Here they were again. In a game they weren’t supposed to stick around in, with a roster that lacked the depth to do so.
On this path through the season, the one that was disappointing, heartbreaking and yet still within reach, each shot and every break brought the Michigan men’s basketball team closer and closer to that same place.
For the third time in as many weeks, this time on the road in Bloomington, the Wolverines took a Big Ten team down to the final seconds. They led only once the entire game and trailed by as many as 11 — twice. And yet there they were in the final seconds with a chance to send the game to overtime, again.
Even as Indiana made shot after shot from deep and awoke the crowd with a dunk, Michigan was still in the game. Junior guard Spike Albrecht and sophomore forward Zak Irvin came down to the end, shooting and driving while everyone else watched.
Albrecht made a pair of free throws with 43 seconds left. Irvin, who had struggled to shoot, sank a 3-pointer from two feet beyond the arc with 18 seconds remaining. And the Wolverines trailed one of the Big Ten’s best teams by just three on its opponent’s home court.
The week prior they had forced Michigan State into overtime. Before then, another overtime game against No. 4 Wisconsin. Each one ended in a loss. Each one called a chance to grow. Each one labeled a “moral victory” by many.
“That’s our story,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We’re actually getting a little bit tired of it, but it beats the alternative of giving in, so we’re making progress.”
If Michigan could win, it could spark a run to the tournament. It could prove critics wrong who said without a healthy Caris LeVert or a healthy Derrick Walton, the Wolverines couldn’t make the tournament again. If they could win, they would be able to show they had learned and worked past those difficult defeats.
But when Michigan had its chance to show its growth, to show how far Albrecht has come as a scorer and how far freshman guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s confidence level has risen. To change the trend and walk away with an actual victory, it fell short with Abdur-Rahkman’s 3-pointer at the last second.
Another “moral victory” in a season of painful losses.
No one walked off the court looking satisfied, of course, because it’s still a loss. A moral victory, no matter how good it may feel, isn’t worth any bonus points or an asterisk in the standings. It’s just painful. And it’s not worth anything more to the NCAA Tournament committee, either.
Moral victories, in college basketball, are so commonplace that they happen every week. But this one, on this team, feels different. It’s a team that shouldn’t be in close games because it doesn’t have the pieces to. It’s a coach who, even when he faces the toughest stretch of his schedule, still figures out a way to put his team into game-winning positions.
Given Michigan’s history as of late, something more than a moral victory is expected. Five years ago, they would be encouraging. It shows just how far this team has come, because a trend like this doesn’t feel good. It feels awkward.
This moral victory, at the hands of Indiana, only compounds that pain, because now, as the season approaches its end, the future is less and less promising.
“We say (we’re) growing either in victory or defeat,” Beilein said. “We don’t like growing in defeat, but I believe we are.”
In college basketball, confidence and experience matter, but they don’t mean much unless they count as a win. There’s little time to reflect and grow from these victories.
“Right now, everyone keeps saying moral victories, but there are no moral victories,” Albrecht said. “So it was a disappointing loss and I was proud of the way we battled, but we’ve got to start finishing these close games.”
They don’t make the season a failure, but the moral victories don’t make a difference unless they turn into wins. As March approaches, there’s not much time to show how they pay off.
Because there are no moral victories when you’re not in the NCAA Tournament.
Daily Sports Editor Daniel Feldman contributed reporting.
Greg Garno can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @G_Garno.