It sure doesn’t seem like it right now, but the Michigan men’s basketball team will be an NCAA tournament team this year.
Although the team can’t seem to go 20 minutes without suffering an injury and its defense and effort – the two things everyone thought they could count on from this team – have suddenly become unreliable. The numbers don’t lie. Michigan, with seven Big Ten wins and 17 wins total, has done just about enough to be assured an invite. The Wolverines probably need just two more wins. And with games against free-falling Indiana and a probable matchup with a bottom-feeder in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on the horizon, that shouldn’t be too much to ask. A win this week over Illinois or Ohio State isn’t even needed, though it would be great.
As I typed that last paragraph and read it over, I knew that it was supposed to make me feel better about the team. Sure, the Wolverines have been struggling, but they played great in January, and they will be rewarded for the season they’re having. They’ve waited so long to hear their name called on Selection Sunday, and it will finally happen.
I would feel that way if I thought this season marked the beginning. But that really just isn’t the case. Although I would never say this season is as good as it will get, next season and beyond is filled with huge question marks. And it makes these last few games all the more important.
Right now, Michigan’s top seven players – Daniel Horton, Graham Brown, Chris Hunter, Lester Abram, Dion Harris, Courtney Sims and Brent Petway – are seniors and juniors. As a group, they have spent three seasons in Ann Arbor and have been through it all: losing streaks, injuries, suspensions, winning streaks, an NIT Championship and next month, an NCAA appearance.
The Wolverines don’t have an ideal mix of upperclassmen and underclassmen. The juniors and seniors are pretty much doing everything right now, with the freshmen and sophomore (Ron Coleman) coming off the bench and filling in for whomever is injured. So, with three players gone in a couple months and the other four out after next year, what exactly will this team look like after they’re gone?
I don’t know about you, but when I imagine Michigan without Horton’s leadership and clutch scoring, all I tend to think about is . well, last season. And with Brown and Hunter gone, can the team win if Sims is the same inconsistent player he has been his first three years? Michigan coach Tommy Amaker has recruited a good forward in next year’s class and a good guard for the following year, but really, who knows? Is it that hard to believe that the next four years will be a lot like the last four years (without the scandals)?
Of course, this happens all the time in college. The two best players on Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State are all seniors, and I’m sure fans at all three schools want to know who exactly will step in. But in the end, those fans probably aren’t too concerned, because those schools are used to having success. That’s not the case here.
Yes, the Wolverines have come a long way this year and the program has made a significant step in the right direction. But as the last five games have shown, there is still a long way to go.
These past few years, following Michigan basketball has been just as fun as it has been frustrating. Sure, when we finally reach Selection Sunday, it’ll feel a little silly to make a big deal about something that, in East Lansing and so many other places, everyone takes for granted. But in Ann Arbor, it will be a big deal.
I may mumble to myself, “It’s about damn time.” But then I’ll start counting down the minutes to that first-round game.
– Sharad Mattu can be reached at email@example.com.