With a manic eruption of joy and an irrepressible carnival atmosphere in Crisler Arena, the Michigan basketball team, far less celebrated than the one featured in The Fab Five documentary premiering on ESPN that same day, had made the NCAA tournament for only the fourth time since the year 1996. It was a clarifying moment for a team that had defied the preseason predictions and battled back from a 1-6 start to the Big Ten season.
The frustration felt after February 23rd, when a last-second three-pointer by Wisconsin nearly conspired to ruin Michigan's tournament chances, had been all but dispelled by the start of the first (second) round. This alone should have been a satisfying achievement. Yet the immediacy of victory and the imprecision of a final shot in the fading moments of the season were an antagonizing reminder of how much more Michigan could have achieved.
Although Michigan managed to triumph over Tennessee with superior rebounding and a stifling zone defense, they got dominated on the boards by a Duke team that played cautious but won with superior talent. It was a game that seemed to embody the fact that many of Michigan's best wins were actually their closest losses.
Now Michigan enters the offseason with a renewed sense of hope. Even though this was unofficially classified as a rebuilding year, John Beilein, like most good coaches, has managed to weather things remarkably well. And that is not an easy achievement, since every two to three years is a rebuilding year in college basketball.
It now seems like seasons ago when Michigan had arrived back from an unrevealing and unremarkable tour of Europe in Belgium as an unknown commodity to start the season. The close losses that followed to Syracuse, Kansas, Ohio State and Wisconsin did little to diminish Michigan's spirit. A series sweep over rival Michigan State and a gutsy 12-point comeback against Illinois sealed the tournament berth for the Wolverines. Much of these accomplishments are owed to the flourishing of Zack Novak and Darius Morris, but the advancement of the freshmen was the factor that appeared to distance Michigan from the outdated preseason prognostications.
Tim Hardaway Jr., who has added new dimensions to his game since the start of the season, emerged as a major offensive catalyst of the team. The 13-point outburst in the second half against Penn State can now be called a kind of revelation. Evan Smotrycz, too, has (somewhat unevenly) demonstrated his much-touted versatility and an expansive scoring ability. He can clean up under the basket, catch and shoot, nail three-pointers, come off screens, and go strongly to the rim off the dribble. His defense has also seemed to improve throughout the entire season.
It is useful to reflect back upon the fact that Beilein, with his eye for talent, managed to discover and sign Smotrycz just before the forward's rapid ascent through the recruitment rankings. The judgment that recruiters harbored toward Hardaway, too, could barely predict the alacrity and enthusiasm that have characterized his sudden development over the past four months. On the recruiting trail Beilein and his staff have earned the benefit of the doubt.
The 2011 class is still small and incomplete, but Michigan has already acquired two guards who are both ranked in ESPN's top 100. Trey Burke, a speedy true point guard who was just voted as Mr. Basketball in Ohio by the AP, can knock down threes on the catch or from the dribble. Carlton Brundidge is a more physical scorer who can handle the ball and kick out to anyone on the floor; however, he still needs to work on his range. Both recruits will join Matt Vogrich, who played commendably against Tennessee, in the backup guard position to Darius Morris or challenge Stu Douglass for minutes.
Max Bielfeldt, a 6'8" power forward from Peoria, is another potential recruit and will likely announce his decision Friday. He has already narrowed his choices down to Michigan and Illinois. If Bielfeldt signs, then he would give Michigan some needed size and a post presence thus far missing in the class, although there are concerns about his overall athleticism.
Beyond recruiting, a more expanded role for Jon Horford and an additional year of experience for everyone else (which should result in better defensive rotations and offensive cohesion) will forge a more talented, deeper team. Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz must also reduce the sheer volume of fouls they commit, totaling more than five per 40 minutes of game time, and anything that broadens Michigan's bench, which ranked near the bottom nationally in minutes, is bound to improve the outlook next year.
Without any likely attrition, expectations have only surged upward since the emergence of the team as an eighth seed in the NCAA tournament, and next year there will be pressure to become something more than a mere spoiler attempting to pull the upset against championship contenders. Fortunately, this team appears to have far more constitution and resolve than the 2009-2010 squad, which began the year ranked 15th nationally but was quickly swept out of the standings after three straight early-season losses. If the team comes together next year, then a good deal of the school's rich legacy will be restored, and it is likely that the worst days of Beilein's tenure will be behind him.