This year’s class of seniors has always opted to do things the hard way.
As a result, the past four years of basketball in Ann Arbor have taken place on that road less traveled, as opposed to doing things the easy way.
Any of the players in Tommy Amaker’s first recruiting class at Michigan could have jumped ship and bailed when sanctions were levied on the program, but everyone stayed.
Maybe it was an omen for what was to come for this group.
One hundred and twenty-two games after the arrival of this six-person class to Ann Arbor, the group faces exactly what it did when it entered: adversity.
Saturday’s game against Indiana was indicative of the careers of the seniors and the season of this entire Michigan basketball team.
The game began on a promising note. The Wolverines jumped out to a 10-0 run in front of a sold-out Crisler Arena crowd hungry for Michigan to finish above .500 in league play.
Kind of like the team’s 10-1 start this season.
Or the 13-game winning streak Daniel Horton and company strung together four years ago as freshmen.
But that’s too easy for this group.
Beating an embattled team like Indiana would not only have solidified Michigan as an NCAA Tournament team. It would have put the Wolverines above perennial powers like Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana in the Big Ten standings to close out the regular season.
Sounds rational. Sounds like the easy way. Doesn’t sound like Michigan basketball.
By halftime, the game was practically deadlocked. The Wolverines’ pressure defense that held the Hoosiers to just one field goal in the game’s first ten minutes was beginning to bend, and the victory was definitely in question.
It was just like teams of seasons past, cooling off once midseason rolled around.
Just like Michigan’s 2-6 record to close the regular season after its hot conference start.
And by game’s end, when Michigan’s 10-point second-half lead had morphed into a two-point loss, it left me thinking – was this another telling sign of how this season would end?
Michigan didn’t just lose; it did so in the weirdest way imaginable.
With 57 seconds to go, Indiana power forward Marco Killingsworth – all 268 pounds of him – dribbled between his legs and hit a deep jump shot in Graham Brown’s face to tie the game.
Then, with a tie game and the ball in their possession, the Wolverines somehow managed to lose the game without even making Indiana attempt a field goal.
Dion Harris maintains he was going for a steal when he fouled Earl Calloway about 70 feet away from the basket with the game deadlocked. Whether it was inadvertent or on purpose, any foul with 30 seconds left in a game – let alone on the opposite side of the court – is simply inexcusable.
And with an opportunity to tie the game still in the balance, Brown tried to begin Crisler Arena renovations on his own – by nailing the speakers dangling from the scoreboard with an errant throw that failed to bring down the scoreboard. But it did bring down any hopes of a victory.
That gave Brown more damaged speakers than Courtney Sims had shot attempts.
Is this how the season is destined to end? Is this heralded class really going to go through four years of Michigan basketball without getting to put on its dancing shoes? Will a season filled with promise be marred by missed opportunities and mental mistakes?
Luckily for Michigan, the ending of the journey for the season and the seniors still remains in question.
Many of the so-called experts still think Michigan is tournament-bound.
But the Maize and Blue once again occupy the dreaded bubble label – a label Michigan thought it shed with its win over Illinois the previous week.
The scary fact remains that the team is probably a loss to Minnesota away from revisiting the NIT – certainly not a part of the team’s preseason goals.
A Thursday win and a respectable performance against Iowa the next day would more than likely result in a Tournament berth, but considering where this team was last week, it shouldn’t come down to this.
Obviously, the Wolverines don’t always choose to take this difficult route. Most of the situations in the past two years have been forced by circumstances beyond the players’ control – namely injuries. But purposely or not, the Michigan basketball team is synonymous with doing things the hard way.
But regardless of which route they take from here on, it must be one that results in victory.
There no longer lies the margin of error that allows a veteran team to make costly mental errors down the stretch.
And there no longer lies the rallying cry of “we’ll get ’em next year.”
Unless the Wolverines become accustomed to that winning route in the Big Ten Tournament, both the seniors’ journey and the team’s once-promising season will come upon exactly what the team ran into Saturday afternoon.
A dead end.
Scott Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.