INDIANAPOLIS – There were definitely some red, puffy eyes in the Michigan lockerroom after the Wolverines’ heartbreaking 75-68 loss to Ohio State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
And for once, the tears weren’t just falling from the face of senior captain Chris Young.
Whether it was the six seniors, whose careers ended that night – most of whom were playing in their final game of organized basketball – or the freshmen who tasted their first-ever postseason defeat at this level, there were definitely feelings of disappointment.
This time, the Wolverines were actually visibly upset that they didn’t win. They were disappointed that they put it all on the line, played their hearts out and had nothing to show for it.
It was a feeling that Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said his team hasn’t felt in “a long time.”
And why shouldn’t they feel like that?
When Ohio State jumped out to a 15-2 lead and was scorching from the floor, Michigan didn’t buckle. Even when the Wolverines shot a dismal 1-9 to start the game, they didn’t lay down and die like they have in the past. Instead, they dug deep, took some pride and as Amaker said “played to win” instead of playing “not to lose.”
Not that it makes up for another frustrating season, another ugly record (11-18), or another 10th-place finish in the Big Ten. But it put some warm, fuzzy feelings in the hearts of Michigan fans and gave them some optimism for the future.
“They get credit for battling at a time where people were giving us up for dead – thinking that we’d thrown the towel in,” Amaker said. “We knew that we hadn’t done that all year. They responded very well and made our fans very proud of an ending to a season that wasn’t necessarily a great one for us.”
It’s easy to give credit to a team playing inspired basketball for six seniors, who have been so instrumental to the team the past four years. It’s easy to lay it on the line when your own season is in danger of ending. It’s easy to get motivated when the slate is wiped clean and you’re playing in a “new season,” as most of the Wolverines called it.
It’s easy to feel desperation when “your backs are against the wall.”
But good teams – the Dukes, Marylands and Kansas of the sport – don’t wait until their season is on the line to play inspired basketball. They don’t need to wait until the final game of the season to play for the seniors. And a “new season” for them is the one that begins in early November, not March.
And therefore, their backs aren’t against the wall in the first round of a conference tournament.
“We took the approach that we all were seniors, and that it was all of our last games,” said junior LaVell Blanchard.
Said Young, who was playing in his last game: “With our backs against the wall, we wanted to step up and show everyone in our conference who we are and what we’re capable of doing.”
Blanchard, the expected leader on next year’s Michigan team, needs to be one of the guys who ingrain it in the Wolverines’ heads that you have to play every game like it’s your last – not just the final ones.
Amaker has to explain to a young group of Wolverines that road challenges at Bowling Green, San Francisco and Colorado State – games you’re supposed to win – are even more credible proving grounds about what a team is “made of.”
The Wolverines’ backs were against the wall all season, they just didn’t realize it. The had pressure to prove that last season’s embarrassing 10-18 finish was just a fluke. They wanted to show that such a finish was unacceptable for someone wearing a maize and blue jersey, that it wasn’t “being Michigan,” as Amaker calls it. All of this would seem like enough incentive for any team.
But that’s not all.
Stopping a merciless string of four straight 20-point defeats late this season, a school record, should be enough to get players visibly upset enough to say, “This isn’t going to happen again.”
Granted, maybe Amaker’s long-term goals and lessened expectations of this team’s win-loss record and postseason aspirations had something to do with it. After some games, Amaker wouldn’t hesitate in humbly stating that he was still pleased with how his team played and how much effort they gave, even if they did lose.
But with Amaker’s first season in the books, and his proverbial “honeymoon” as new Michigan coach running out, such complacency will inevitably turn into urgency.
As Amaker knows, if he ever wants the Michigan program to follow in the likes of his alma mater, Duke, his Wolverines have to start developing the “playing to win” mentality every night.
Another “new season” for Michigan will begin early this November. Hopefully the Wolverines will play like it.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.