Michigan’s memorable season comes to an end

Michigan raged and raged against the dying of the light.

A team that was written off when Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. went to the NBA, and dismissed again when Mitch McGary went down with a season-ending back injury, kept fighting through one of the most memorable seasons in program history.

They weren’t supposed to contend in the Big Ten, but they won it by three full games. After a bad loss to Michigan State in the conference championship game, they weren’t supposed to do much in the NCAA tournament.

Instead, they came within 10 seconds of a second-straight trip to the Final Four.

"This year has been the most fun I’ve had playing basketball ever," said senior captain Jordan Morgan, who saw the Wolverines hang banners in each of his final three seasons. "I really got close with these guys, and had the opportunity to grow as a leader and a mentor. I’ll always appreciate that."

Here they were, though, fighting down the stretch of the Midwest Regional title game, refusing to let Kentucky put them away. Aaron Harrison hit a 3-pointer to make it 72-67 with two minutes to play, but Glenn Robinson III pulled out the dagger, spit on it and nailed a triple of his own.

The next minute showed exactly why John Beilein and his young roster had already accomplished so much. Michigan’s defense, struggling badly against the bigger Wildcats, stepped things up and forced a shot-clock violation to keep it a two-point game.

At the other end, Nik Stauskas missed a layup in traffic, but Caris LeVert grabbed the rebound away from the giant Kentucky defenders. The ball was fired out to the wing, then to the baseline, but Stauskas missed a 3-pointer. 

This time, LeVert dove through the air for another offensive rebound, keeping the play alive.

"That’s a very, very good basketball player," Beilein said of Stauskas. "His future is so bright. He and these other guys — this is one of the best teams any coach could ever have."

LeVert knocked the ball to Derrick Walton Jr. for another 3-pointer — one that would have given the Wolverines the lead. The third shot of the possession was another miss, and this time, it was Morgan went up with Kentucky star Julius Randle. 

Randle already had 11 rebounds, but this time it was Morgan — the only senior in the game — who kept his career alive by tipping the ball in for the tying basket.

Even in the final seconds, when Harrison hit the long 3-pointer that sent the Wildcats to the Final Four, the Wolverines did everything right. LeVert forced Harrison to shoot from two feet behind the arc, and had a hand in his face. The freshman — part of the first all-freshman starting lineup to reach the Final Four since the Fab Five — just made the play.

"They’ve been shooting 33 percent out there all season, and they are so good at driving," Beilein said. "You’ve got to make them shoot over you, and we got our hand up. He just hit the shot from deep.

"That was the end of a terrific basketball game."

It was the second time in March that Michigan had come within a game of cutting down the nets in Indianapolis — Sunday’s loss at the Hoosier Dome came only a few miles from the arena where they lost to the Spartans in the Big Ten title game — but now the Wolverines will have to look toward 2015.

On paper, the team should be loaded. Morgan is the only senior on the roster, but with McGary returning at full strength and redshirt freshman Mark Donnal ready for his first college action, the Wolverines will have more size than they did this season.

They would also return all of the players that gave them the nation’s top offense this season, with Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Spike Albrecht and LeVert still only juniors and Walton and Zak Irvin just sophomores.

Of course, that was equally true a year ago, before Burke and Hardaway left early for the NBA. While Morgan isn’t considered an NBA prospect, that isn’t true of several of his teammates. Stauskas, after winning the Big Ten Player of the Year, is projected a lottery pick, while Robinson would probably go later in the first round, and McGary’s status would depend entirely on his back.

They aren’t going to make those decisions tonight, though. Not after that loss.

"Right now is just not the time," said Glenn Robinson III, who will get plenty of advice from Beilein and his dad. "We’ll discuss that with our families, but right now, our season is over, and that’s all we are really thinking about. Jordan — our senior and our leader — his career just ended, so we are thinking about him and our teammates."

Eventually, though, Michigan’s three stars will have to pick Ann Arbor or the NBA. Those choices will determine if the Wolverines will enter next season at No. 1 in the country or if another group of underdogs will have to surprise the nation for a third straight season.