INDIANAPOLIS – The scenario was crystal clear:
Win and earn a trip to the Big Dance. Lose and prepare to enjoy another thrilling ride in the NIT.
Only a below-average Minnesota team, playing a below-average game, stood in Michigan’s path.
It seemed like the coast was clear for a Michigan victory and its first NCAA Tournament bid in nearly a decade.
There was only one problem.
The Wolverines couldn’t get out of their own way.
Michigan’s implosion certainly wasn’t unprecedented; the team has rightfully earned a reputation for folding in big games. But the magnitude and significance of yesterday’s collapse surpasses any previous choke-job of the Tommy Amaker era.
Granted, Minnesota brought solid defensive pressure and hit the boards hard, which is what you’d expect from a hopelessly overmatched team with nothing to lose. Still, Michigan’s “C” game would have been enough to win the game comfortably.
But the Wolverines didn’t bring their “C” game. They brought their “F” game.
Michigan threw up bricks all day, connecting on just 38 percent of its shots. The team was even worse from downtown, shooting just 18 percent. And the Wolverines couldn’t take care of the ball, committing 21 turnovers.
Amazingly, Minnesota nearly matched Michigan’s futility in each of those categories. It appeared that the Gophers were trying their hardest to hand the Wolverines an undeserved victory.
To start, Minnesota turned the ball over six times in the opening six minutes. But Michigan couldn’t capitalize and never opened up a double-digit lead.
To finish, Minnesota missed eight free throws in the last 90 seconds, leaving the door wide open for a Michigan comeback. But the Wolverines responded by missing five relatively open looks from 3-point range. Had they made just two of those shots, they would be dancing.
The missed opportunities at the beginning and end were maddening. But they were overshadowed by Michigan’s total breakdown in the middle of the second half.
As Minnesota stepped up the defensive pressure, the Wolverines simply freaked out – there’s no other phrase to describe it. Michigan’s 14 second-half turnovers weren’t the forgivable type that result from aggressive drives and passes. Nope.
They were the deer-in-the-headlights turnovers. The ones that occur 30 feet away from the hoop. The ones that come from playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
Coming in, no one questioned Michigan’s athletic superiority. But in the second half, Minnesota – normally a slow-it-down, grind-it-out type of squad — excelled at the showtime game. Time and time again, the Gophers raced past the Wolverines in transition, converting easy undefended lay-ups. On the other end, Michigan slowed the tempo and dribbled the ball around the perimeter, usually finishing its possession with a turnover or missed jumper.
Watching Minnesota simply rip the ball out of Ron Coleman and Dion Harris’s hands, I could only sadly conclude that Michigan didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to come away with the win.
Unfortunately, the Wolverines seemed to agree. As Minnesota surged ahead in the second frame, I expected to see Michigan ratchet up the focus and intensity. Instead, I saw hands on hips, resigned expressions and, most shockingly, a lack of hustle from a Wolverine squad that had everything to lose.
With the team overthinking and underworking, Amaker could have taken steps to reassert Michigan’s athletic superiority. In the last 1:21, the Wolverines’ desperate full-court press led to two Minnesota turnovers and two timeouts. But just a minute earlier, with the team down by seven, Amaker had his troops in a quarter-court zone-trap. Because Michigan wasn’t pressuring the basketball, Minnesota dribbled down the shot clock. Ultimately, Amaker’s decision to go to the press came too late to put the Wolverines over the top.
But tactical errors weren’t the primary reason for the defeat. Neither were the referees’ calls or the bad bounces.
Instead, the lack of a killer instinct did in the Wolverines, as it has so often in the past. Standing at 6-2 in the Big Ten just over a month ago, Michigan needed three victories in nine games to make a strong case for an NCAA Tournament berth. But the Wolverines won just two, and they are now left on a rapidly shrinking bubble that can’t handle the weight of their failure down the stretch.
On Sunday, Michigan’s most talented team in years will gather to watch CBS’s coverage of Selection Sunday. But instead of confidently waiting for Greg Gumbel to announce where Michigan will dance, the Wolverines will be hoping against hope that the selection committee awards them a bid they don’t really deserve.
But regardless of the committee’s decision, this group’s legacy is now set. They’ll forever be the team that couldn’t win the big game.
– Matt Singer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stats don’t lie
38 – Percentage from field (21 for 56)
18 – Three-point percentage (4 for 22)
21 – Number of turnovers committed
14 – Turnovers in the second half alone