his quiet beginnings as a two-star recruit into a starring role as a starter. He played a pivotal role in the Big Ten Tournament title run last March, averaging nine points and four rebounds per game in those four games, including a season-high 17 points in the first contest.
In 2017-18, it has been Simmons, who joined the Wolverines for one final year after transferring from Ohio University. While he hasn’t become the regular contributor he was expected to be, he has pushed sophomore guard Zavier Simpson into becoming a well-rounded starter after the departure of now-Miami Heat guard Derrick Walton Jr.
Each of the four, as players and as people, beat the odds and turned themselves into invaluable pieces of Michigan. In a season that had the potential to be a rebuilding year after the loss of five seniors and an NBA draft pick, these four have helped lead the Wolverines to an 11-5 Big Ten and 22-7 overall record. After knocking off the Buckeyes, there seems to be much left in store for Michigan this season.
The same can’t be said for these seniors, whose playing careers are expected to end whenever the Wolverines’ season does. Though none of them are expected to make the jump to the next level, Beilein doesn’t see anything wrong with that. He used Abdur-Rahkman to illustrate his point.
“You see this in college basketball all the time. The guy who comes in and gets who he is and isn’t about, ‘Get me to the pros’ and all these things,” he said. “He’s just about, ‘Coach, make me better. I’m gonna give you everything I have every minute. I’m not gonna be a holler guy, but I still love the team and my teammates.’ ”
He may have been directly referring to Abdur-Rahkman, but the description is apt for all four. Sunday, each of the seniors had his tip-of-the-cap moment.
Hatch, who has served as a student assistant since taking a medical scholarship in 2015, dressed for the game and warmed up with his teammates. Though he couldn’t play due to NCAA rule, Beilein provided a nice touch by announcing him along with the starting five.
Simmons pushed Michigan out to a nine-point lead — its largest of the game midway through the second half — finishing a fast-break layup to rousing applause.
Abdur-Rahkman nailed a three-pointer with just three minutes remaining to open up a 65-53 lead, strutting backward with the look of a man who had sealed victory.
Robinson finished it off with 1:16 left on the clock, drawing an offensive foul to top off his impressive defensive display against Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop, the Big Ten’s leading scorer. As the whistle blew, Robinson let out a roar toward the crowd. It had ‘game over’ written all over it.
They already had their framed jerseys from the pregame ceremony. They had just earned the rivalry win. But they had one last piece of business to attend to after the game. The four seniors — upon the beckoning of Beilein, who called them “four of the greatest young men we’ve ever had” — took the microphone to address the crowd.
Hatch acknowledged that he “wouldn’t change anything about my four years here.” Simmons said “it’s been a great ride.” Robinson called it “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.” And Abdur-Rahkman considered himself “lucky to wear Michigan across my chest.”
The consistent message from all four was captured best by Abdur-Rahkman as he claimed that the Wolverines are “not done yet.”
The declaration comes with a caveat, though, as whatever comes next for Michigan will happen away from Crisler Center. That’s why, when Beilein asked him to lead the arena in “The Victors,” Abdur-Rahkman asked if the team could sing it with the Maize Rage.
So they walked into the student section and sang the fight song after the final home game of their Wolverine careers.
It was an unconventional move, to be sure. But with this senior class, it couldn’t have been any other way.
Ashame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.