For Michigan fans, the ending to the 2010-11 men’s basketball campaign was the definition of bittersweet.
Minutes after Darius Morris missed the game-tying shot in the final seconds of the tournament matchup with Duke, the then-sophomore point guard walked back onto the court to relive the moment. He used an invisible ball to re-enact the floater that he missed — the same floater that he sunk nine times out of 10 during the regular season.
Wolverine fans who hadn’t yet emptied out of Time Warner Cable Arena watched on, not knowing how to react. Such a narrow loss to the top-seeded Blue Devils stung, and watching Morris cling to that moment made it harder to forget. But the future was bright — so bright that it seemed as though Morris was practicing that shot for next year.
There’s always next season, right?
There wasn’t a single fourth-year player on the team, after all, and Morris would be back with a chip on his shoulder. Incoming freshman guard Trey Burke, widely regarded as the top player in Ohio, would back up Morris. And that meant Stu Douglass would finally be able to stick to his natural shooting guard position for his senior year.
Jon Horford would nurse his knee this offseason and develop into a viable back-up for Jordan Morgan at center, which meant that the relatively undersized Evan Smotrycz could revert to his natural position at forward. There would be no more Jared Sullinger-Smotrycz mismatches in the post.
Tim Hardaway Jr. would work on his ball-handling. Morgan would work on avoiding fouls. Matt Vogrich would try to grow a few inches.
And Morris would lead the charge to the 2012 NCAA Final Four in New Orleans.
Well, as we now know, that probably wasn’t what Morris was thinking when he took the court again after that heartbreaking loss against Duke. As he relived those final seconds, maybe he was wondering if that was his last shot in a Michigan uniform. Maybe he needed closure because he knew he wouldn’t get that shot again.
Maybe Morris knew then that he’d never make it to the Final Four.
On Wednesday, he made it official — he’s keeping his name in the 2011 NBA Draft to fulfill his life-long dream of playing at the professional level. And in all honesty, Darius Morris made the best decision for Darius Morris.
It’s easy to say that another year with the Wolverines would have improved his draft stock, but it’s a lot harder to actually come back and perform better than 15 points and 6.7 assists per game (his sophomore-year numbers).
Morris was simply selling himself high, and he’ll likely be picked in the first round because of it.
But it was more personal for Michigan fans who, on Wednesday, said goodbye to the 2011-12 season that could have been. Although Morris’s announcement was not apocalyptic, there’s no doubt it was a significant blow to the team’s postseason expectations. Michigan still has talent, but last season, the Wolverines were only as good as their floor general.
My look into the crystal ball has next year’s squad making it back to the NCAA Tournament. But after Morris’s announcement, Michigan dropped from Final Four potential to an early-round exit.
Burke will probably earn the starting job at point guard, having to fill in some very large shoes. And although there’s no doubt that the Columbus-native has talent (he averaged 24 points and seven assists in his senior season), it’s hard to rely on a freshman running the point in such a guard-heavy offense. Just ask Morris how his rookie year went, when he averaged 4.4 points per game while starting much of the 2009-10 season.
If you’re searching for a real silver lining from the announcement, you have to look past next season. You have to look at the coaching staff that built a mediocre point guard into one of the top playmakers in the nation. And you have to look at the high school stars that raised their eyebrows when Morris made his decision official.
As much as we’d like to think that players come to Michigan for the school’s tradition and winning attitude, the top recruits want to play at programs that will help them become NBA-ready. And on Wednesday, Beilein became a coach that does just that — after two seasons in Ann Arbor, Morris may become the program’s first first-round draft pick since Jamal Crawford was taken eighth overall 11 years ago.
Maybe that’s why the Wolverines’ roster features three sons of former NBA players — and a fourth committed for two seasons from now in Glenn Robinson III. Maybe their fathers genuinely believed that Beilein could turn their boys into men — the same kind of men they became in their college years.
So, maybe Michigan effectively traded next year’s expectations for long-term recruiting success, and it may take time for us to see if it actually pans out. But for now, fans can only hope that eventually, the sweetness will outweigh the bitterness.