STATE COLLEGE — They hopped a plane on Saturday afternoon, these Wolverines, and began the short journey to Happy Valley, dreams dancing through their heads uncontrollably, as if they were again the naïve children they once were.

They knew full well what lay ahead of them, what one more win — one final triumph in the long, dark alleyway otherwise known as the Big Ten conference schedule, where street fights masquerade as basketball games — would give them.

They knew there was a chance that the countless hours spent grunting through another mundane set in the weight room, the myriad windsprints that tore at their lungs and the endless film sessions that sometimes left their heads spinning would end in their redemption. There was a chance it would end in the exoneration of the sometimes-ascetic life they had doomed themselves to as Division-I basketball players.

Yet it was only that — a chance. These Michigan players could do their part by defeating Penn State, one of the conference’s ugly ducklings this season. But after that, they were powerless, dependent on their school’s most hated rival to finish the job for them and elevate them to a place no Wolverine had been for more than a quarter of a century.

It’s a cruel fate, not being in control. Above all else, athletes crave the ability to settle matters themselves. They need to know that their efforts alone are the only elements necessary for the fulfillment of their goals. Michigan gave that up, though, when it fell to Purdue on senior night a week ago.

***
As the Wolverines filed into their hotel rooms on Saturday night, as they filed onto the bus to head to the Bryce Jordan Center yesterday, as they went through the monotony of their pregame warmups and as they finally escaped with a 71-65 win over the Nittany Lions that was more draining than it need have been, the spirits of seasons past danced above their heads.

No, these weren’t the spirits of the dead, of those who donned the colors long ago and now lie in eternal rest. These were the spirits of men very much alive, but whose greatness and pedigree still ride the winds in search of what they could not seize.

They were the spirits of the greats, those who have a claim to hallowed spots in their program’s lore — Rice, Robinson, Rose. They were the spirits of those who weren’t quite as talented, but who still gave everything they had to Michigan — Blanchard, Robinson Jr., Horton, Abram, Sims.

They were even the spirits of those who had no peer on the court but who shamed their school off it — Webber, Traylor, Bullock.

They still drift aimlessly because, for all they achieved, they never won their conference’s ultimate prize. But you can be sure they were swirling as the Wolverines landed back in Ann Arbor on Sunday evening in time to see William Buford’s jumper sink the Spartans.

***
The Michigan basketball team is Big Ten co-champions for the first time since 1986, and it still seems like just a dream bouncing around the heads of its unsung players.

The Wolverines were to picked to finish near the top of the league before the season, but most expected the Buckeyes to run away with it. Nobody expected Michigan State to be as strong as it is, or for the conference to be, far and away, the best league in the land. Yet Michigan navigated a tougher road than it imagined it would have to traverse in getting all the way to the top.

It’s a testament to Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, two seniors who have been the embodiment of leadership. They joined a program that was lying dormant and took it back to its rightful place, proving wrong all those who doubted them and their team the whole way through.

But mostly, it’s a testament to John Beilein. Behind the unimposing face of the mid-major lifer lies a searing basketball mind that never stops, never slows, in driving endlessly for ever-higher goals.

His team this season really isn’t that talented. It doesn’t have a bonafide all-star. It has a couple players that will probably make the NBA some day, but nobody that’s going to set the league on fire.

Beilein, this season, had essentially the same team that he had last year — a squad that went 8-8 in the conference. Trey Burke is more dynamic than Darius Morris, while Novak and Douglass are improved. But Tim Hardaway Jr. and Evan Smotrycz have been worse players overall, and the bench is even thinner.

But this edition has been more disciplined. The players have been tougher and have played smarter — that comes from coaching.

Beilein, with his tactical genius and subtle powers as a motivator, has squeezed more out of this group than any could have thought possible. He probably won’t win Big Ten Coach of the Year, but he deserves it. Those who called for his firing during the early lows of last season, and those who questioned his hiring in the first place, now seem sillier than ever.

Michigan has been yearning for its program’s promised reascendance, for the return of the days when its name was synonymous with basketball power. This season isn’t over yet, but with this championship, that day has come.

“We want to get back (to the top), but to get there, you have these mini-goals, and this was one of them,” Beilein said after the Penn State game.

But thanks to his own rebuilding mastery, the days of the mini-goals are over. The sleeping giant that was Michigan is slumbering no more.

This season isn’t over yet. It’s time for the big goals, now, and irrevocably, in the future.

Estes can be reached at benestes@umich.edu or on Twitter, @benestes91

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