There was a heavy feeling of disappointment around Ann Arbor three weeks ago on Selection Sunday, as fans watched the NCAA tournament match-ups being announced, and once again, did not see Michigan's name get called. Most knew that Michigan didn't deserve to be in the tournament, but deep down, were secretly hoping the tournament committee would find it in their heart to let Michigan sneak into the Big Dance. But as the last bracket went up on the screen, everyone remembered that the NCAA doesn't have a heart. Michigan fans were left with nothing more than the sad consolation prize of another trip to the NIT.
No one was more excited than me at the prospect of bouncing out of bed early on March 16th and anxiously pacing around the house, watching the clock and waiting for the opportunity to see my team play in the NCAA tournament. It was a scenario I had dreamt about since the season began. But it wasn't meant to be for this Michigan basketball team. It was another year of the ultimate dream hanging just out of grasp.
As I took my seat in Crisler Arena for Michigan's first round match-up against Texas-El Paso, a funny thing happened. My disappointment over Michigan not making the NCAA disappeared. I felt strangely comfortable, and it had nothing to do with the fact that the general public apathy allowed my family to get seats so great that you could smell the mousse on Tim McCormick's head. This was the Michigan basketball that I knew and had grown to love. A team a little below average in talent, and a little above average in heart and determination playing in front of a half-filled arena in a game nobody outside the arena walls cared about. It wouldn't have felt right if Michigan had been playing earlier in the day on national television with millions of fans watching.
I can't speak for the players, but from my perspective as a fan, this season was miserable. All of the impossible expectations and constant criticisms of people who hadn't watched Michigan play basketball since the late 80's and think winning 80% of your football games is a total failure made the season less than enjoyable. People wanted this Michigan team to be one on the level of other big time programs in college basketball, and that just wasn't who Michigan was. It's impossible to say whether or not that pressure to be something they weren't weighed this Michigan team down, but it certainly couldn't have helped. If constant second-guessing and questioning of players is what life if like at the other big time basketball factorties, then I'll pass. A ticket to the Big Dance isn't worth a season's worth of misery and dread.
My favorite memory of Michigan basketball happened four years ago, when the current class of five seniors who have started every game in this NIT were only freshmen. They were an undermanned team with no hope of playing in the postseason that started the season with six straight losses. Interest in the basketball program couldn't have possibly been any lower in Ann Arbor. But that team went on to win 13 straight games, and the few fans that experienced those two months of basketball will never forget it. There was no pressure and no expectations. Just a group of kids playing a fun game, and a bunch of fans having a great time watching them. It wasn't about playing for a national title, or being ranked in the top 25, or having highlights on ESPN, or any of the other benefits of having a high-profile team. It was about enjoying the game of basketball and watching your favorite team play it.
The running joke I've heard from multiple people is that it's almost better to lose in the NIT and quickly be forgotten rather than to keep winning and bring attention to the fact that you weren't quite good enough to make the NCAA tournament, and face the mocking of others around the country. I'm glad that that attitude hasn't carried over to the players though. Getting to see my favorite team play an extra five games is great no matter what the circumstance. Bowing out of the NIT early with a poor effort is akin to stabbing your slightly dorky, yet exceedingly loyal friend in the back in an effort to look cool in front of the "in crowd".
So Michigan will play their final game of the season tonight against South Carolina. A few more people may watch this game than the game against UTEP two weeks ago, but probably not many. As soon as the season is over, the talk about what a disappointement this team was will likely continue. It's true that this may not have been a great team, but they were my team. And for a couple extra weeks, they gave me something to look forward to during they day and something to do during the night. The only disappointment I'll feel about that is when it has to end.