At 6:13 p.m. on Sunday night, the Michigan men’s basketball team could finally breathe. After weeks of speculation and missed opportunities to punch their own ticket, the Wolverines made it out of the bubble and into the bracket.
“I definitely was nervous, I’m not gonna lie,” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones said. “I feel like we let a lot of games slip, so I didn’t know how the people that were actually making the brackets, I didn’t know how they would perceive us.”
With an 11 seed, Michigan coach Juwan Howard and his team have narrowly avoided the embarrassment of being the first Michigan team since 2015 to not make the NCAA Tournament. But, this sense of relief comes with a caveat: This story has already been written.
Yes, the Wolverines will play No. 6-seed Colorado State on Thursday. They might face No. 3-seed Tennessee or No. 14-seed Longwood in the second round. But — pending an act of God — this team’s legacy won’t be what happens in March. In all likelihood, its most defining moments are already behind it.
Thirty years down the line, Michigan fans might remember this as the year the Wolverines were a preseason top 10 team and then started the season 7-7. The year they could barely squeak out wins against unranked opponents like Tarleton State and Buffalo. Or as the year Howard socked some guy in the head.
The ones with better memories might recall Michigan blowing a 17-point lead against Indiana to send them home from the Big Ten Tournament in just the second round. Personally, I know I’ll remember when sophomore center Hunter Dickinson had to sit out with a tummy ache.
Of course, there’s the slim possibility that the Wolverines will turn it all around in the 11th hour, go all the way and become the Cinderella story of the decade. If that happens, every loss and poor performance will be cast in a new light. This team won’t be looked at as one that failed to meet expectations, never able to capitalize on the talent that — on paper — should have led them to the Final Four. Instead, it’ll be a team that bided its time, finding its groove when it needed to the most.
But that’s just the trope of a cheesy movie. As others have pointed out, the time for a cinematic, zero-to-hero plot line is long behind us. Coaches and players alike have been saying that they’ll use their losses to learn and grow for months, yet the same mistakes pop up week after week.
Still, when asked what makes the team feels confident that they can go on a run in the Tournament, Jones repeated a similar refrain:
“This is the opportunity we always talk about, especially after the loss to Indiana,” he said. “… After that, we’ve been saying that all we need is a chance. All we need in an opportunity.”
It’s hard to make the argument that the Wolverines have lacked opportunities thus far. Instead, it’s much easier to find examples of when they’ve squandered them. There have been instances where it’s looked like Michigan is finally starting to right the ship, but then, after a one or two game stretch, its flaws come racing back.
“It’s a new season now, this is the postseason,” Howard said.
Maybe Howard is right and this is a new season, an entirely new team from the one that got trounced by Indiana on Thursday. Or — more likely — we’re starting a new chapter in the same story. Maybe the inconsistencies that have plagued the Wolverines will still be there on Thursday, and this year will end in the same way it began:
With dashed hopes and unmet expectations.