As Jordan Poole sat by his locker on the eve of Michigan’s NCAA Tournament opener against Montana two weeks ago, the questions flowed toward the sophomore guard. They always do, positive or negative.
This time — three days removed from Poole not speaking with media after his 3-for-11 performance in the Wolverines’ Big Ten Tournament title game loss to Michigan State — they were negative, ranging from his shot selection down the stretch against the Spartans to his mood amid a season filled with personal ups and downs.
Eventually, Poole had enough.
“We lost five games,” he said. “What have we lost, five or six? It felt like all hell broke loose, right? Won 28 games? Welcome to college basketball. Think about that. Won 28 games, lost six and it feels like the world’s about to fall down.”
This is who Poole is — at least outwardly. He’s carefree and habitually rejects anything negative, or so his persona will tell you.
But two days before Poole’s dismissive answers filled that locker room in Des Moines, Iowa, Jim Gosz, his high school coach at Rufus King in Milwaukee, sang a different tune.
“He’s pissed off,” Gosz told The Daily. “It’s a scary thought, too, because when he’s pissed off, he delivers down the stretch.”
Within the Michigan team, though, there was a pre-packaged dismissal of any mention of Poole’s struggles.
When a reporter asked John Beilein about his frustration with Poole against Michigan State — the Michigan coach had spent Sunday afternoon in Chicago shaking his head and slamming the floor with each ill-advised shot — his response was denial.
“You or I? I never said I wasn’t pleased with his plays,” Beilein said. “… If you’re mind readers, you’re mind readers.”
Ignas Brazdeikis, too, claimed ignorance when asked about Poole’s struggles. Isaiah Livers, typically an open book, dismissed it as something “that’s gonna come with the game of basketball.”
And at the time, Michigan could ignore Poole’s struggles, despite a preseason in which Beilein pegged him as its sole elite shooter, pinning him with the expectations of replacing its three best deep threats. He had shot just 30 percent from three over the final two months of Big Ten play as the Wolverines squandered regular-season and tournament Big Ten titles while losing all three meetings with Michigan State. But none of that really matters if you deliver in March, a lesson that Poole, built on the legend of one immortalized shot against Houston last postseason, knows better than anyone.
“He has such a short-term memory, where whatever happened in the last game, he’s gonna correct it this game,” Gosz said on March 4. “That’s why I can’t wait to see what they do, cause I think Michigan’s gonna be a tough out. … I have them to win it.”
For two games, Gosz’ prediction came to fruition, as Poole left Des Moines with 29 points in two games, helping send Michigan to consecutive double-digit wins and its third-straight Sweet Sixteen.
Then came Thursday night in Anaheim.
Poole, in 31 minutes, finished with just eight points. None of his three 3-pointers fell and the Wolverines were sent packing with a 63-44 loss to Texas Tech, just 30 miles from the building where they cut down the West Regional nets a year ago.
After the game, his ever-present smile was locked shut, eyes red with the receipts of recently-dried tears as he tried to purvey his signature optimism.
“Obviously in this current moment, we lost and we definitely still want to be playing,” Poole said. “But you can’t change the fact that we won 17 games in a row or had a top-two defense in the country or won 30 games in the season. There’s so much to look back at stuff like that.”
Livers confirmed that his postgame message to Poole would be one of a proud friend. Poole, Livers said, had played a good season, fixing the defensive issues that had kept him off the floor in his freshman year.
But when the cameras turned off and the media departed, Livers’ message was no consolation. As the last of the reporters trickled out of Michigan’s locker room, assistant coach DeAndre Haynes — done with his media responsibility — made his way over to Poole.
Haynes, the Wolverines’ go-to players coach, appeared to offer up a few words of support. But Poole, head wrapped in one last March Madness towel and eyes buried in Haynes’ shoulder, had no need for words. His optimism, pervasive to the last possible moment, was gone, replaced by the tears of unfulfilled expectations.