Niyo: Dreadful exit isn't how Wolverines want to frame 30-win season
Anaheim, Calif. — They looked dazed. They seemed dumbfounded. And without a doubt, they were defeated.
But after Michigan’s players filed off the court at the Honda Center, some of them with towels over their heads and others with tears in their eyes, including senior Charles Matthews making a somber final exit, the postgame message from their coach was more of a plea than anything else.
“This game,” John Beilein said, “shouldn’t define who you are.”
And yet it will for a while. Maybe a long while for some, like Matthews, who was sobbing at times as teammates came over to him one by one with words of thanks and apologies for how it all ended Thursday night, with a 63-44 drubbing at the hands — literally and figuratively — of third-seeded Texas Tech in a NCAA West Regional semifinal.
A year ago out here in southern California, Michigan put on an offensive clinic in its Sweet 16 matchup with Texas A&M, draining 10 3-pointers in a 52-point first half that prompted one of the Aggies' players to admit later, “I was just wondering when they were going to miss."
Thursday night, it was the polar opposite, as the Wolverines began by making some silly turnovers, then proceeded to dent the rims, going 7-for-25 from the field in the first half, including 0-for-9 from the 3-point line.
Michigan attempted 13 jump shots in the first 20 minutes and made not one of them. And if an eight-point halftime deficit felt like a chasm against a Texas Tech team that came into the game with the nation’s top-ranked defense, it wouldn’t take long for it to look like the Grand Canyon.
The Wolverines didn’t score their first basket of the second half until nearly 5 minutes had elapsed, and by then the Red Raiders had doubled them up, building a 36-18 lead that was insurmountable.
“A little bit like our Villanova loss last year,” Beilein said, referencing last spring’s season-ending defeat in the national title game. “We’re not a great offensive team ... and coming back from that was going to be really hard.”
Impossible, as it turned out. Texas Tech plays defense like no other team in the country, really, and Thursday they were out to prove a point against a Michigan team that was ranked No. 2 in defensive efficiency.
This was going to be a rock fight, everyone agreed. But Michigan forgot its slingshot.
The Wolverines didn’t make their first jump shot of the game until Ignas Brazdeikis finally got one to drop from the baseline with 10:01 to play. And they’d finish the night a mind-boggling 1-for-19 from 3-point range, with the lone make a last-minute bomb from walk-on reserve C.J. Baird that trimmed the final margin under 20 points.
So it wouldn't be the most lopsided NCAA Tournament defeat in program history (Loyola Marymount in 1990) or even the second-worst (the 71-51 loss to Duke in the title game), but the 19-point final deficit was the third-largest ever for the Wolverines in the tourney.
And that helped explain some of the 1,000-yard stares in the postgame locker room. Or the motionless figure of Zavier Simpson, hunched over in a folding chair with a towel draped over his head after a night he’ll probably never forget — zero points, one assist and four turnovers in 36 minutes.
A few seats away, Jordan Poole, credited Texas Tech’s defense in one breath and cursed Michigan’s luck in the next.
“We picked a bad day to have a bad day,” he said, shaking his head.
And even the opponent was willing to agree with that.
“Some shots weren’t falling for them that usually fall,” said Jarrett Culver, Tech’s star guard who finished with a game-high 22 points. “I mean, that's just how it happens sometimes.”
That it happened as often as it did to the Wolverines this season was jarring, though. The scoring droughts were frequent and frustrating, and this was Beilein’s worst 3-point shooting team since his first one at Michigan nearly a decade ago.
That will have to change for next season, and chances are it will, as the roster gets more experienced — assuming Brazdeikis and Poole both return — and more shooters emerge. John Beilein hasn't forgotten how to coach offense, folks.
Still, perhaps it was fitting that this season ended with one final clang, and a program-worst scoring total for an NCAA Tournament game, one point shy of the 45 points Michigan scored in a loss to Holy Cross way back in 1948. In many ways, that was the story of this season, as Beilein's team raced out to a school-record 17-0 start but couldn't win the games that mattered most in the end, losing the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles to their rivals from East Lansing and then coming up short here.
It's also a reminder of how the standards have changed for Michigan over the last decade, with five trips to the Sweet 16 in the last seven years and two trips to the national title game.
“We talk about championships every single day at practice, and that’s the great thing about our culture now,” said Luke Yaklich, the assistant coach whose role as defensive coordinator has played a huge part in these back-to-back 30-win seasons. “So this feeling right now, you hurt for Charles and you hurt for the team, obviously. We were able to accomplish a lot of things. But when you have that feeling in the back of your mind of what it was like to get to the Final Four and to play for the national title, and what it was like to celebrate those kinds of moments, it just stings in a different way.”
And in a way that, by the looks of Thursday night, will linger.