It’s time to face up to facts
— Michigan is better off playing in the NIT. I know, I know.
I never bought that argument, either. In my mind, that thinking was
always just a way for teams that had to play in the NIT feel
better.

Chris Burke

There’s no doubt that a trip to the NCAA Tournament could
have been nice. Sneaking into March Madness as a No. 12 or No. 13
seed would have been thrilling for a program that’s on the
upswing — but it also would have most likely meant the
Wolverines’ season would have ended last Thursday or Friday
after a first-round exit.

Instead, the Wolverines keep playing. And, despite the fact that
no one would ever confuse the NCAA Tournament with the NIT,
it’s hard to discount how valuable a couple of postseason
wins could be for a program that’s been longing for that type
of success for so long.

“I’m hoping it’s going to do a world of
wonders for our team and our kids,” Michigan coach Tommy
Amaker said. “I’m sure that it will. Having been there
myself and been a part of it as a player and as a coach, you
can’t even imagine the confidence that this program and this
team is going to feel in the months and years to come.”

Let’s also not ignore what these wins mean for this team
and this program right now. Last night’s 63-52 victory gave
Michigan victory No. 20 — the first time the Wolverines have
reached that number since the 1997-98 season, and Michigan
forfeited those 25 wins away thanks to self-imposed sanctions.

“I’m very pleased for our team to get our 20th
win,” Amaker said. “I said before that there are not
many college basketball teams that are still practicing right now
and have the chance to play — we are fortunate to be one of
those teams.”

This little NIT run has also meant two (three come tomorrow)
nationally televised games in front of raucous home crowds.
Michigan’s also three wins away from hanging the first
legitimate banner in Crisler Arena’s rafters since the 1989
National Championship.

You can’t overlook the impact things like those can have
on this program. With every victory — and especially every
postseason victory — Michigan lands, the Wolverines shove the
program’s past embarrassment further away.

And you can already see this team taking steps forward in the
present. The biggest knock on Michigan this year was that it
didn’t have that many quality wins, and that the Wolverines
couldn’t finish games down the stretch.

Well, in a week, Michigan has recorded two quality wins, and
done so while doing the little things that are necessary late in
close contests.

“We thought we could use this tournament as a springboard
for next year,” sophomore center Chris Hunter said.
“We’ve got a group of young guys playing key minutes
— I think we’re getting better, we’re playing
more mature.”

Don’t forget, either, that Michigan hasn’t played in
a postseason game since losing to Notre Dame in the first round of
the 2000 NIT. That means that the total number of players on this
year’s roster that have played in the postseason is zero.

That number isn’t very conducive to making a huge NCAA
Tournament run. But, next year, Michigan will have at least three
NIT games (and possibly an NIT title) to fall back on. Forget that
the Wolverines got to play in Crisler. Forget that it’s not
the NCAA Tournament. Regardless of any outside factors, the
Wolverines will learn more from continuing to play in the NIT than
they would have from a humbling first-round NCAA Tournament loss to
a Kansas or Maryland.

“Playing in the postseason this year will help us out in
the future,” sophomore forward Graham Brown said.
“We’re going to have some confidence knowing that we
won a couple of games in the postseason this year.”

It’s not a cop-out, though I know it sounds like it. The
Wolverines claimed that they were honored to be back in the
postseason, that they were excited and ready. They claimed that
they would take full advantage of the trip to the postseason and
that the NIT could be just as valuable as an NCAA Tournament berth
— no one bought a word.

But with two wins in the books and a third postseason home game
coming tomorrow, the Wolverines are turning people into
believers.

And if the experience now translates into a quick start and an
NCAA Tournament spot for Michigan next year, then it will be hard
to argue with the results.

 

Chris Burke can be reached at
“mailto:chrisbur@umich.edu”>chrisbur@umich.edu

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