INDIANAPOLIS — Since missed
opportunities were the theme of this season for the Michigan
basketball team, why should Selection Sunday be any different?
Heading into the 2003-04 campaign, the post-season ban was
lifted, and Michigan should’ve done more to earn an NCAA
Tournament berth. Everyone wanted to see the Wolverines go dancing,
and the bid was theirs for the taking.
But Michigan, more or less, played its way out of the tournament
from the inside, first dropping a game at home to a scrub Boston
University team, and then falling to a pathetic Minnesota team.
When given a chance to play its way back in, Michigan lost to
Illinois, basically with a bid on the line.
And the way that the team managed to slip out of the Tournament
is alarming. While the team has shown an increased chemistry and
cohesiveness since the beginning of the season, and players’
roles are becoming more clear, these aspects were only part of the
problem for the Wolverines. There are still tons of questions that
will need to be answered as Michigan hits the NIT and enters next
The most alarming of these questions: Why can’t the team
take advantage of its opportunities?
The improbable overturning of the postseason ban by the NCAA
early this year opened the door, but the Wolverines moonwalked away
from the Tournament during the season instead of striding forward
through that door.
Michigan needed a win at Minnesota — not because of
tournament implications, but just to avoid the humiliation of
losing to a then-winless Big Ten team — but came up empty and
Michigan needed to win at Indiana against a team that, late in
the season, had no chance at the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers
generously gave the Wolverines every chance to capitalize, even
missing clutch free throws down the stretch to give Michigan
chances to tie the game. Bracey Wright might as well have shot the
ball in the wrong basket — Michigan probably would’ve
just declined the points.
And the final straw was Saturday’s more forgivable, but
still painful loss to Illinois. There wasn’t much to play for
from the Illini’s perspective. They had already wrapped up
the outright title and tourney bid.
On the other end of the court was a Michigan team playing for an
NCAA bid, but the Wolverines came out flat, were whipped in the
beginning of the game and spent the rest of the contest playing
catchup. They did a commendable job fighting their way back, but it
was too big a hole to dig out of.
I know the Illini are good, but come on. It shouldn’t have
taken a 10-minute-long slap in the face before the Wolverines
turned it up to full throttle.
The Wolverines have missed other types of opportunities as well,
failing to exploit favorable matchups game after game. Against
Illinois, freshman Courtney Sims played well, collecting 10 points
and 12 boards. If he had gotten the ball anywhere near as many
times as he should have, the freshman would’ve dropped in 20
and Michigan might be dancing.
But as much as I hate to admit it, looking forward and not
backward, the situation that sits in front on the Wolverines
isn’t all bad news.
Playing in the NIT is a good step for the program. Despite
popular opinion, the NIT does count for something. As a student and
Michigan fan, it sucks to watch this team — a team with so
much untapped potential — head into the NIT. But its
important to keep in mind that this year is one small part of a
larger picture. This is just the 2003-04 season, and Michigan still
has years and years of opportunities ahead of it. Now the team is
headed in the right direction, away from the train wreck that was
the Ed Martin scandal.
So for now, Michigan needs to let this season serve as a
reminder for the years to come: You need to take care of your own
business to play in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Wolverines
left too much of their fate up to outsiders — other teams and
selection committee members — instead of just earning their
bid on the court when they had the chances. And it came back to
If they had taken control of their own destiny earlier in the
season, Michigan would’ve been able to watch the Selection
Special on CBS to find out how high they were seeded, instead of
watching to see if they were in or out.