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March 20, 2011

Heartbreak And Anticipation

The last time Michigan basketball had a loss like this? December 14, 1991. A young team led by the Fab Five, just beginning to scratch its potential, shockingly took the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils to the wire, losing by three. The heartbreak of the loss dissipated quickly, replaced by boundless optimism of what the future would bring.

This loss had many of the same qualities. A tough young team nobody expected to stay in the game - again facing a national champion Duke -- fought from behind and never lost its poise. Michigan basketball announced itself to a national audience that had no idea that John Beilein is building in Ann Arbor.

One measure of how far this team has run ahead of expectations is that it has beaten the point spread ion 14 of its last 15 games. Ever since its then-shocking, and in retrospect explicable, upset of Michigan state in East Lansing, this is a different team. Almost nobody has caught on. Tennessee was favored to beat Michigan on Friday. After the Wolverines turned in the greatest rout in the history of 8-9 seed matchups, the media narrative focused on Bruce Pearl's tenuous standing and its effect on the Volunteer's psyche - making the blowout appear inevitable in hindsight, when few people predicted it. Against a Duke team favored by double-digits, then Wolverines lost by a bucket.

The secret is out now.

This is not a bubble team. It is not a gimmick team. It is a skilled, talented collection of players working in a highly effective offensive system. Playing against one of the best defenses in America, Michigan got good looks at the basket virtually every single trip downcourt. Michigan didn't play over its head today. They made a third of their three-point attempts, below their average. They hung with Duke because the distance between Duke and Michigan is not that great.

It's impossible to analyze this game without mentioning the officiating. I happen to think that this Michigan team has received fair officiating all year, with some moments of unfairness pointing their way. (More than a few times, I have seen Stu Douglass or Zach Novak slide in front of an opposing drive, flop to the ground, and receive a dubious charging call.) But the now-customary Blue devil officiating edge played an enormous role in shaping the outcome of this game. Michigan's defenders were whistled for using perimeter defensive techniques that Blue Devil defenders used against Morris on nearly every dribble he took toward the basket - Morris was simply strong enough to push through the fouls. Several completely stationary Michigan defenders seemed to pick up odd foul calls, and John Beilein received a warning for complaining to the officials for the first time in a long while.

After the game, Beilein said, "Coach K's teams have always got to the foul line like that." I don't think I'm reading too closely between the lines to conclude that Beilein isn't attributing this solely to the skill of the Duke players or their coach.

The takeaway of this game will be a team and a fan base burning with anticipation for the next step. If they had taken a lead and frittered it away at the end, it would have felt like a choke job.

But coming from a 15-point deficit and nearly winning left a tantalizing taste. The enduring feeling is a team on the cusp of higher things, banging on the door of greatness, just moments away from crashing through.


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