At times this season, the Michigan men’s basketball team hasn’t looked like it deserved to play in the NCAA Tournament. A home loss to Minnesota? A narrow escape from Northwestern?
As the season came down the stretch, it received numerous opportunities to prove itself and overcome those shortcomings, and repeatedly, it fell short. On senior night last week against Iowa, it couldn’t punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament, setting up a final showdown and must-win game in Columbus Sunday.
Then, the morning of the game, another blow hit the Wolverines: sophomore center Hunter Dickinson would miss the game due to a stomach issue. Without its star player and on the road, the game seemed doomed from the beginning.
Michigan’s win over Ohio State, then, proved that this team can be more than mediocre, more than a one-man show and more than a bubble team.
“I’m just in awe of the players’ character,” acting head coach Phil Martelli said. “I’m in awe of the support staff’s knowledge, Saddi Washington and Howard Eisley.”
The weak points of the team are known: It lacks consistency in its 3-point play, it can be over-reliant on Dickinson and its depth can be suspect. But despite those weaknesses, the team has built an identity that’s hard to find in college basketball: resilience.
A preseason top 10 team, the Wolverines started the season 7-7, their best win a home game over San Diego State. Full of highly touted freshmen, they could’ve capitulated. The start obviously didn’t meet the expectations from those outside the program, and it’s certain it didn’t meet the expectations of those within the program.
Instead, Michigan won three straight games, including an away game inside a boisterous Assembly Hall.
After a good stretch and a victory over then-No. 3 Purdue, the Wolverines seemed poised for a re-crowning. But a crushing home loss to Ohio State in which Michigan shot 23.5% from three followed, along with the stressful life of living on the bubble.
Two games later, Juwan Howard removed himself from the team by striking a Wisconsin assistant coach after a second half Wolverine collapse. Martelli took over the reins, and yet again the season seemed poised for capitulation.
But at the end of the next game against Rutgers, Michigan came out on top without its coach and two key players.
“Look, they’re good young people — with the emphasis on young — and I thought this but I am amazed (at their resilience),” Martelli said on Sunday. “In that there was an easy excuse to not play well against Rutgers.”
Two weeks of winning and losing followed, with the inconsistency that has frustrated the team all season rearing its head as it alternated wins with losses prior to the Big Ten Tournament.
“We don’t want to get too high on it because we know we know if we’re having a good game, but the next game we will kind of crumble,” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones said Sunday after beating Ohio State. “So we’re gonna try to just stay level headed.”
There’s good reason to doubt Michigan’s ability to keep a level head throughout the rest of the season. Given its track record, the season could be just two more games, after all. But through each hurdle the Wolverines have tripped over and face-planted after, they’ve gotten back up.
At this point, Michigan has almost certainly clinched a bid to the NCAA Tournament and avoided a complete disappointment. The Big Dance is magical, mythical and full of runs, just like the Wolverines are.
But one of the biggest elements of the tournament is the ability to withstand opposing runs, to be resilient despite facing the possible end of your season. On Sunday, Michigan did that with a second half comeback and a tournament berth on the line. Throughout the year, it’s been resilient in the face of setback after setback, refusing to give up on the season.
Maybe the dance holds some magic for them yet.
Daily Sports Writer Kent Schwartz can be reached on Twitter @nottherealkent