ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s going to take a while for the sting of Tuesday night’s loss to fade for the Michigan basketball team.
The Wolverines were one win away from the Final Four, but played their worst 40 minutes of offense all season. They were one basket away from winning the game anyways, but open look after open look clanged off the rim (or didn’t hit it at all) down the stretch.
Yes, the loss to No. 11 seed UCLA marked an incredibly disappointing end to the 2020-2021 season, but that doesn’t mean it should tarnish the memory.
Nobody outside the Crisler Center really knew what to expect from Juwan Howard’s team this season. He graduated the two winningest players in program history and filled the void with two transfers and a freshman. There were so many ways it could go wrong.
Instead, it went unbelievably right. Michigan rose to No. 2 in the AP poll by winning 18 of its first 19 games. It won the Big Ten regular season title outright in a year when -- tournament struggles aside -- no other conference was as deep or stacked at the top.
Michigan was picked to finish outside the top five in the conference, but instead, it sat atop the standings from start to finish. The Wolverines blew the doors off good teams like Wisconsin, Purdue and Iowa. They went into Columbus and won an all-time classic against rival Ohio State.
Even when the team was shut down for over three weeks due to COVID-19 issues beyond its control -- basketball didn’t even have a positive test -- Howard made sure his players could respond, and they came back almost as strong as ever.
The accomplishments didn’t end there. Michigan earned its first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament since the Fab Five era. It marched all the way to the Elite Eight without its senior captain, even when many thought LSU or Florida State would pull an upset. Of the nine Big Ten teams that made the Big Dance, only Michigan survived into the second weekend.
The list goes on and on. At a time when something as simple as even making sure a game can be played shouldn’t be taken for granted, this Michigan team brought four months of joy to its fan base.
If either of the game-winning shot attempts from Mike Smith or Franz Wagner would have fallen Tuesday to send Michigan to the Final Four, nobody would have been surprised. That’s what this team did all year: Find a way, even when the odds were stacked heavily against it.
Howard will not get to hang his first Final Four banner as a coach. Michigan will never get its shot at undefeated Gonzaga. But those aren’t the end-all be-all in college hoops.
Michigan didn’t get its storybook ending, but the journey was one fans won’t soon forget.