Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Season Obituaries: Michigan

In many ways, an obituary feels inappropriate for the 2011 Michigan team. For one thing, this Michigan team isn't "dead" in the same way that 2011 Ohio State or Illinois or Minnesota are now dead. Those teams will look quite different from the versions that took the court this past season, having been ravished by graduation and draft departures. Michigan loses Darius Morris, and while I don't mean to downplay that absence, Morris was more a cog in the Wolverine engine than the engine itself, and Michigan should continue to improve. In all other respects, this team will look exactly the same, play the same style of ball, and all the rest.

There's also a not-crazy claim that Michigan had the most successful season in the Big Ten. Ohio State and Purdue were national title contenders that failed to make it out of the Sweet 16 round (or, in the case of Purdue, the Round of 32). Wisconsin and Illinois plateaued at about their normal expected finishing points. Michigan State and Minnesota disappointed. Iowa and Indiana were basement-dwellers. Penn State was a surprising feel-good story at the close of the season but managed no better than competitive first-round loss to Temple. Northwestern failed to make the tournament again, though they did at least make it into overtime of their NIT Elite Eight game.

But Michigan's season feels more satisfying somehow. Expected to "compete" with Iowa and Indiana for the bottom spot in the conference, they looked headed that way even as late as seven games into conference play. By the end of the season, both expectations and attitudes had turned. From also-ran to threat, Michigan not only made the NCAA tournament (a surprise itself), but made it as a comfortable 8 seed and ran 9 seed Tennessee out of the building. They then took Duke to the final buzzer, just as they had taken Kansas to the (overtime) buzzer at the front end of their turnaround. Sure, the season ended in the same way as all the other Big Ten teams--no championshp--but I get the feeling Michigan fans felt less bad about that than most other fanbases would have.

Of course, the tempting move is to compare the expectations for the upcoming season with the expectations for 2010, when Michigan opened as a top 15 team and failed to make any postseason. But this is unfair in two respects. First, this is an obituary, not a preview, and Michigan fans should be allowed at least half an offseason to bask in the reflected glow of their team's unexpected achievements. 

Even apart from that, however, drawing a simple 2010 = 2012 analogy is both lazy and unfair. Many of these players weren't on the team in 2010, most of those who were on the team weren't responsible for the decline, and the few that helped contribute to the decline--like Stu Douglass and Zack Novak--have developed tremendously. The 2012 Wolverines might be the same as the 2011 Wolverines, but that is where the chain of similarity ends, even if all three teams will share the word Michigan on their jerseys.

That's not to say that success next season is assured. All it means is that the expectation of future success makes current success, even when limited to one thrashing of Tennessee and a .500 conference record, all the sweeter. We bake future anticipation into the cake, which is why Michigan fans can be so giddy about a team that basically performed as well as Illinois, while Illinois fans were apoplectic. If Michigan should misstep, 2011 will still be remembered fondly, despite the failure to follow through. Fan psychology is peculiar that way, but if it weren't, I imagine we'd all drive ourselves insane from the sheer arithmetic of a league where only one out of 320 teams can win the championship. It's the little triumphs that keep us going.