As I sat through the second half of yesterday’s game, I felt myself getting wistful. Nostalgic, even.
And as I watched Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas hit a mid-range jumper with 3.5 seconds left to seal the Spartans’ 57-56 comeback win over Michigan, I couldn’t help but wonder how sweet the Wolverines’ season could have been.
Fresh off an NCAA Tournament second-round appearance, Michigan had no reason to drop off this season.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Ask anyone.
Sure, you can say the shots haven’t fallen this year, but just look at last night’s game. The Wolverines more than held their own with the Spartans, the fifth-ranked team in the nation — they were one rimmed-out layup away from the biggest win of their season. Your average .500 team hoping for an NIT bid doesn’t play like that and doesn’t showcase that level of talent.
Michigan is better than a .500 team, yet its record now stands at 10-10. The Wolverines could easily have stolen a win from Michigan State last night, no question about it.
So many times this season, Michigan has kept itself in games for so long. I’m starting to lose count of how many times I’ve left a Michigan basketball game with the same exact feeling.
But almost-wins don’t count, and we’re beyond moral victories. Worst of all, the postseason picture is fading faster and faster with each loss.
“We’re supposed to be good,” freshman point guard Darius Morris said last night. “I feel like we should start winning. Enough of this losing and learning experiences — it’s time for wins.”
It’s been time for wins all season, actually, and Michigan has consistently been in position to get them. Over and over, even when they were struggling on the offensive end, the Wolverines have had late leads in games against beatable opponents.
Imagine, for a moment, if Michigan had won just two or three of those games. Let’s pretend the Wolverines beat the Spartans last night in front of an electric Crisler Arena crowd. Instead of re-planning a weekend vacation for the middle of March, Michigan fans would be analyzing whether they should have rushed the court (again).
It’s almost unbelievable: If DeShawn Sims’s layup at the buzzer had hit a slightly different spot on the rim, and a couple of 3-pointers fell against Wisconsin, we’d be looking at this team an entirely different way.
But the reality is, in each of the games Michigan could have and should have won, the Wolverines found a way to lose. Great teams don’t do that. The Michigan States of the world hit that mid-range jumper instead of rimming out. The Michigan States of the world make the game’s final defensive stop to seal an important win.
“It hasn’t been like the teams we’ve played and lost leads to have been bad,” Sims said. “They’ve all been NCAA teams, and they prove it. They make NCAA plays when it’s the last few minutes of the game.”
When it comes down to it, that was the difference in last night’s game, and it’s the difference between an aspiring Tournament team and a disappointed Michigan squad.
I guess it’s time to play the optimist once more, and take a look at the Wolverines’ remaining games. Michigan plays best at home, so best-case scenario, it wins all five home games. The Wolverines could potentially even beat Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota on the road. That’s eight wins in ten games. But none of those eight would really be “signature wins.”
Because of Michigan’s almost-wins (also known as “losses”) in statement games, the Wolverines simply aren’t in position to make the tournament, barring a miraculous Big Ten Tournament run.
It’s a shame, honestly.
Michigan has the talent and toughness to compete with tournament teams. But because it can’t beat them, I guess we’ll have to settle for wondering what could have been.
— Auerbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.