No matter where Michigan's basketball team ends up, be it in the NCAA tournament or the NIT, there aren't many people that can claim they saw the Wolverines in the running for either when the season tipped off.
Michigan came into the 2010-11 season as an afterthought following a disappointing campaign last year that saw the Wolverines stumble to a 15-17 mark and miss the postseason after the team started the year ranked No. 15 in the country. Michigan had returned an outstanding player in Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims and was fresh off its first NCAA tournament appearance in over a decade.
But Michigan disappointed from the very beginning of the season.
After starting out 4-0, Michigan lost key games to Alabama and Marquette, never to return to the national rankings again. They finished 7-11 in the Big Ten, good for eighth place in the conference. A team that many thought could challenge for the Big Ten title didn't even make it to the NIT.
This year played out much like last year at the very start. With no senior leadership and a bunch of freshmen getting quality minutes, expectations for Michigan were mediocre at best. But the Wolverines' young squad continually found ways to turn their fortune when all seemed lost. It started and ended against their arch rivals.
Michigan started out 11-3 but dropped six of its first seven Big Ten games. Sandwiched in the conference misery was a heartbreaking 67-60 overtime loss to third-ranked Kansas. What once was an 11-3 record quickly became a 12-9 record. Michigan looked like it would slip into irrelevance again.
Then, on Jan. 25 in East Lansing, Mich., the Wolverines saved their season.
The Wolverines upset cross-state rival Michigan State on its own floor, a place that had haunted Michigan basketball for more than a decade. In fact, Michigan had not won at the Breslin Center since 1997, a string of 11 straight losses.
Michigan proceeded to win four of its next five games, the only loss coming on the road to top-ranked Ohio State in a game where the Wolverines gave the Buckeyes all they could handle. But heartbreak struck again and it looked as though Michigan's season might unravel.
Michigan ripped off three more wins to improve its conference record to 6-7, but took a big hit when Stu Douglass' desperation heave at the buzzer against Illinois fell just short in a 54-52 loss to the Illini. Exactly one week later, Josh Gasser banked in a three at the buzzer to help then No. 12 Wisconsin survive a huge upset bid in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines persevered, however, pulling off a comeback in Minnesota to give themselves a chance to finish .500 in the conference. And they delivered one more time against the Spartans.
Playing before a sold out crowd in their home arena, Michigan jumped out to a 10-1 lead on MSU and proceeded to lead the game from start to finish. It got a little too close for comfort near the end—MSU pulled to within 56-54 with 5:48 left—but the Wolverines were able to hold off the surge and secure the victory.
Not bad for a team that wasn't supposed to do anything this season. Certainly nobody could have foreseen a sweep of Michigan State, a team that has been a thorn in Michigan's side and started the season with the No. 2 ranking in the nation. But just as surprising as Michigan's rise was Michigan State's fall; the Spartans may not make the NCAA tournament for just the third time under head coach Tom Izzo.
Even more impressive for Michigan, they did it with a bunch of young kids fresh out of high school.
Michigan started two freshmen on Saturday (forward Jordan Morgan and guard Tim Hardaway Jr.) and a sophomore in star point guard Darius Morris. Another freshman, forward Evan Smotrycz, and a sophomore, guard Matt Vogrich, each played over 20 minutes coming off the bench. Michigan boasts exactly zero seniors on its squad and just three upper classmen—junior guards Zack Novak and Stu Douglass and little used bench players Darrick Ervin II and Corey Person (Ervin and Person played a combined 11 minutes all season).
Hardaway headlined that freshman unit, scoring in double figures in 12 straight games to end the season. On Saturday, Hardaway poured in a team-high 20 points after scoring a total of none in the first half. Redshirt freshman Morgan took Sims' position in the lineup and averaged 9.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in his first full season. Though he's not a senior, Novak's hustle and 100 percent effort every time out on the floor provided Michigan with veteran leadership.
It's not the most talented team in Michigan history, but it may have the most heart.
The season is already a success whether Michigan (19-12, 9-9) emerges from the Big Ten tournament with an NCAA bid or not. At this point it would be disappointing if they didn't make the Big Dance, but it was still a successful run considering the expectations that this team had before the season.
At the very least Michigan has put the Big Ten on notice that they are an up-and-coming squad that will fight you until the very last second. Michigan is set to return every single player next season from this year's squad, a scary thought when you consider Michigan could have beat many of the top teams in the conference had some breaks gone its way.
If Michigan does make the NCAA tournament, do the fans one favor, Selection Committee: don't announce them dead last like last time. I think this team earned at least that.