April 17, 2013

Borton's Blog: Hardaway Away

And the second shoe drops. The other half of what some were calling the best backcourt in college basketball has declared his intention of departing from Ann Arbor before his senior season rolls around.

Junior Tim Hardaway, Jr., he of the smooth jumper and burning look of focus, said goodbye to Michigan today. Within a week, that makes a pair of non-graduating basketball Wolverines that have identified the 2013 national championship game as their last in a Michigan uniform.

There's not much left to say, of course, except farewell and good tidings.

"Since the day Tim arrived in Ann Arbor, he has put his mark on the Michigan program," said U-M head coach John Beilein. "He has been a terrific player, student, leader, teammate, mentor and friend. Tim has had a huge impact on our recent successes, and his three years at Michigan were truly special. We thank him for all he has done to bring this program back to national prominence.

"Tim has worked very hard to develop his game during his time here. He has prepared every day for this opportunity. We know he will work just as hard or harder to make his dream a reality. We fully support his decision and will do whatever we can to assist him. We wish Tim the best in his pursuit of a professional career."

There are all sorts of Hardaway highlights to be recalled, of course. Him going crazy against Ohio State at Crisler Center this year comes immediately to mind.

Hardaway flat-out carried the Wolverines in that 76-74 overtime win, nailing 6 of 9 three-point shots on the way to a game-high 23 points. When the three-year Wolverine heated up, the deep ones looked good from the millisecond they left his fingers.

The torrid moments came through Hardaway's incredible practice efforts, U-M head coach John Beilein always insisted. Nobody outworked him, Beilein tells anyone who will listen.

Still, it isn't those magic moments on the court that will stick in this observer's memory the most, when thinking about Hardaway as a Wolverine. Two incidents jump out from not-so-good times, and both revealed a lot about Hardaway as an individual and Michigan's present program as a whole.

Standing in line to enter the old Michigan locker room at Crisler Arena following the ill-fated Minnesota game in Hardaway's freshman year was not an anticipation-filled experience. The Wolverines had just lost to the Gophers in extremely discouraging fashion, 69-64.

The lose dropped them to 1-6 in the Big Ten, just one year removed from a hugely disappointing 15-17 campaign. The rumble grew ever louder about this transplanted West Virginia coach and his "gimmicky" offense.

Hardaway came trudging up the old tunnel at Crisler, with a look that screamed I didn't come here for THIS. His actual commentary proved more succinct and extremely pointed, and he quickly disappeared into the locker room, fully incensed.

Everybody knows what happened five days later. Michigan went up to Michigan State, beat back the Spartans, 61-57, and rallied from that point on, surging to an NCAA Tournament berth.

Most recall Zack Novak and his sideline rant in East Lansing, giving him well-earned credit for supplying much of the fire that went into Michigan's run. But it became pretty obvious the veteran wasn't the only one who could get a little worked up.

A similar scene played out in the bowels of the Breslin this year. Michigan got taken apart by MSU, physically manhandled and basically run off the court. Not one single Wolverine accepted what had transpired, but one of them raged more than the rest combined.

Hardaway was furious. This was unacceptable, and he didn't mind saying so, loudly, pointedly and publicly. It was embarrassing, ridiculous, and absolutely intolerable.

And, he emphasized, it would not continue.

Of course, it did not.

Michigan pulled it together, healed up, toughened up, and beat the Spartans on their return trip to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines then came within an ill-fated trickle of the basketball from winning a Big Ten championship.

Once the NCAA Tournament rolled around, nothing could stop them … at least until they ran into the tournament's No. 1 seed in the national championship game. They gave Michigan fans the ride they'd been dreaming about for two decades, fueled by a host of contributors.

Hardaway certainly counted as one of them. Without the 10 points, five rebounds and three assists he delivered in the cliffhanger win over Kansas, Michigan never makes the Final Four.

And without the sort of fire he revealed in Michigan's darkest moment of the season, the sort of fire that permeates throughout a roster, maybe nothing plays out like it did.

Some will say he should have returned, point out his flaws regarding a stab at the NBA, etc. In the end, Hardaway owes Michigan nothing but a sincere thank you and rooting loyalty down the road at the next Final Four.

He's one of the core group who believed in Beilein and Michigan when it wasn't fashionable. He should always be remembered for it.

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