Three-hundred and sixty one days ago when Michigan got bounced by Duke in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, fans were alright with that.
Sure, it would’ve been nice to knock off a top seed, but it was understood that there was progress made in the program. The team had bounced back from a year in which stars Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims couldn’t bring the team to the Big Dance, and Michigan had outperformed expectations.
The 2010-11 Wolverines were expected to lurk in the depths of the Big Ten standings, but they instead got hot in the second half and tied for fourth. This got them into the NCAA Tournament, where they defiled Tennessee before the Blue Devils got by them.
So, naturally, in the name of progress, Michigan would take it a step further and make the Sweet 16 this year, right?
Well, maybe right. But it’s not so simple.
The NCAA Tournament is a strange beast.
March Madness is fun and all, but it’s not the best way to find out who the best team is. So much about the tournament comes down to matchups and officiating and lucky breaks that it takes more than just a good team to survive and advance.
Virginia Commonwealth made the Final Four last year as an 11-seed. And not only were the Rams an 11-seed, but they had to win a play-in game to even earn the right to take on the six-seed in the second round.
Which do you trust more to tell you which teams are good, a 30-plus game schedule or a six-game tournament?
I say these things not to slam the NCAA Tournament — it’s the best thing going in sports — but because Michigan will get wrongly criticized if it fails to make the Sweet 16, and especially if it fails to make the third round.
Michigan coach John Beilein has already done his job this year.
He did more than bring Michigan back to the tournament. He won a Big Ten Championship and brought the team to its highest (non-vacated) NCAA Tournament seed since Trey Burke was an infant.
But beyond any of these 2011-12 accomplishments, he brought an air of permanence to Michigan basketball. By landing then-No. 2 recruit Mitch McGary, Beilein established that this was a school whose success wasn’t going to ebb and flow. It would remain constant, year after year.
No coach in today’s college basketball climate can enter a season with the sole intent of winning a national championship. The best that they can do is be in the mix every year, so when things break right, that team will be in position to take advantage.
The only way to win the lottery is to have a ticket. And the more lottery tickets you have, the more likely you are to get lucky.
This year, Beilein made strides in building Michigan into a machine that can eventually produce its own lottery tickets. Once a school gets to that point, it’s only a matter of time before the lottery bell chimes. I’ll pretend that’s a real thing.
Take Kansas. The Jayhawks hadn’t won a championship since 1988 despite consistently being a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. No one doubted that this was a top program and things eventually turned out right when Bill Self took the Jayhawks to a title in 2008.
Michigan may not get to the point where it’s a perennial top seed, but even if it’s in the three-to-ten seed range for enough years, things tend to work out. One year, the Wolverines will make the Elite Eight, and maybe the Final Four. Maybe even the National Championship.
On Friday, Michigan will face Ohio and the pressure will be on. The Wolverines are favored to win, and there will be backlash if they don’t. There will be backlash if they don’t win the game after.
But the truth is, the NCAA Tournament doesn’t care. Michigan may lose to Ohio, but it doesn’t mean that the Wolverines weren’t good enough to make the Elite Eight if they were put on a different side of the bracket. So much is left up to chance.
The Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective determined that the Bobcats had a 55-percent chance of knocking off the Wolverines. How does that make sense when it’s Michigan seeded nine spots higher?
It doesn’t, and so it shouldn’t make sense that the NCAA Tournament would decide the best team.
And so it also makes no sense to judge Michigan based on its March performance — no matter how big the stage is.
Beilein has handled what is controllable, and that’s been to bring Michigan to a position where it can contend in March for years to come.
Despite writing a column tempering expectations for Michigan, Rothschild still believes the Wolverines will reach the Sweet 16 before losing to North Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org