Michigan players take solace in season achievements, not final NCAA result
Anaheim, Calif. — One game doesn’t define the season.
From locker to locker, that was the common phrase one Michigan player after another repeated through moist eyes and hushed tones.
It was the same message the coaching staff tried to drive home after Michigan's NCAA Tournament run came to a crashing halt in Thursday’s lopsided Sweet 16 loss to Texas Tech.
“How many people can say they're 30-7?” assistant coach DeAndre Haynes said, citing Michigan’s final record. “You had 30 wins, won 33 last year. You go to a national championship then you go to a Sweet 16 this year. Pick your head up.
“I told them since our trip to Spain, we lost a couple games out there and a couple guys had their heads down. I said we're going to be really good and I told them we're going to go as far as you guys take us. Charles (Matthews) did a great job of leading us. Zavier (Simpson) did a great job leading us. Jon Teske stepped up big this year. Iggy (Brazdeikis) was tremendous as a freshman. I think everybody who stepped on the floor in practice and games contributed to the 30 wins we had this year. We had a great season. Be proud of these moments.”
But that didn’t ease the pain of Thursday’s frustrating finish where Michigan’s offense hit a new low and crumbled against the nation’s top team in defensive efficiency.
Matthews slumped in his locker and had teammate after teammate pat him on the back after what was possibly his final game in a Michigan uniform. Not far away was Simpson, who didn’t say a word as he sat with a towel draped over his head and his back to rest of the room. Across the way was Brazdeikis, the talkative freshman who responded to answers in 10 words or less.
For a team who set a program record with a 17-0 start, reached 30 wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history and was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, it was an empty feeling and a hard pill to swallow.
“We worked so hard and I think the emotions are high because we were four wins away,” sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said. “We were so close to getting back to where we were last year. I just knew how bad everybody wanted it. I kind of like to see emotion after a loss because it shows how much guys care.”
Part of those emotions stem from the fact that for all the Wolverines’ success, they won’t have a single banner to show for it.
They fell a game short of winning a share of their first Big Ten regular-season title since 2014. Their bid to become the first team to three-peat as Big Ten tournament champs slipped through their hands. The fact both of those achievable goals were thwarted by Michigan State cut even deeper.
Outside the locker room, coach John Beilein made sure to point out this year's team relied on a young roster that didn’t have one true senior or three-year starter and all this happened after Michigan lost three of its top four scorers from last year’s national runner-up team.
And even with an inconsistent offense that finished as Beilein's worst 3-point shooting team since 2010, the Wolverines still managed to win 30 games for the fifth time in program history.
“It wasn't always pretty, but we found a way,” Matthews said. “There's plenty of times we had some wins that were questionable, but this team always found a way to make it out. I think that's one of the things I respect about this team, the character of this team just shows that through it all we're going to keep on fighting, keep on pushing."
Heading into the season, Michigan was ranked No. 19 in the preseason Associated Press poll and expected to be a contender in the Big Ten despite losing several key contributors.
By the midway point, the Wolverines raised the bar by routinely dismantling foes and emerging as one of the last unbeaten teams left in the nation.
And by the end of it, Michigan checked in at No. 8 in the final poll and was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament — tying the program’s highest seeding in Beilein’s tenure.
“We never looked at it as a rebuilding year at all,” assistant coach Luke Yaklich said. “That's kind of the mindset that we had, and I think that's the reason why this team was able to accomplish what it did. These guys that have been here for two years, three years with (Zavier), they've experienced a ton of success.
“I think you look at this season and we had high expectations for ourselves. We felt that we had what it takes at each position to be really good and really solid in our league. Our guys really managed the entire season really well. (Texas Tech) is the first team we lost to outside of the Big Ten. We had a really good year that didn't end the way we wanted to.”
But sometimes it’s hard to see that through teary, blurry eyes.
“Obviously, there's going to be a team who wins the NIT and there's going to be a team that wins the NCAA Tournament,” sophomore guard Jordan Poole said. “Everybody else is going to be in tears. Your season is going to be over.
“Right now, it's tough, it's hard. We're kids, we're growing up and we obviously want to play basketball as long as we can. In a couple days we'll definitely look at what the team has done. We had a 17-0 start. Who does that? A 30-win season, back-to-back? It's amazing.”