Nobody wants to miss the NCAA Tournament.
March Madness is the ultimate goal for every college basketball team, but for Michigan, it’s an unaccomplished one this season. Nonetheless, the Wolverines’ season isn’t over — they still have the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
On Tuesday, when Michigan faces Toledo, it has an opportunity to embrace the situation and turn lemons into lemonade — something the Wolverines have fallen short of on many occasions this year. And for the younger players, it’s a crucial opportunity.
“I think it was just a really good lesson for the younger guys,” Dickinson said after losing to Rutgers March 9. “Because we have a pretty young team, and so I think it was just a really good experience for them to realize how much these opportunities mean and how quickly they can go — especially once you get to March, when you know you only got one game.”
Michigan’s youth was one of the reasons for its woes this year. With four vacant starting spots entering the season — all of which now filled by underclassmen — it was a learning process for the Wolverines to mesh as a unit. While that inexperience was one of the reasons that Michigan is in this position, it’s also a reason that the NIT can be an important learning experience.
“Any time you have a chance to keep playing, it is something you want to embrace and be thankful for,” graduate guard Joey Baker said Sunday in an email. “We have a chance to play for a championship. Knowing these guys, we are going to compete and fight to get that. We feel we are not done yet and look forward to continuing our season in the NIT.”
When Michigan’s guaranteed season ended with a loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament, the unfinished business came to the forefront. And because of the Wolverines’ youth, it’s important to give players an opportunity to experience high-stakes games — even though those stakes are significantly lower than the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, then-freshman guard Kobe Bufkin got his first taste of tournament play, seeing nine minutes in Michigan’s opening game of the NCAA Tournament against Colorado State. However, Bufkin struggled in his time on the court, turning the ball over more times than he scored. Although he didn’t see the results he wanted in the Wolverines Sweet 16 run, the experience proved helpful for his development. This year, Bufkin made strides to cement his role as an integral piece for Michigan.
Dickinson is the only Wolverine to see consequential playing time in the postseason, and Tuesday’s game presents an opportunity for the team to garner more experience beyond Michigan’s big man.
“At the beginning of each season, we have goals,” junior guard Jace Howard said. “Yes, we did not reach them, but we have a chance to change that. Some teams don’t have that chance, we do. We are still hungry. We have —and have had — the right mindset to go out there and give it everything we have.”
Michigan won’t reach its ultimate goal. However, it can still reach other goals in the NIT and demonstrate that its season was more than its Big Ten Tournament loss to the Scarlet Knights suggests.
As Dickinson and Bufkin sat at the podium postgame, both looking disheveled as they absorbed the fact that they wouldn’t be dancing this year, it was clear that they had unfinished goals.
And for a young team that has little experience in any postseason tournament, the NIT is an opportunity to complete some of them.