March 20, 2011
Michigan did everything it could on Sunday afternoon in Charlotte to channel its inner-Fab Five while trying to 'Shock the World.'
In a throwback tribute to the program's glory days that the NCAA would prefer that you forget, the Wolverines took the floor against top-seeded Duke wearing black socks and black sneakers to complement their signature maize uniforms. Michigan fans held up signs containing the slogan that the Fab Five picked up during a chance encounter with Muhammad Ali while on an unforeseen run to the 1992 national title game.
And even though John Beilein's club fell just short in an 73-71 loss to the Sweet Sixteen-bound defending national champs, they put forth an effort that the legendary Michigan recruiting class can be proud of.
In a game that Duke was favored to win by double-digits, the young Wolverines clawed back from the brink of a blowout in the second half and had a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds.
But as soon as Darius Morris's late, potentially game-tying runner fell off of the iron, the attention turned towards next season for Michigan, who is set to return everyone from the current roster. They'll hope to avoid an NCAA tournament-less collapse, which happened last season after the program appeared to be back on the map with a berth in the dance in 2009.
"I think the fact that it happened should be enough to make sure that it doesn't happen again," junior guard Zack Novak said afterwards. I You know, we've already started to make the guys fully aware of exactly what transpired and how disappointed we were at that season — As long a season as I've ever been though."
Michigan made noise by whooping a Tennessee team that threw in the towel in the second half by 30 in Friday's tournament opener. The match-up with Duke was hyped up even more by ESPN's Fab Five documentary that debuted last Sunday, highlighted by some not-so-kind words about the Blue Devils from former star and the film's executive producer Jalen Rose.
The game was close for a half, but Duke's Nolan Smith appeared to be blowing it open for good when he scored 10 straight for the Devils mid-way through the second half. They went up by as many as 15 points with just under 11 minutes left to play.
The Wolverines dug in and put a scare into Duke, and in the process built up plenty of early buzz for themselves heading into the 2011-12 season.
The key to it all will be Morris, who as a sophomore broke out by averaging 15 points, a Big Ten-best 6.7 assists and four rebounds a game. Against Duke, after a slow start, he had 16 points and six helpers. He's flanked by freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. — the son of former star NBA point guard Tim Hardaway — who after going under the radar of several schools as a prep recruit has the potential to be a big-time scorer. At 6-foot-5, he'll be a tough match-up for years to come.
They'll have two quality seniors in the back-court with Novak and Stu Douglass, and a young front-court with plenty of potential. Freshman Evan Smotrycz only averaged six points per game this season, but the 6-foot-9 wing was effective in 14 foul-ridden minutes against Duke, scoring 13 points, hitting both of his 3-point attempts and showing no fear in driving at the Blue Devils' size.
The youngsters appear to have a firm grasp of Beilein's 1-3-1 zone defense, and on the other end are consistently resembling the fourth-year coach's teams at West Virginia that put him on the map.
The kicker to all of this is that the Big Ten should be down a bit next year from its current state. The likes of Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois will all be rebuilding following the losses of key seniors, while Wisconsin and Ohio State will also have some holes to fill with youth.
This Michigan team won't follow a tough postseason loss to Duke with as much fanfare or pop culture impact that the 1991-92 group did, but they'll certainly deserve your attention.