Saturday, March 19, 2016

Notre Dame 70, Michigan 63: End of the road

You can't say this hasn't been an exciting ride.

From the back-to-back nonconference thumpings against Xavier and UConn forever ago to the upset home wins against Maryland and Purdue to the Big Ten Tournament thriller against Indiana, this season rolled up and down like the contours of the North Campus wave field.

And tonight, despite leading 41-29 at the half, the Wolverines' ride came to an end, with a 70-63 loss against sixth-seeded Notre Dame in Brooklyn.

As you already know (and heard several times tonight), these two teams won't meet on the gridiron anytime soon, but this game had all of the makings of a classic football contest in Ann Arbor or South Bend, in a Barclays Center packed with alumni of both schools. Runs, punches and counter-punches, raucous roars, and coaches' calculations. Errors, triumphs and a result, yielding elation and deflation.

Unfortunately for Michigan, the song was much the same, following the same tune that has been a through line buzzing at the season's musical heart.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton shot a combined 8-for-29 from the field, with Irvin starting 1-for-10 from the field, his shot looking as discombobulated as ever. Given his past success, you'd think the fix would be akin to restarting your computer and hoping whatever ailed it went away, but it hasn't been so simple for the junior from Fishers, Ind.

But for the first 20 minutes, Michigan looked as good as it's looked all season. The defense was swarming, and the Wolverines held a +8 turnover margin (ND-10, UM-2) going into the break.

ND's Zach Auguste turned the ball over, a steal by Irvin, who dished to Aubrey Dawkins for a layup, giving Michigan a 26-13 lead just before the 8-minute media timeout. That would prove to be the apex of Michigan's lead.

The collapse, however, didn't happen until the second half. Notre Dame cut the Michigan lead to five, but Michigan closed the half with a 7-0 run, capped by a Moritz Wagner layup that took a round-trip flight to Berlin around before coming back to JFK and falling in as time expired.

But, this is tournament basketball. After 20: reset.

Unfortunately for John Beilein and Co., Michigan didn't and Notre Dame did. The Fighting Irish bested the Wolverines in the second half, 41-22.

One storyline I've already seen on Twitter tonight is Beilein's decision to keep Wagner out for too long late (he picked up his third foul 4:15 into the second half and his fourth with 5:38 remaining), playing Ricky Doyle late in a key portion of the game. As one who is loath to criticize Beilein, I can't argue with that point.

After another season of Michigan basketball, the referendum is in: Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle and DJ Wilson (who did not play at all tonight) are not the answer to Michigan's frontcourt woes.

Wagner is.

He was a spark in the Indiana win, scoring nine points and grabbing two offensive rebounds in 16 minutes. He was a spark tonight, too, with six points on 3-for-3 shooting from the field. Of course, he's not perfect, and he's certainly not Mitch McGary -- but he is clearly Michigan's best option in the frontcourt.

In retrospect, Wagner's nearly complete disappearance during conference play will go down as one of the most puzzling parts of this season. At the very least, it was a missed opportunity to prepare Wagner for what will assuredly be a central role in the rotation next season.

In the end, Michigan didn't make the plays that teams need to make come tournament time. I don't know how many finishes Donnal et al didn't convert at the rim, but it was too many (and I hate to criticize guys like that, but it is what it is). A missed attempt at the rim by Donnal with just over two minutes to go and Michigan down 64-61 stands out among the rest.

The game was still in reach late, with Michigan down 66-63 and possessing the ball after a Wagner rebound with 44 seconds left.

The possession ended with a familiar shot: an inadvisable three by Irvin, launched from Uniondale.

I get it, though. Late in the game, players like Irvin want that shot, no matter how many they've missed before that particular shot. But it wasn't even about the player taking the shot, but the circumstances of it. Michigan could have taken a two and forced ND to make its free throws. It could have even called a timeout and figured something out (although a player on the floor would have had to call it) -- and, as we know, there aren't too many people better than Beilein at drawing something up in the sand out of a timeout.

But neither of those things happened, and Irvin's long-range attempt fell off the mark.

Really, there was no other way for this to end.

Michigan's offense, predicated almost entirely on the success of its three-point shot, took this rusty bucket of bolts just about as far it could. Losing is never fun, but when looking back at this season, and factoring in the injuries to Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, it seems to me that the Wolverines squeezed out just about as many wins as they had a right to.

It's easy to think "what if." What if Michigan wins tonight and then gets a matchup against Stephen F. Austin, who looked fearsome tonight but perhaps plays into Michigan's hands (see 2013 VCU game)?

What if?

Well, the tournament isn't about what-ifs. Results are all there is. The cold bracket cares not for injuries, team history, feel-good stories, justice.

A Friday night in Brooklyn is the only thing that matters, in a building hosting more fans than the average game for the NBA team that happens to play there.

There are thoughts to add and little observations to wrap up in a bow, but now's not the time for that.

But, Michigan basketball is at a crossroads. Beilein has taken Michigan to the next level, but the success of recent years has set a bar that is not consistently attainable for most college basketball programs, let alone Michigan's, which has had its successes over the decades but is otherwise not among the elites.

So where do we go from here?

Michigan brings in point guard Xavier Simpson, two bigs standing at 6-10 and 6-11, and 6-4 SG Ibi Watson. Everyone from this team returns, save LeVert, of course, and most likely Albrecht, despite occasional rumblings that he could come back for another go.

I won't pretend to know how I think the aforementioned current high schoolers will perform as freshmen, but expecting anything of note is not a good idea.

For the most part, this team will, at its core, be what it was this season. The only difference will be whether or not certain players can: a) take a jump (e.g. Wagner) or b) get back to previous levels of play (e.g. Irvin).

For now, there's not much use speculating. Beilein will be back, and Michigan will, for once, have a fairly experienced college basketball team, led by juniors and seniors. Every rotation player of note currently on the team will be a junior or senior (Wilson will be a redshirt sophomore).

As topsy-turvy as this season was, it wasn't without joy. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman gradually proved himself -- he might not ever be an elite player, but he plays fearlessly. And unlike the prototypical Beilein player, his offensive game is more playground than Princeton -- take the ball to the hole and make a play. That's something every basketball fan can respect, even in a day dominated by the three-point shot.

Michigan has work to do, that much is clear. The program is in a strange place -- two down years following two transcendent ones, led by a coach who has exceeded inherent expectations everywhere he's been and is widely considered one of the best tacticians in the game.

But what happens when success breeds augmented expectations? What happens when making the tournament is seen as a given rather than a luxury? What happens when fans start wondering why the program doesn't reel in the most talented players rather than lauding the coach for identifying and developing the diamond in the rough?

We'll find out next season, I suppose.

For now, we say goodbye to a 2015-16 season that was simultaneously disappointing yet seemingly perfectly fit to reasonable expectations.

One team moves on. Another doesn't, beginning its offseason: the season of questions.