EAST LANSING –

Last night’s game was ugly.

Britney Spears at an open bar ugly.

And for the most of it, I couldn’t tell whether each team was trying to win or to give its in-state rival an early Valentine’s Day gift.

But despite a stink-fest, the Michigan men’s basketball team managed to stink less than the Spartans for most of the first half. The Wolverines even got out to an early five-point lead.

And Michigan finally – finally – looked like it could win a big conference road game.

Michigan State was playing terribly. The Spartans are young and were in the midst of a four-game losing streak. Good teams take advantage of that kind of thing.

And when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.

But this is Michigan basketball. And last night, when the Wolverines were given lemons, they turned them over.

Holding a two-point lead with less than a minute remaining in the first half, senior Dion Harris essentially gave the ball to the Spartans while trying to drive to the hoop.

Thirty seconds later, Michigan State demi-god Drew Neitzel hit a 3-pointer to give the Spartans a one-point lead. Before the final five seconds ticked off the clock, the Michigan media was already thinking of creative ways to write “Goodbye NCAA Tournament.”

Sure, there was a whole second half to play. And a lot can happen in twenty minutes. But when the pressure is on, Michigan handles the ball like a middle-school point guard: carelessly.

The Wolverines put up a fight, but the end result was no different than it has been all season when they face good teams on the road.

Before the game, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker called Michigan State a proud team.

And he was right. The Spartans were a proud team.

That explains why, while the Wolverines continued to play without direction, Michigan State held it together long enough to win.

The Spartans didn’t shoot the lights out in the second half, and they didn’t cut down their turnovers.

They just won.

That’s the sort of thing that happens when a program has a precedence of excellence. It doesn’t matter how bad things get – players can call upon the memories of the program’s past, conjure up the ecstasy of conference and National Championships and think of something to play for and make sure not to let those that came before down.

What does Michigan have?

A 2004 NIT Championship, the 1984 NIT Championship and a National Championship from when I was 4.

Not much else.

And when you’re forced to erase the memory of the Fab Five and, yes, another NIT Championship in 1997, the recent past doesn’t inspire much.

This year’s Michigan team can’t do anything about the past, and it can’t control what others have done before it.

But how hard must it be to have next to nothing in recent history to inspire and make one believe that no matter what people say, the Wolverines can win the big one.

Or, for that matter, can win at East Lansing.

It hasn’t happened since 1997. And neither has anything else of significance.

At a press conference earlier in the week, Amaker laughed off the idea that a loss in last night’s game would be a “death blow” to Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances.

But now that Michigan State has the inside track on a tournament bid, who’s laughing now?

– Bosch can be reached at hectobos@umich.edu.

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