The Wolverines with Caris LeVert started the season by losing every game of note. Their marquee win was in a Big 12 tussle with the Longhorns, who were bad, turned out to be good, then ended up on the business end of a vine loop of sadness last night, minutes after our boys boarded the bus for LaGuardia. Michigan's early marquee losses were severe: 16-points, 14-points, 24(!) points, all but assuring that it would be a struggle to muscle their way into the field of 64 with the Big Ten slate looming.
In mid-December, Spike would shut it down, a blow to leadership and depth. And from a motivational perspective, Michigan would not find an man so inspired until Mo came out of nowhere in the postseason. But I digress... four straight cupcake games built some confidence, enough to pull out an elusive road Big Ten win against the Illini to close out the calendar year. Unfortunately, what we didn't know then that we know now is that December 30th would effectively be Caris LeVert's final game as a Wolverine. And it would have been really nice to know then, because removing the fact that we were effectively Indiana without Yogi or Michigan Agricultural College without Denzel, I feel that the uncertainty of the if/when return of LeVert messed with the team just as much, and messed with John Beilein.
It isn't easy man. Choosing to move on from a team leading 17PPG, from the only guy that had any inkling of driving the ball to the hoop to open up our perimeter game, is a tough one. And nobody on the team seemed to want to take that role, or any other role for that matter. Meanwhile, Michigan's big men devolved. The air had been let out of the balloon. Smoked on the road in West Lafayette (17 points) and in Iowa City (11 points) at home by Sparty (16 points) and Indiana (13 points). They would lose 6 of 8 going into the home finale against Iowa, just four days after the official announcement that Caris would be out for the remainder of the season. What was thought of nationally as a win-and-in game for the Wolverines became an embarassment. Despite a flurry of threes pulling them within five with 5 minutes to go, it was all Iowa on limping Senior Night at Crisler.
I don't believe that you can play your way into the NCAA tournament with wins in your conference tournament. So yes, I believe we were already sharpied into the bracket in the NCAA war room without the narrow win against Northwestern and the miracle against Indiana. What was important about those Big Ten Tournament victories though, was that the team finally seemed to get together. Chatman's buzzer beater was glue. The arrival of Mo Wagner was a huge spark. Wagner, after 12 total minutes of PT in the month of February, played 16 minutes against the Big Ten outright regular season champ, and dominated.
We didn't quite muster up enough to get by Purdue and meet little brother in the finals, but I think we might have if Mo got more minutes. I'm told by the experts that he limits our offense when he's in, to which I reply "Have you seen our offense?" Dude seems to be able to pick and roll with purpose and dunk better than our other options.
So ya, you know the rest. Long bracket show saved by a leak. Michigan is in, but not really in. Played an ugly game against Tulsa to make "the actual tournament." Played an amazing first half against ND before bowing out in the second. Oh, and again it was because we needed more Wagner IMHO.
It will be a season of "what could've been" for a little while before we start looking ahead to "what could be." This team with Caris, developing together throughout a whole season might have been something really special. This team without Caris, and KNOWING they were without Caris, developing together throughout a whole season might have been something really special too. In this year's college basketball landscape, they could have easily made some serious noise.
However, there was never going to be a Caris here next year. So now that it's over, we can be optomistic that we got a head start on the journey without him. The market of Michigan Basketball fan satisfaction was a volatile one this season, here's to hoping we get some happy stability in the near future.
Oh and the Denzel Valentine guaranteed National Champions lost in the biggest upset in the history of college basketball.