Tuesday, April 9, 2013

So Long, Lonesome

NCAA Championship: Louisville 82, Michigan 76

There's a reason storybook endings are confined to the pages on which they're written and the imaginations in which they're conceived. In real life, someone's happy ending is someone else's tragedy. It's a zero-sum game. There is no pot of gold at the end of everyone's rainbow. Somebody inevitably gets stuck in the rain.

The storybook ending for Michigan basketball would've involved the final chapter of a lengthy, sordid tale; a 20-year drift through the wilderness that finally came to an end while the ghosts of Final Fours past watched from afar as the current team tried to cement their own legacy. The end of their story is a bittersweet one, and our hearts are currently some degree of broken. But eventually - whether it's tomorrow, the next day, next week, next month - our pain will subside, and we will fully appreciate the ride these kids took us on. At their best, they were a breathtaking display of execution. At their worst, they were a muddled mess of errors and youthful mistakes. Missing free throws to lose the Big Ten title on their homecourt against Indiana hurt them a hell of a lot more than it hurt us. But we don't get to see those moments. We didn't get to see the locker room after that loss to the Hoosiers. We just had ourselves, and the worst of human nature. The rage on Michigan's Rivals site whenever something goes wrong is visceral and ugly. The fans' version of their "worst" involves profanity-laced rants calling for coaches to be fired, players to be run off, and other senseless ramblings of people tapping into the inner psychopath we all know we have.

For the team we pour our hearts and souls into, their worst is showing up in a hornets' nest in East Lansing and getting their heads caved in. It's letting Wisconsin drag them down into the gutter and pulverize them like only Wisconsin does, the ugliest form of "winning" basketball that anyone could possibly draw up in their worst nightmares. For us, the fans on the outside, we cannot sway these events, or influence the way things unfold. We have our superstitions, our prayers to sports-related deities and otherwise, but ultimately, we are powerless, and all we can hope for is that those we cherish so dearly make us proud, and give their best.

Last night, Michigan's basketball team gave their best. We can nitpick, complain about some players having a rough game, the defense having not nearly enough answers, and the officiating being inconsistent at best and abhorrent at worst. But when all the analysis is complete, the truth sets in. Michigan shot 52% from the field, and Trey Burke left his heart on the court in Atlanta, but Michigan's best just wasn't as good as Louisville's best. It would've been one thing if they had gone out there and fallen flat on their faces and gotten run out of the gym, disgracing themselves and the stage they found themselves on. But that didn't happen. They showed up, teeth bared, ready to fire. They came up a few points short against the #1 overall seed in the tournament, coached by one of the best coaches of all time.

God knows I haven't been immune to the lunacy that captures us as fans. I've ranted and raved too, and even penned a piece on this slice of the internet after the ghastly 2010 season finale in East Lansing, wondering if Beilein had reached his ceiling as Michigan's coach.

Three years later, if you were to conduct an opinion poll of the Michigan fanbase, I can't imagine a scenario where John Beilein's approval rating dips below 90%.

The tournament is an imposing creature. Success is rarely, if ever, measured by having the crystal basketball at the end of the Monday night in April. If Michigan had triumphed last night, Louisville fans wouldn't be deeming their season a failure. Michigan State fans didn't toss their 2005, 2009 and 2010 teams by the wayside because they came up just a bit short. They celebrate those teams, and hold them in the highest regard. Because they realize what I hope all Michigan fans realize: there's a reason even the bluest of blue bloods in college basketball celebrate and raise banners in honor of Final Four appearences. Because being the last team standing when the tournament ends is one of the hardest things to accomplish in team sports. Go look through the history of the NCAA tournament, see some of the droughts the titans of the sport have gone through in regard to winning it all.

Duke made eight Final Fours before finally winning it all in their ninth appearence in 1991. After repeating in 1992, they had to wait another nine years before winning again, and another nine after that.

North Carolina went 25 years without a championship until Jordan's shot in 1982. They then went another 11 years until beating the Fab Five in 1993, and a dozen more after that before their next title in 2005.

Kansas, one of the Meccas of the very sport of basketball, has all of three national championships. They had to wait 36 years to get their second (1952-1988), and another 20 years for their third.

Kentucky won four national titles in a 10 year span from 1948-1958. They have four total in the 55 years since then, including droughts of 20 years (1958-1978), 18 years (1978-1996), and 14 years (1998-2012).

UCLA, the last true "dynasty" of the sport, went 20 years without a championship after John Wooden retired, and are currently on an 18 year drought since that last one in 1995.

Indiana, the only "basketball school" in the Big Ten, hasn't won a championship in 26 years.

Every other sport has teams that don't expect anything less than a championship. The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups in the last 16 years, but even I often dwell on 1995, 1996, 2003, 2007, and especially 2009. The pressure on that 2009 Wings team was immeasurable, and they finally couldn't withstand it at the end. In the NBA, fans of the Lakers have been disappointed with every season that doesn't end with a championship for over 30 years now. Ditto the Spurs for the last decade and a half. Ditto the Heat now. In baseball, George Steinbrenner single-handedly built an atmosphere in New York where anything short of a World Series title was unacceptable. The Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl in almost 10 years now (!!), but they still measure themselves up to that standard they set in 2001, 2003, and 2004. Even in college football, Alabama's upcoming season will be deemed disappointing if they don't three-peat. USC's teams that won a dozen games and ended the year by shredding a Big Ten team in the Rose Bowl still left a bitter taste in their fans' mouths because they never returned to the top of the mountain like they did in 2004.

In college basketball, that is hardly ever the case. Can you name a team and a season where the mindset was "win the national title or your season is a failure"? The only two examples that come to mind for me are 1991 UNLV and 2007 Florida, both of which carried the burden of having the expectation of repeating as champions because the entire team returned from the previous year. The 2007 Gators lived up to that expectation. The 1991 Rebels won their first 34 games and lost by two in the national semifinal to Duke in what's regarded as one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. Think about that: DUKE winning a game in the Final Four was seen as a colossal upset. That's how massive the burden was on UNLV. They weren't supposed to even be challenged by anybody, let alone beaten.

Outside of those rare examples, your season is automatically a smashing success if you get to the Final Four. And for Michigan, this is a season for the ages. Why?

Because we remember the Ellerbe years, when Michigan had MAC-level talent on the floor.

We remember the indignity of watching Tom Izzo run up the score against Michigan on Mateen Cleaves' senior day.

We remember multiple 40-point losses to Duke.

We remember the shame of having those banners come down; the darkest point in Michigan history. After that there was a time when I couldn't even bring myself to tell people I cheered for Michigan basketball, it was that tarnished.

We remember starting 16-3 in 2006, thinking that Daniel Horton, Dion Harris and Lester Abram were finally going to get us over the hump - only to lose six of eight down the stretch, no-show in the Big Ten Tournament opener against Minnesota, and spend the postseason in the NIT. Again.

We remember the Amaker era being personified as Senior Day in 2007 against #1 Ohio State wound down and Harris and Courtney Sims turned to mush.

We remember losing 22 games in Beilein's first year, culminating with a loss to Wisconsin in the BTT in which they scored 34 points - total. An offensive performance that made the 2004 Pistons look like Showtime.

We remember that euphoria of finally, finally making the tournament; something so basic and so commonplace for so many teams was the greatest thing in the world for us.

We then remember the erratic faceplant of a season that followed, when it seemed like Manny Harris was really, really tired of playing for Beilein at times.

We remember the turning point of the program, that snowy, blustery night in East Lansing, when a team on the brink rose up to slay the dragon with Stu's three. Before that game, Michigan had lost six in a row and had a precarious 11-9 record, 1-7 in the conference. Since that win in East Lansing, Michigan is 63-23, 32-14 in the Big Ten.

We remember taking the sledgehammer to the walking ghost Bruce Pearl in the first round of the 2011 tournament, and then the heartbreaking image of Darius Morris pulling his jersey over his face after his last second floater against Duke rimmed out. And then the insult to injury when we learned that that would be the final time we saw Morris in a Michigan uniform, and the fear that any progress we had made would be lost because our star point guard was (foolishly) leaving early for the NBA.

We remember desperately clinging to the recruitment of kids like Nate Lubick, Casey Prather, Russell Byrd, and Trey Zeigler. I in particular was crestfallen when Zeigler picked Central Michigan. I (along with a large portion of Michigan fans, I believe) always had serious doubts about the appeal of Beilein's system to true difference making recruits. They said Beilein's offense wouldn't prepare you for the NBA. So every high-profile recruit Michigan was in on seemed like the biggest deal in the world, because it felt like the "sleeper" types like Novak and Douglass and Horford and Morgan were the norm.

We remember this scrawny three-star kid from Columbus coming in and having to fill D-Mo's shoes - and leading Michigan to its first conference championship in a quarter century. And then even that seemed to go up in smoke when Michigan lost to Ohio and it appeared that Trey Burke was going to bolt after one season. In the chaos leading up to Burke's final decision, Michigan secured the commitment of some 5'11 3* white kid from Indiana who called himself Spike for some reason.

And now, at long fucking last, through all the drudgery and chaos...we will remember the Final Four. We will all remember where we were when Burke hit The Shot against Kansas, and how confident we felt when Stauskas released his fourth....fifth....sixth three against Florida. And that euphoric tidal wave of adrenaline when Jordan Morgan pulled away for the dunk that finally vanquished Syracuse.

And yeah, we'll remember the frustration and disappointment of the title game. But while we're doing that, think about our enemies, too. Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana were all sitting at home watching while Michigan played for a national championship. And only the most meat-headed neanderthals among them could possibly bash Michigan for losing. The sensible among them will respect the effort.

History as a whole largely forgets the runners-up, and this Michigan team deserved a better fate. The makeup of this team was unique and enjoyable: a three-star undersized point guard who won literally every Player of the Year award; a three-star shooting guard with a famous name who ended up at Michigan only because Casey Prather picked Florida; the three-star wing with another famous name who blossomed into a five-star super-athlete well after Beilein identified him; the five-star big man who took the leap of faith and turned down the establishment of the sport and put his faith in a coach and program in which he saw potential; the three-star nobodies off the bench who weren't viewed as big-time players, aren't ideally sized, were almost redshirted, etc...and then played significant roles in shooting Michigan into the title game.

Burke will be gone; we've known that since he announced he was coming back one year ago today. Hardaway will likely join him; not because he's going to be a high draft pick (honestly, I don't see much more than Manny Harris out of him in the pros), but because he's maxed out on his potential in college. If we're particularly unlucky, McGary and/or Robinson may make the jump too. Both of them would help themselves immensely by returning, but as we've learned in the recent past, college kids don't always make the proper choices for their future.

But regardless, Michigan has finally reached the point as a program where losing players doesn't automatically equal death. You don't lose the Player of the Year and not take a step back, but Derrick Walton is the absolute truth, and is the most talented point guard (coming out of high school) that Beilein has recruited. After seeing how the last two blossomed here, there is essentially zero doubt in my mind that Walton will star.

For the longest time, Beilein was compared to Rich Rodriguez by the more cynical among us. At times it seemed like he just didn't understand what you had to do to succeed in this conference. But somewhere along the way, probably with the assistant coach shuffling a couple years ago, Beilein was able to adjust to the Big Ten's style of play, and he has now built a program with staying power. That light we see in the distance is no longer a train bearing down on us, ready to steamroll us into oblivion. Now it represents the beacon of hope that exists on this new frontier we find ourselves on the precipice of. 20 years after they broke up, the Fab Five still loomed large over Michigan basketball. The memory of their two-year run and the specter of the sins committed still lurked in the corners of Crisler, the ghost in the machine that seemed to place a ceiling on where this program could go. The trangressions of Webber and his successors Traylor, Taylor and Bullock stained the university to the point where the higher-ups at Michigan opted to place their own basketball program in a form of exile; almost a sense of crushing the institution in order to discourage any future dabblings in the muck that got them into the gutters in the first place.

Last night, with the Fab Five - all of them, as Webber finally emerged - looking on, even while coming up just a bit short, Trey Burke and the Wolverines closed the book on the Fab Five chapter forever. The future that lies ahead no longer has the ghosts of Wolverines past hovering overhead. The final score last night did not end in our favor, but the last three weeks have been bigger than the scoreboard. They've been a catharsis; an exorcism; a cleansing of the palate so that we can finally enjoy the future instead of fearing it. They will return to Ann Arbor as champions, and they will send a banner to the rafters that will never, ever come down. Ever.

And when the heartache from last night fades, we won't be sad that it's over, but will instead be happy that it happened. And we will be prideful. We will hold our heads high and be proud that we can tell people we cheer for Michigan basketball. Because last night, even in defeat, it was great to be a Michigan Wolverine.


Reed said...

Well said, Brian. I think you summed up the feelings of rational fans everywhere. My path to this point was somewhat different, but I have the same, reflective mood today. Back when I was a student in Ann Arbor, I felt compelled to stop rooting for Michigan basketball. Something about Albert White trying to dunk but throwing the ball into the third row, and about Travis Conlan not being able to bring the ball into the frontcourt without getting ripped, and about Robert Traylor not boxing box out when it should have been happening by accident. Despite all the talent, they were just so bad at basketball. So I said "fuck it" and actually rooted for Illinois. This of course felt rotten, but my mentality was that I would come back as soon as the team played in an acceptable way. With each successive coaching change, I would take a closer step back.

A few years ago, I had 100% returned. I can't recall a specific moment, but Beilein had turned the ship around. The ride this team has given us deserves to be cherished. This was most surely Burke's last game at Michigan, and he did everything he could to bring home a title. Some other players didn't have best night. But nobody should have any regrets. This has been a joy, regardless of a title game defeat. Go Blue.

Vernon Marsh said...

Love the post. I will never question John Beilein again. I have loved the way he's developed this program, and his team's with his guys have been wildly successful.

He is an absolutely tremendous talent evaluator, so whether the guy he gets to commit early is a 3* or a 5* I have full confidence that the guy is PERFECT for this system. John's recruiting isn't the same as Izzo taking a commitment from a 3* at the end of the process because he HAD to. John identifies guys early and gets their commitment before anyone else is in on them. Guys like Tim and GRIII are perfect examples. Zak Irvin this year is another guy that has blown up since his commitment.

Another thing that absolutely blows my mind with Beilein, and it seems fans from other teams like to ignore, is that he develops Point Guards remarkably. His first tourney run was made without a scholarship point guard on the roster (Merritt and CJ Lee). Then D-Mo came along. He was good as a freshman, and great as a sophomore. We have no idea how we're going to replace him, and we grab Trey Burke who was great as a freshman and then PHENOMENAL as a sophomore, despite our rivals claim that he wouldn't get that much better from year 1-year 2. There's no doubt in my mind that Beilein is going to maximize Walton's potential (and Spike) and we'll be fine at the PG position. Beilein may never recruit the #1 PG in the nation, but it's because he doesn't want to. He wants a guy who wants to come in and get better and develop as a PG. He doesn't want a guy who's going to come in look to get his numbers, and leave Michigan high and dry after 1 year. If it happens (like it did with Morris and Burke), then he's more than happy to help them take that next step...but he's not going to go out and recruit the John Wall's of the world who are going to be out faster than they got in. There's something to be said for continuity in a program, and it looks like JB is building some serious continuity.

The knock on Beilein's system was that it didn't get guys ready for the NBA. After next season, Beilein could have 5 guys drafted in a 4 year period. There's not alot of schools who can say that.

All of that is to say that Beilein has more than answered the doubters. I will never question his recruiting or his offense. We'll always be able to question in game decisions when we lose, and no coach is above that.

I truly want JB to get that Championship ring, and I 100% believe he will at Michigan. We are certainly trending in the right direction.

Brandon said...

Awesome post

James said...

Great article. I would just add one other team to the list of "national champion or bust" squads: 1993 Michigan, unfortunately.

QuizWhiz said...

Brian - You need to write more often if possible. This was great, timely and tells the story we are all living. This was a special team. Thanks.

Brian Ball said...

Please Stay Trey