CHICAGO — It’s funny how one 40-minute game can combine so many storylines from an entire 31-game season. For the Michigan basketball team, yesterday’s 58-56 loss to Northwestern was a pretty close representation of this season as a whole — a combination of errors that was devastating at times and an end result that didn’t cost the Wolverines as much as it could.
The first half saw Michigan grab an early eight-point lead and enter the locker room at halftime up by six. At the beginning of this season, Michigan was able to put together a decent nonconference record (8-5) that helped set up an early 3-0 run in conference play.
But then trouble set in. Northwestern went on a 12-0 run in the second half and never looked back. During the Big Ten season, the Wolverines amassed a 10-game losing streak and they never recovered.
In the waning minutes yesterday, Michigan decided to make things interesting and battled hard to close out the game. But it ultimately came up short and lost by two. In the last two games of the season — against Iowa on Saturday and Northwestern yesterday — the Wolverines lost close games in the final seconds. They took the Hawkeyes into overtime and lost to the Wildcats in the final 10 seconds yesterday.
So after a rollercoaster season, it only seemed fitting that Michigan would play its last game of the 2004-05 season in the same fashion. But the last phase of both yesterday’s game and the final loss of the regular season showed that this team wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and that they desired to play hard for 40 minutes — something that was lacking at times earlier this year.
Michigan coach Tommy Amaker was asked at the postgame press conference what he could take away from this season, and he said he wasn’t sure at the time if there was anything. But I would be willing to say that he and the players should take pride in the way they played in the final two games.
After three uninspired losses to Purdue, Minnesota and Ohio State earlier this season, I was convinced that the Wolverines wouldn’t play a competitive game again. I mean, who could blame them? This isn’t the way the season was supposed to go.
But the last two games showed that these players were still motivated to win, and the talent lost to injuries probably would have been enough to put Michigan over the top in both games. The losses to Purdue and Ohio State were due to missing talented players and a lack of effort. Yesterday’s loss was due to the reduction of talent. All I want from a team is to leave it all on the floor at the end of the day. It seems that it took until the end of the season before Michigan began to regain that competitive edge.
“I think (yesterday’s game) shows the competitiveness of our kids,” Amaker said. “It’s been a tough year for all of us, but I think they’ve shown the heart and character they have by the way they kept fighting.”
I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t care about effort. I want wins!” Well, that just wasn’t in the cards this season. I’m not going to lie and say that Michigan didn’t squander games it could have won earlier this season — the loss to Illinois is a great example. But the fact remains that Michigan didn’t live up to the preseason hype, and people needed to adjust their expectations as each player went down to injury or suspension.
I’m also not saying that simply plugging Lester Abram and Daniel Horton into yesterday’s lineup would have equaled instant victory. Both are great players, but nearly the exact same team couldn’t get it done in the Big Ten Tournament last season either.
Ultimately, what it boils down to is effort. Illinois showed that even putting the more talented lineup on the floor doesn’t guarantee a victory, as it pulled off just a seven-point win over Michigan earlier this year. Amaker has been talking about trying to get Michigan in a “position to win” all season, and it seems he has finally been able to that — complete with a patchwork lineup — in the last two games.
Talent can only get you so far, and even with Horton and Abram returning to the lineup next year, everyone will need to give it their all every night. Or else, Michigan could find itself watching March Madness at the end of next season, again, as opposed to actually dancing in it.
Brian Schick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.