CHICAGO – Everyone’s well aware of the path the Michigan basketball season took.
The devastating sanctions handed down before the start of the year, the 0-6 start, the turnaround and, finally, the struggles down the stretch.
It is – well, pick a word – amazing, unfair, ironic how much the Wolverines’ trip to the Big Ten Tournament mirrored this season.
In what can only be described as a perfect microcosm of the year, Michigan ran the full gamut of emotions in Chicago.
On Thursday night came the unexpected blow: Starting point guard and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Daniel Horton badly turned his ankle on a freak play at the end of practice. For much of the day on Friday, it sounded as if Horton had no chance to go. Walking on crutches, trying to fight the swelling, Horton’s injury had the Wolverines’ backs against the wall before they even had a chance to say otherwise.
So the thinking inside the United Center became, “Write ’em off. There’s no way they can compete against Indiana if Horton can’t go.”
It’s funny how no one learned from what this team did all year.
Thirty minutes before tip-off, the Wolverines took the court to shoot around led by, of course, Daniel Horton.
Limping heavily on a noticeably taped ankle that probably had no business being walked on, let alone played on, Horton ran through drills for close to 10 minutes.
At that point, he returned the lockerroom to receive one last round of treatment before the game started.
And, with Horton at about half of his normal self, the Wolverines came out flying.
As if they were once again forced to play with that us-against-the-world mentality, Michigan played exceptionally solid for 30 minutes against an Indiana team in need of a victory to guarantee an NCAA Tournament berth, grabbing a five-point halftime lead.
Just like during the rest of the season, though, Michigan came up just short.
Just short of a regular season conference title. Just short of a bench deep enough to compete with the Wisconsins and Indianas of the world. Just short of an appearance in the Big Ten Tournament’s semifinals.
But falling within an arm’s length of accomplishing so much this year is a ridiculous improvement over the last few years.
While coming up just short might be frustrating, last year at this time, Michigan had been lapped about 15 times by the rest of the teams in the Big Ten.
Sometime between Michigan’s loss at Duke way back in December and Friday’s defeat at Indiana’s hands, the Wolverines made a trip to the garage for a serious upgrade on the Jalopy that had chugged around the Crisler Arena floor for the last few years.
It was, in fact, LaVell Blanchard who put things in perspective after Friday’s game better than anyone outside the team ever could.
“At times this was a difficult year, but it was also a beautiful year. We started working together and got closer as a team. You have to credit the players and the coaching staff who worked hard and made it like we could go to the (NCAA) Tournament every game.”
Obviously this team never could go to the tournament.
And what that means is that the Wolverines have played this entire year for one thing and one thing only: Pride.
It’s a word that had lost meaning for the basketball team in Ann Arbor in the last few years.
Pride meant not losing to Michigan State by more than 20 or grabbing a win over pitiful Penn State.
“When you come to a program you want to leave in better shape than when you came,” Blanchard said. “And hopefully we were able to do that.”
They were, and now, Michigan’s pride is that anything short of a Big Ten title is disappointing, and that losing a game – ANY game – is unacceptable.
That’s why Horton played Friday night when he probably should have been on a trainer’s table, or why Bernard Robinson dug deep enough to run the point in Horton’s stead and still guard Indiana star Tom Coverdale.
And it’s why Blanchard, whose career has never gone the direction that he envisioned it would while enduring losses and player defections and coaching changes, was able to avoid ever looking too distraught after his final game. He remained composed and told anyone who still doubted this team why they shouldn’t anymore.
The Wolverines didn’t win on Friday, meaning that their season ends without tons of fanfare.
There is no tournament trip, no NIT, no Big Ten title banners to hang.
It’s hard to feel disappointed in this team, though. They didn’t lose because they threw in the towel and didn’t care. They lost because this team is, and has been all year, still a year or two away from being spectacular.
But it didn’t stop them from doing some spectacular things this season.
The Wolverines fell just short of making a great year into the stuff of miracles.
But they’ve come so far.
Chris Burke has already booked tickets for the 2005 Final Four in anticipation of a Michigan NCAA Tournament title and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.