The Michigan men’s basketball team is in a slump as it enters the beast that is the Breslin Center the night of Jan. 27, 2011. Losers of six straight games and carrying a 1-6 conference record, the Wolverines are in East Lansing having not won there since 1997. Up 57-55 with 33.3 seconds left against Michigan State, Darius Morris catches an inbounds pass from the sideline.
Before the game, John Beilein told Morris to shoot it if the Spartans went through a ball screen. This was news for a player who led the team in assists and would go on to set a single-season program record in the statistic.
As Morris dribbles over half court, Keith Appling guards him before switching off as Morris gets to the free-throw line. With the shot clock down to four, Morris plants his lead foot on the Spartan logo in the paint and dishes the rock toward Stu Douglass, who stands behind the 3-point line on the right side of the court.
“It’s only fair to say that game was an inflection point of where the program’s heading,” said Zach Novak. “If we win this game, the season is turned around. … If we could win that game, we could win any game.”
* * *
After a disappointing 2009-10 season, not much was expected of Michigan in 2010-11. The team had lost its four tallest players and two leading scorers — Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims — and was picked to finish last in the Big Ten.
With no seniors on the squad, the team lacked any true veterans besides Douglass and Novak.
The preparation for the season started earlier than usual for the Wolverines. Allowed an overseas trip every four years, the team traveled to Belgium to play four games against professional teams. Beilein found it to be advantageous for such a young team to begin practicing in August.
The team went 1-3 on the Europe tour.
“Everyone was like, ‘Oh, they’re going to suck,’ even though we were playing top-level professional teams,” said Jordan Morgan, then a redshirt freshman. “Our expectations for the team were extremely low.”
“I don’t even think the coaches necessarily thought that we could be an NCAA team,” said Jon Horford. “That’s not to say they didn’t want that to ultimately be the result, but I would not say going in the season that this was going to be a tournament team.”
After opening the regular season with three straight wins, the Wolverines went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to play in the Legends Classic against No. 9 Syracuse and UTEP. Michigan would lose to both, though just by three to the Orange — its first of six losses to ranked opponents by fewer than 10 points that season.
Despite the losses, though, Beilein saw potential in his team. With a trip to Clemson on the horizon for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, Beilein saw an opening to get the the Wolverines back on track, as well as an opportunity to get the program its first win in the challenge in five years.
“We went to Clemson, I remember that — that was like a place that was a checkmark on everybody’s schedule,” Beilein said. “If you can win at Clemson with this young team, and then we went and we won by double digits. That was a moment we said, ‘Wow, we could be onto something with this group. Just stay the course with what we’re doing.’ ”
And for a while, that’s just what Michigan did, winning seven straight games.
Then came the stretch from hell.
At Wisconsin, home against No. 3 Kansas and No. 2 Ohio State, at Indiana and Northwestern, and home against No. 15 Minnesota.
Michigan would win none of those games.
“It was frustrating,” Morgan said. “Everybody was kind of frustrated. We couldn’t really get it together. They weren’t all bad losses. We lost some close games, games we think we should have won.”
Indeed, the Wolverines could have won a few of them.
It went to overtime against Kansas, before the Jayhawks pulled away to win 67-60. And it nearly made up a 12-point second-half deficit against the Buckeyes. But it came up short in each of those.
* * *
Douglass catches the ball with less than five seconds on the shot clock and 23 seconds left in the game.
It’s decision time. Draymond Green is approaching Douglass, ready to defend.
The fate of Michigan’s season, the team’s well-being and perhaps even Beilein’s tenure are riding on what Douglass does next.
Douglass’ fingers are caressing the ball. Green is about to jump in his face.
A decision needs to be made immediately to not only determine the fate of the game, but the fate of the program.
* * *
Though Michigan battled, the losing streak continued. The team got blown out at Indiana and then suffered an embarrassing 14-point loss to Northwestern.
With a new coaching staff, including first-year assistant coaches Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan, as well as Jeff Meyer in his first full year on the sideline, a new culture was in place.
But if Michigan didn’t turn it around quickly, a culture change might have been necessary. Beilein might not have been back at the helm for a fifth year.
As much as the coaching staff helped preach a new mindset, it was up to the players to adapt it.
“It was getting to a point where we had to put our minds where we could make a change,” Morgan said.
It was following the Northwestern game that Beilein tried to instill confidence in his downward-spiraling team.
“I remember Coach (Beilein) telling that team they’re going to be an NCAA Tournament (team),” Alexander said. “This team, this program, is going to be in the NCAA Tournament. And we lost that game, and I thought it inspired a belief and gave the group some hope.”
But things only got worse when Michigan lost to Minnesota by five.
“When you look at the Minnesota game, it was just a perfect storm,” Alexander said, “a culmination of us trying to find our identity at a time when we were still establishing that on the court.”
For Beilein, the pressure was mounting. After being ranked in the preseason a year earlier and then ultimately missing out on the NCAA Tournament and NIT, some began to call for his job after the 1-6 conference start.
“I think he probably was (on the hot seat),” Morgan said. “One year, you’re going to the tournament. The next year, you’re ranked in the preseason and we didn’t even make the NIT. To come in and have another terrible season … I think that put a lot of pressure on him. It put pressure on the players. We just wanted to do well.”
Added Beilein: “It was a real low point in that season. And in my coaching tenure, it was a low point.”
Beilein wanted to believe the type of play the team showed in the non-conference season and in earlier losses would come back. Michigan had played too many close games to not show anything for its effort. But at the same time, Beilein had his doubts.
“I know in this business, when you’re paid my salary, when you have this type of commitment to the basketball program, you’re not going to survive — you have to win enough games,” he said. “One and six in the Big Ten. So, do we go 1-17? That’s going through your mind sometimes. When you lose at Northwestern by 25 points, right? And you lose to Minnesota at home. You’re thinking, ‘When are we going to win another game?’ ”
* * *
Beilein called the team out after the Minnesota game. The players knew their effort wasn’t enough.
They decided to hold a players-only meeting to hash things out. They had to become more accountable. They had to become more coachable.
They’d had flashes of good play but couldn’t put it together. The players believed in Beilein’s principles. They believed they truly had the pieces for a good team.
“It was like a coming-to-Jesus meeting almost,” Novak said. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Alright, it’s time to turn this around.’ ”
At some point, the team had to click. But with Michigan State next on the docket, would it happen in East Lansing?
“We had nobody with really any experience playing (at Michigan State) or being successful there,” Morgan said. “Going there, we didn’t know what to expect, especially the way things had been going.”
* * *
Without hesitation, Douglass releases the ball from his hands. Green is hanging in the air.
“When I shot it, Draymond (Green) contested it pretty well,” Douglass wrote in an e-mail. “I didn’t even really see the shot until it was touching the net.”
Taking a high-arcing path, the ball rotates toward the basket as the players on Michigan’s bench rise from their seats.
Seemingly in slow motion, the ball swishes through the net. Michigan is up by five with less than 20 seconds left in the game.
“What sticks out the most from that game was the silence from the crowd after the shot,” Douglass said. “The energy of the building was immediately gone. That possession was so charged up and loud, and once the shot went in, it was immediately flat. You could feel the disappointment of their fans.
“Not many things beat hearing the silence of an opposing crowd that hates you.”
* * *
Michigan would end up going 7-3 after beating the Spartans to finish 9-9 in the Big Ten — good for a tie for fourth in the conference. The Wolverines would beat Michigan State again at home to conclude the regular season.
Earning a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan would cruise past Illinois in a quarterfinals matchup to prove itself worthy of an at-large NCAA bid.
Garnering an eight-seed, the Wolverines destroyed Tennessee in the second round, 75-45, as five players scored in double-digits and two more tallied eight points each in a laughingstock of a second half.
Michigan would nearly topple No. 1 Duke in the next round, but a Morris runner with two seconds left missed, sealing a 73-71 win for the Blue Devils.
While the loss ended Michigan’s season, it would have ended much sooner were it not for Douglass’ shot.
Without his shot, Michigan may not have snapped its six-game losing streak. It may not have snapped its losing streak at Michigan State.
But instead, the shot opened up doors for Michigan.
Soon, it was winning an NCAA Tournament game. Then, winning a share of the Big Ten title. Soon after, making it all the way to the NCAA Championship game and the Elite Eight after that.
The success fans associate with Michigan and Beilein would not have existed without the shot.
Without that shot, Beilein might have lost his job. And who knows what would have happened next?
Without that shot, the success of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and the Fresh Five might not have come to fruition.
Without that shot, Michigan might not have flipped the script against the Spartans and won five out of seven meetings since.
“I think winning that game helped legitimize the growth we were making as a program at that time in the eyes of fans and recruits,” Douglass said.
The overlooked guard from Carmel, Indiana, hit the shot that saved the overlooked team.
When the Breslin Center cleared out, where there had been chaos, there was calm.