INDIANAPOLIS — Legacies are supposed to be easy to pin down.
A team’s season was a disappointment, a fairytale, one to remember or anything but.
But what is the legacy of this one, the 2013-14 Michigan men’s basketball team — the one that entered the year with so much promise, only to fall flat in November and December before rolling off 10 straight wins en route to a runaway Big Ten Championship?
Last season’s team was supposed to be good, but its shocking run to No. 1, and six weeks later, to the national title game, stole our hearts because it was so unexpected.
This year, for the first time since the Fab Five left Ann Arbor, a Final Four wasn’t just a goal.
“Last year, we just wanted to get there,” said Glenn Robinson III. “We knew we could, but we just wanted to get there. This year, we expected to be back in the same position and we expected to make it to the Final Four.”
Sunday night, they were close. But they fell short when Nik Stauskas’ desperation heave caromed off the backboard to bring the Wolverines’ season to an end.
The season was a letdown — sort of.
“I remember that day when we lost to Arizona,” Stauskas said, his eyes still red and moist. “We were 6-4, and even Coach Beilein told us, he said, ‘If we keep playing like this, we’re not going to make the tournament.’ That was the day that everything turned around.”
It was also the last day that Mitch McGary played in a Michigan uniform, and when it was announced a few days later that he would likely miss the rest of the season, all bets were off.
But just when it seemed like the wheels had come off, the team started to play like it was supposed to all along. It won. At Minnesota, in Madison, against Michigan State twice.
“We won the Big Ten by three games. Who the hell would’ve thought that?” said sophomore guard Spike Albrecht.
They did it as a team, too. Sure, Stauskas was the Big Ten Player of the Year and one of the best scorers in the land, but he was also the team’s best passer.
It started at the top, though, with Jordan Morgan, the consummate underdog who was doubted every step of the way — from his recruitment in high school to his ability to defend bigger opponents in the final few games of his career.
Like its captain, the team, too, was doubted until the end. Picked by many to lose each of their last three games, the players embraced their underdog role.
“People are going to definitely remember the fact that no one expected us to be in this position, no one wanted us — I’ll say wanted — no one wanted us to be here right now,” Robinson said. “We had that target on our backs once again. We came out and used that to our advantage and played as hard as we could every single night.
“People are going to remember this team for its hardworking guys that no one thought could do it.”
So, in a sense, they did it. Without McGary, without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., they were 2.3 seconds and a perfectly defended fadeaway 3-pointer away from a second Final Four in as many years. It was a disappointment and an accomplishment wrapped into one.
But they’ll be back.
“The sun will come up tomorrow,” said a smiling Michigan coach John Beilein. “I’ll have a cup of coffee — it won’t taste as good as it might’ve tasted, as it tasted for these last few games, but I’m really pleased with the direction of the program.”
So maybe that feeling is this team’s legacy — one defined not by an isolated season, but a cemented program.
Players come and then they go, and in the next two weeks, a few likely will. But the Michigan program is going nowhere but up. We’ll probably never see another Jordan Morgan at Michigan under Beilein — a scholarship player who had to scrap and claw and work harder than everyone just to prove that he really did belong.
Ann Arbor is now a basketball destination — a place where Final Fours, and not just NCAA Tournament bids, like during Morgan’s early years, are the expectation.
“That’s all it ever was, just get better every year,” Morgan said, tears running down his face.
There won’t be a Final Four banner from this team, but if it taught us anything, it’s that there will be another sometime soon.
Daniel Wasserman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @d_wasserman.