When the Michigan men’s basketball team jumped out to a hot 16-3 start, few expected it to be left out of March Madness for the eighth straight year.
But last night, when the NCAA Tournament selection committee released its selections, Michigan’s name was nowhere to be found. The committee refused to ignore the Wolverines’ monumental late-season collapse, in which Michigan lost seven of its last nine games.
“I would say that I’m frustrated with how we finished,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “Certainly, I think that’s how everyone feels right now. We didn’t finish strong, and that cost us an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament field this year.”
Instead of donning dancing shoes, the Wolverines will participate in the ugly stepchild of the college basketball postseason – the National Invitation Tournament, where the 18-10 Michigan squad earned a No. 1 seed. The Wolverines will face the winner of Tuesday’s UTEP-Lipscomb match-up on Mar. 16 at 7 p.m. in Crisler Arena. Tickets go on sale at 9 a.m. this morning.
In addition to being one of the most talented squads in the bracket, Michigan has plenty of NIT experience. The Wolverines ran the NIT table two years ago, earning the right to raise a championship banner to the Crisler Arena rafters. But while the team’s 2003-04 NIT run appeared to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, this year’s appearance is only a depressing reminder of unfulfilled expectations.
“This one may be different,” senior captain Graham Brown said. “We were a younger team at that point (in 2003-04). We were satisfied with the possibility of making the NCAA Tournament, but we were satisfied with making the NIT also. . I think this year, we were really focused on trying to make the NCAA Tournament.”
Michigan’s six-member senior class – which also narrowly missed out on the NCAA Tournament in 2003-04 – was especially disappointed by the news. But the team didn’t blame the selection committee. The Wolverines knew they had every opportunity to play their way into the tourney. They just didn’t take advantage.
“It’s really disappointing,” Brown said. “This is something we’ve strived for four years, and we really wanted it. It’s a tough pill to swallow right now, but we’ve got to try to build on it.”
For the second straight season, suspensions and injuries hamstrung the Wolverines.
Junior Brent Petway was declared academically ineligible for Michigan’s non-conference season and missed the team’s first 11 games. Redshirt junior Lester Abram, who played just three games in 2004-05, struggled with injuries once again. Toe and ankle injuries kept him out of 12 games. Key contributors Chris Hunter (knee) and Dion Harris (ankle) also succumbed to the injury bug, missing a combined five games down the stretch.
Despite the injuries, Michigan was in position to cruise into the Big Dance for much of the season. On Feb. 1, the Wolverines beat Penn State on the road, improving their record to 16-3 and putting them in a first-place tie in the Big Ten. But the season soon spiraled out of control. Michigan’s 69-67 home loss to Indiana and subsequent first-round Big Ten Tournament exit against lowly Minnesota proved to be backbreakers for the veteran Wolverine squad.
“We didn’t do what we should have, and we placed our future in the hands of someone else,” senior Daniel Horton said. “And we didn’t handle things like we should have, and we lost a few ball games towards the end.”
Said Brown: “We brought this on ourselves. We lost a significant amount of our last 10 games, and that really hurt us.”
Despite the team’s late-season swoon, many experts considered Michigan a candidate for one of the NCAA Tournament’s final at-large bids. But teams including Bradley, Air Force and Utah State swiped the final tourney berths, crushing the Wolverines’ March Madness dreams.
$10 Blue reserved
$8 Gold General
$5 Student Bleachers
Thursday, March 16, 7 p.m.