It was supposed to end here.
The script was all lined up, the pen readied to ink a rather proper and realistic ending to this season. Everyone loves a circular narrative structure, and this script even had those bookends right.
What first appeared a dream Michigan year seemed destined to end in one way: early, decisively and painfully. The whole year had felt that way.
The year, you see, started seven months ago, when, as students arrived on campus in Ann Arbor, the Michigan football team walked into the palatial Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 1 for the season opener against Southeastern Conference powerhouse Alabama, the eventual national champion.
Any overenthusiastic hopes of a Michigan football championship were blown to bits right then and there. And things didn’t get easier during the second semester, either. The men’s basketball team, which entered the season with every bit of hype and hoopla, fell from as high as a No. 1 ranking, lost a grip on the regular-season Big Ten title and was bounced by Wisconsin in the second round of the conference tournament. Even the hockey team, enduring its worst season in over two decades, collapsed this year — it nearly made a historic run before it was stopped a game short of extending its record streak of 22 NCAA Tournament appearances.
Every ending this year: early, decisive and painful.
All hopes for a happy ending hitched on the Big Dance.
The narrative said that the year was supposed to end this weekend, back in that exact same venue it began in — Cowboys Stadium — and against another SEC power, Florida, this time. Well, that’s if the Wolverines even got that far — they were supposed to fall to Kansas, but fate somehow tilted back in Michigan’s favor in the final moments.
Sure, the Wolverines had a wealth of talent, but they came wounded into the NCAA Tournament. They’d never hold together. They were underdogs and lower seeds against both one-seed Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen and third-seeded Florida in the Elite Eight. Few realistically expected them to survive the South Region.
It was supposed to end at Cowboys Stadium.
S-E-C, S-E-C, S-E-C
The chant started in the northwest corner of Cowboys Stadium; it spread rapidly through the crowd of 90,413 until nearly every crimson-clad fan was on his or her feet. The chorus grew louder and louder as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Arlington, Texas.
A season that held so much promise, with Michigan coming off a BCS bowl appearance and with Denard Robinson at the helm for one final season, began with a face-washing: Alabama 41, Michigan 14.
Juwan Howard watched from field level. He, too, had hoped the Wolverines could shock Alabama, shock the world like he and the Fab Five had proclaimed two decades earlier. But he could only shake his head at the outcome.
Howard didn’t know Michigan would be back seven months later, playing a different sport this time. He didn’t know the Wolverines would be fighting for their first Final Four berth since the Fab Five. He didn’t know a different Michigan team would shock the world.
The parallels between the two events — the beginning and the supposed end — are striking. But the opposites are even more so.
The season began with redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan, flanked by a trainer, limping his way off the painted turf and up the tunnel at Cowboys Stadium. He was hurt, insulted, defeated.
The season wasn’t expected to extend past this weekend despite the everyday brilliance of sophomore guard Trey Burke. He couldn’t carry the team alone, but he’d been expected to do just that all year. He, like Lewan, wasn’t himself. Burke battled a flu virus in the Elite Eight, and as the clock hit zeros, he lay on his back on the court, exhausted. But then he was picked up and lifted into the air by freshman forward Mitch McGary. They were hurt, at times insulted, but not yet defeated.
Seven months ago, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon followed Lewan up the tunnel with his head bowed. But on Sunday, he beamed, shook Michigan coach John Beilein’s hand and embraced everyone he could find in front of the Wolverines’ bench.
Seven months ago, the football team lost 41-14, but on Sunday the basketball team led 41-17 with four minutes remaining in the first half.
And seven months ago, an S-E-C chant rained down inside Cowboys Stadium, but on Sunday there was a different ring.
It started softly.
The chant began to rise above the cheers, buffeting the air inside the House that Jerry Built.
A MICHIGAN WOLVERINE
This wasn’t the sound they expected in Arlington. Ovations instead of tears. Victory instead of defeat. A beginning instead of an ending.
The Michigan men’s basketball team was never actually supposed to reach the Final Four. The Wolverines weren’t that good, right?
But, fueled primarily by a motley crew of underclassmen and a superstar sophomore, they are that good. And now they’re on to Atlanta and the program’s first Final Four appearance since 1993, when most of the freshman class wasn’t even born.
It was supposed to end here. But the end of this season, this year, is yet to come.
— Nesbitt can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.