Atlanta -- Plenty of tears fell in the Michigan locker room late Monday night, from the unheralded seniors to the heralded freshmen, and even from John Beilein. It was a heavy feeling, as if something special had ended, and it had, in an epic championship showdown with Louisville.
When the pain lifts, the Wolverines will shift from what was lost to everything that still can be gained. "One and done" is a common phrase in college basketball, but after a breakthrough 31-8 season and riveting NCAA Tournament run, Michigan doesn't have to be one and done — one Final Four in 20 years. In fact, if their talented freshmen avoid the one-and-done mentality, the Wolverines could be back here next spring, looking to finish the deal.
These are the unintended consequences of success. Sophomore guard Trey Burke, who cemented his standing as one of the greats at Michigan, is expected to leave for the NBA, and it's impossible to argue against it. He could be a top-five pick.
It gets tricky after that. Thanks to a weak draft and a strong Tournament, freshmen Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III are rated mid-first-rounders by analysts, forcing them to mull it even if they're not ready. Junior Tim Hardaway Jr. is the wild card with his 6-foot-6 NBA body, although he didn't raise his stock by shooting 29-for-77 in the Tournament.
Players weren't offering many clues after the 82-76 loss to Louisville, either saying no decisions had been made, or it wasn't the right time to discuss it. To me, McGary and Robinson III look too raw for the pros, and seem to enjoy the college experience.
If Burke is the only departure, the Wolverines are Final Four contenders again. If Burke and one other player go, they should be very good, and I think that's the most likely scenario. If three or four leave, well, that would be a shame for Michigan's program, because more special things look possible.
Beilein has an excellent recruiting class coming in, led by point guard Derrick Walton Jr., and has a knack for unearthing hidden talent. Spike Albrecht was the least heralded member of this five-freshman class, and in a swirl Monday, he scored 17 and showed he could handle the pressure.
Because the NBA prospect pool is so shallow this year, lots of players are being told they're first-round picks, which is dangerous. It could push some into a decision they're not ready to make, and probably weren't even considering a month ago.
"Right now I'll be back, but this isn't the time to talk about it," Robinson III said. "We're going to do everything we can to be back in this position next year. I remember coming in, the freshmen thought we knew how to play defense, thought we knew everything about the game of basketball. Now we got a lot of wisdom."
Keeping it fresh
Defense is where the Wolverines must improve, and they readily admit it. When they had to stop Cardinals guard Peyton Siva, they couldn't. As the youngest team in the Tournament, Michigan was learning on the fly, but the offense was so dynamic, it churned past the touted defenses of Florida, Kansas and Syracuse.
The clash with Louisville — framed by the attendance of another audaciously talented group, the Fab Five — is being hailed as one of the most entertaining championship games ever, and Michigan gained plenty of respect on the national stage. Both teams raced up and down the floor, throwing lobs for dunks, showing college basketball still is capable of unleashing offense. At one point, Michigan had all five freshmen on the court, and during a stretch of the first half, the frosh scored 26 straight points.
Normally that bodes extremely well for the future, but you're never certain in the one-and-done era. Beilein broke down in tears several times in his postgame address to his team, not out of sadness, but out of gratitude. Now, he'll be listening to the NBA buzz for his players, in advance of the April 28 deadline.
"I told them not to forget what brought you to this situation," Beilein said. "Yes, we had talent, but talent is never enough. You have to be united."
Michigan played with an unselfish flair, while leading the nation in fewest turnovers. It will be interesting to see how much was a function of Burke's incredible ability to create and shoot. When asked about his young players, Beilein repeats the mantra, "The best is yet to come."
Probably accurate, as long as the best stay. Albrecht showed he could be more than just a stopgap backup. Guard Nik Stauskas can heat up as quickly as any shooter, and fellow freshman Caris LeVert flashed potential. Walton is expected to make an immediate impact, and so could another incoming guard, Zak Irvin.
Many of the pieces still could be here, including the 6-10 McGary, who was sensational in the Tournament. He wasn't prepared to talk about his future, but no longer was saying he'd be back for sure.
Even getting to the championship game, there's plenty of room for the Wolverines to grow, especially on defense. A few weeks ago, they were wondering how to shake the taste of disappointment. They shook it remarkably well, and could keep shaking it up. Even Burke had a wistful look for what lies ahead.
"This team definitely will be back in this situation next year, although I'm not guaranteeing anything," Burke said. "As for myself, I'm not sure.
"This game hurts so much, that's something I'll talk over with my coaching staff and parents over the next couple of weeks."
Burke wasn't one and done, and wasn't quite won and done. But he took the Wolverines places they hadn't gone in a while, and if they show patience and perspective, places they could go again.