I’ll admit it. I didn’t believe them.
At least in my mind, playing in the NIT was like going to the
prom with Britney Spears’ cousin. It’s nice. But it
really doesn’t come close to the real thing.
So when I went down to Crisler Arena on Monday and listened to
player after player tell me that they were excited to play in
college basketball’s second-best postseason tournament (out
of two), I was skeptical.
Sure, they had to say that, I thought. But it’s only the
NIT. I thought back to when Georgetown declined its invite to the
2002 NIT so that its players could go to class. I found it hard to
believe that the Wolverines were as motivated to win the thing as
they made it seem.
But Michigan proved me wrong. It pulled out a gutsy win last
night. And everyone from rows one through three whose drink was
spilled by one of the many diving Wolverines knows how badly the
team wanted it.
Just watching the game, you wouldn’t have known that
Sunday night the players gathered on campus with a hope of getting
into the NCAA Tournament, only to learn that they weren’t
going to reach their season-long goal. The NIT was the team’s
first postseason appearance since 1999-00. But it wasn’t what
the Wolverines were shooting for.
Yet they stepped out onto the floor last night and played like
everything was still on the line.
“We had to play right away,” said Michigan coach
Tommy Amaker of the team’s quick turnaround between games.
“So we didn’t have time to think about it or feel sorry
for ourselves about the other tournament.”
Daniel Horton was the poster boy for that effort. With less than
30 seconds remaining, the sophomore guard laid the ball in to put
his team up three and came down in pain. He struggled up the floor,
stumbling once or twice on his injured leg, and then he actually
jumped into the pile under the Missouri rim at the other end of the
floor to tip a loose ball to senior Bernard Robinson.
He could barely walk off the court during the ensuing dead ball.
But the pain didn’t stop him from putting himself on the line
when his team needed a rebound. Even if it was just the NIT.
“We pride ourselves on getting loose balls,” forward
Brent Petway said. “We know that those can lead to big
Yeah, the Wolverines did give up a 20-3 run in the second half
and allowed a nine-point lead to become an eight-point deficit. I
couldn’t help but think about some of the other second-half
lapses that have doomed the Wolverines this year (see Minnesota,
Michigan State, to name a few).
But Michigan hustled its way back in the last 10 minutes, when
it could have just as easily have rolled over and let things get
out of hand.
“There’s a lot of teams that aren’t playing
right now, so it’s not that hard to get motivated,”
Playing at home didn’t hurt either. The crowd at Crisler
Arena wasn’t huge, but it was loud. Michigan has always
seemed much more comfortable at home this year, anyway.
If the team keeps playing as hard as it did last night, it could
go deep into this thing.
In the end, I guess I was wrong. Maybe when you haven’t
been to a prom in a number of years, it doesn’t really matter
who you go with.