I feel about this Michigan basketball team similar to how I felt about my beloved New York Mets, or even my favorite NFL team, the Jets, last season.
If they can just get into the postseason, they have a chance to make some noise.
Michigan has shown it can play with anyone in the country. It beat then-No. 4 and current No. 6 UCLA in New York. It beat then-No. 4 and current No. 5 Duke at home by eight. And this past Saturday, in Storrs, Conn., it was leading No. 1 UConn with less than 15 minutes to go before ultimately falling, 69-61.
But the Wolverines have been inconsistent in conference play, checking in at 5-6 heading into tonight's matchup with Michigan State in Ann Arbor. Michigan dropped costly home games to Wisconsin and Ohio State, but have split with Penn State and Illinois to remain alive for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth.
Given the way Michigan has played against the big boys, if it could sneak into the Big Dance as an 8-10 seed, the chance of an upset in round two against a top-ranked team is not out of the question.
Of course, John Beilein's bunch has to get there first.
That is something the Mets or Jets were not able to do. For the past two seasons, the Mets had arguably the best team in the National League, yet collapsed down the stretch and didn't make the playoffs. While the Steelers proved they were the best team in the NFL from start to finish, the Jets were looking like a Super Bowl contender until they, too, fell apart and didn't reach the postseason.
Of course, fans of the Jets and Mets each had higher expectations than Michigan basketball fans heading into the respective seasons. Coming off a season in which Michigan won five conference games and a grand total of 10 overall, fans were not too excited about the team in November. After all, it was only Beilein's second year, and he didn't have enough of "his" players yet.
Then, on Nov. 20 at Madison Square Garden, Michigan upset UCLA, and everything changed. There was a palpable buzz surrounding the team, a buzz that only grew after it shocked Duke in Crisler Arena a few weeks later. Beilein tried to warn supporters that while his squad had certainly improved from last year, it still had a long way to go. Nobody seemed to listen.
So when Michigan dropped three in a row in the Big Ten, people were confused. Was the Big Ten the best conference in America? Did Michigan simply get lucky in their two big upsets?
At this point in the season, it's tough for Michigan fans to revert to their preseason mentality, where even an NIT invite seemed out of reach. But as Beilein tried to emphasize, this is still a young Wolverine team that is going to have its ups and downs. They were able to put it together in the big wins, but have failed to execute consistently the last couple of months.
Will they be able to do enough over the next month in conference—say, get to .500—to get an NCAA Tournament bid? Tonight's game will go a long way in answering that.
If the Wolverines can win, they'll get back to .500 (6-6) in conference and improve their overall record to 16-9. Not only that, but they'll also have a signature conference win. With the remaining six games after tonight being impossible to predict (road games against Northwestern, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota; home games versus Minnesota and Purdue), Michigan would do itself a huge favor by upsetting its archrival tonight.
Beat the Spartans, and Michigan just might have enough to get to the Big Dance, where anything can happen.
Lose, and Michigan fans will be left to think about what could've been.