The Michigan Wolverines have struggled throughout the 2016 college basketball season.
Their Friday quarterfinal in the Big Ten Tournament was therefore an embodiment of the season, distilled into one afternoon.
Because Michigan was able to pull through one nail-biting game, it is likely — though not absolutely certain — that the Wolverines’ season will be able to be remembered as a success.
Confirmation must come on Selection Sunday, but a 72-69 win over the top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers will very likely pull the Wolverines into the Dance. Michigan didn’t merely extend its stay in Indianapolis. The Wolverines produced a stay of their NCAA tournament execution. They will probably avoid the NIT, and with it, a two-year absence from Bracketville. A program which played for the national title in 2013 and then came an eyelash away from the 2014 Final Four should not go through a two-year NCAA tournament drought.
Michigan was almost at that point in Bankers Life Fieldhouse against the regular season Big Ten champion, but just when the NIT was beckoning, the Maize and Blue found a finishing kick which has transformed their mood and their prospects.
The outlook was extremely grim for Michigan to begin with. The Wolverines were rocked by Indiana a few weeks ago in Ann Arbor. The Hoosiers uncorked a 26-0 run to send Michigan to the canvas. Having to face the Big Ten champions with an NCAA berth on the line represented one of the tougher tasks for any bubble team this week. The Hoosiers were playing for a possible No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, not to mention their first Big Ten Tournament championship. Finding a way past the Hoosiers in Indianapolis was a tall order on its face.
Then came the latter stages of regulation, when everything seemed to be slipping away from coach John Beilein’s Wolverines.
Three times, Michigan committed a simple and improbable turnover, giving Indiana four points while robbing UM of two. An eschewed three-point shot; an aimless “pass for the sake of passing” 35 feet from the hoop; and a traveling violation all alone near the basket represented the kinds of errors a bubble team makes in the middle of March. Indiana’s offense couldn’t do much of anything on Friday, but because of two easy buckets off Michigan’s two bad giveaways, the Hoosiers were able to carve out a 66-61 lead with two minutes remaining.
It was a relatively typical March event up to that point: The 1 seed, playing an early game on a weekday, fought with its own sluggishness and a feisty opponent whose season was on the line. Yet, in the heat of late-stage competition, the challenger lost its footing while the 1 seed pulled ahead.
Most people in the building — and watching on TV — felt this was the end of the line for Michigan’s March hopes.
Instead, the Wolverines produced a memorable rally which will grow in stature once the name “Michigan” is called on Selection Sunday.
Michigan’s offense had bogged down in the process of falling behind by five, but the Wolverines generated the floor spacing and driving lanes they needed in the last two minutes. Effective ball movement created an open corner three for a splashdown and a 69-all tie in the last minute. The shot also gave Michigan a 2-for-1 which — when Indiana lost the ball — enabled the Wolverines to have the last shot.
This is what they did with that opportunity:
Draining a dagger for the Dance.
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) March 11, 2016
Michigan didn’t merely beat Indiana in Indianapolis. It didn’t merely overcome the absence of Caris LeVert, the injured player who probably would have made the Maize and Blue a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament.
The more specific achievement forged by the Wolverines on Friday is that they overcame their own failures and shortcomings. So many 19- and 20-year-old athletes, thrust into the pressure cooker of do-or-die March basketball in a neutral-court environment, would have shriveled in the final minutes. These Wolverines were lost for four months… and then for much of the second half at the offensive end of the floor.
That they found themselves speaks partly to the season — knife-to-the-throat urgency will awaken something in many individuals. Yet, that’s not fair to Michigan if it represents the extent of the reason why the Wolverines beat Indiana. Players who had struggled individually and within a team framework all season had to call forth this newer and better response. They did, and surely learned a thing or three in the process.
One thing they learned: Their NCAA hopes look a helluva lot better than they did when they woke up on Friday morning.