Sometimes people can’t see things they don’t want to see. Michigan’s players and coaches gave everything they could possibly give this season. During their midseason run of 13 consecutive wins, they showed more emotion, heart and commitment to winning than anyone could have expected from a team banned from the postseason. But playing at that level for that long is draining for anybody. And as much as Daniel Horton, Lester Abram, LaVell Blanchard and Bernard Robinson amazed fans with fantastic shots and gutsy clutch plays, those four could only do so much.
The depth was not there, and during the Big Ten grind, it’s tough to get by without a deep bench.
Nobody wanted to see Michigan’s lack of depth catch up with them this season, and many even pointed to the Wolverines’ win away at Purdue as a sign that this team was still fresh and poised to win the Big Ten Championship.
But the reality is that this team has been running out of juice. It began during its first game at Illinois, in which Michigan led by double digits with just over 10 minutes to play in the game, but collapsed down the stretch and couldn’t come back. They didn’t do the little things down the stretch that made the difference in the first half of the conference season.
In yesterday’s loss to the Boilermakers, Purdue senior Willie Deane shot and missed a crucial free throw with the Wolverines trailing by six and 4:23 remaining. Earlier in the season, the Wolverines would have snagged the ball off the boards and come back to the offensive end to get back in the game.
But yesterday, Deane sneaked into the lane, stole the rebound from Michigan’s big men and passed it around to name Buscher, who made it an eight-point deficit with a jumper.
When Deane retrieved the ball, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker kicked the scorer’s table in frustration.
It was a single play, but it said a lot about how the Wolverines were feeling Saturday. Although they wouldn’t admit it, it was clear in their demeanor on the court that this season has caught up to them physically.
“They out-toughed us today,” Lester Abram said. “Every time we made a little run, they would make a big play, and we couldn’t get back into the game.”
“We just weren’t as tough as we should have been today,” Michigan’s Graham Brown said.
But these are not common words from the Wolverines this season. Amaker and the Wolverines have established themselves as the team that always works harder than its counterpart. They were “out-toughed” yesterday because they didn’t have the depth to reach back to.
“At some point, I think that was a factor for us, but regardless of fatigue or depth, Purdue played a great game,” Amaker said.
Whether Purdue played well or not, the Wolverines could only do so much. They had been squeezing every ounce of effort out of their players for so long, they didn’t seem to have anything left.
This isn’t something they can be faulted for, though. The Wolverines were giving 100 percent on the court every time they stepped out there. The effort was always there, and they reached their potential talent-wise. That is why this program has had such a dramatic turnaround.
Amaker got his players to build confidence in themselves and each other, and that is the first step of becoming a winning program.
It’s no secret that lack of depth will be an issue this weekend in Chicago at the Big Ten Tournament. Playing on consecutive days does not favor a team with a limited amount of players, no matter who you are.
“One thing we always say is that we have to dig things out,” freshman Sherrod Harrell said. “Going into the tournament, that’s what it takes. We have to dig things out and play with a lot of heart, and we have to want it more.”
There’s no question that the Wolverines want this. After all, it’s their postseason, and they want to make it count.
To win it all, the Wolverines would need to soundly defeat their opponent (Indiana or Penn State) Friday night to be able to rest their big guns for the weekend. From that point, it all comes down to heart.
If they do it, it will definitely be something to see.
Naweed Sikora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org