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To Hell and Back….

January 28, 2013


Sometime tomorrow afternoon, the new college basketball rankings will be released.  And for the first time since George H.W. Bush was President (November 30, 1992), Michigan basketball will be the #1 team in the country.  Before I go any further, it’s important to note that college basketball rankings in January have the street value of a toy in a Cracker Jack box.  They’re worth nothing.  The only thing in college basketball that truly matters is who gets to cut down the nets while they play One Shining Moment.  That being said, for a Michigan basketball program that has truly been to hell and back, it’s incredibly exciting to have the rest of the college basketball world looking up at us.  

To truly appreciate how far we’ve come, it’s worth looking at where we’ve been.  The last 20 years of Michigan basketball have been a series of slight upticks in between periods of 2009 stock market like lows.  The last time Michigan was a legitimate #1 team was the sophomore year of the Fab Five.  A preseason #1 ranking slipped away after an early season loss to Duke – and though Michigan came within one Chris Webber mental error of winning the title that year, things were never really the same. The following year the Fab Four  minus C-Webb, made the Elite 8 before losing to eventual National Champion Arkansas.   Back-to-back first round NCAA exits in 1995 and 1996 were huge letdowns, but if we had known what was coming, we’d have celebrated them like championships.  

The hugely underachieving 1996-97 team did manage to raise a banner, albeit an NIT Championship.  But then came Mateen Cleaves and a Ford Explorer roll over accident, Ed Martin, and the dismissal of Steve Fisher a week before the 1997-98 season.  And then things got really bad.   Sure there were a few high points like a 1998 Big Ten Tourney Championship (Michigan’s first Big Ten title since 1986), but that only led to more bad news – like the permanent hiring of Brian Ellerbe.  Ellerbe managed an average of 5 Big Ten wins over the next 3 years, and his high water mark was a first round NIT loss.  That’s if you don’t count the recruitment of guys like Avery Queen, Maurice Searight, Josh Moore, and Kevin Gaines – all of whom left Michigan for various disciplinary and academic related issues.  Even the good things Ellerbe did – like bringing in Jamal Crawford – ended up going poorly, as Crawford was declared ineligible by the NCAA halfway through his freshman year, approximately an hour before the MSU game that year if I recall correctly.  

But the hits just kept on coming.  Tommy Amaker was hired in 2001, and shortly after his first season, the NCAA investigation involving Ed Martin was completed.  Michigan basically vacated anything good that had happened in the 1990’s, gave itself a year of NCAA post-season suspension, and a couple of years or probation.  The good news was that we finally hit bottom.   Amaker slowly built the team and school back to respectability, capturing an NIT championship in his 3rd year.  The only problem was that Tommy’s teams could never get over the NCAA hump.  After the 2007 season, it had been 10 seasons since Michigan made the NCAA tournament.  Though with MSU just up the road racking up #1 seeds and NCAA Final Fours every other year, it felt like 50 seasons.  So we let nice guy Tommy go, and brought in even nicer guy John Beilein.  Who promptly took Amaker’s 2007 team that won 22 games, and won only 10 games in 2008.  Immediately there were questions about whether Beilein could coach and recruit at Michigan.  Then we had the big breakthrough, an unexpected NCAA berth in 2009.  With high expectations the next year, we fell flat on our faces, failing to even qualify for the NIT.  After what was now basically 15 years of frustration and 12 years of embarrassment, I think most Michigan fans thought we’d be rebuilding again in 2-3 years, with a new coach.  But Beilein turned things around and got us into the NCAA’s again in 2011 and did the unthinkable in 2012 – a Big Ten Championship!  And I swear I’m not trying to take anything away from our guys last year, but it was a shared championship that was followed by a first round loss to a 14 seed in the NCAA tournament.  It was a great season, but it wasn’t the pinnacle. 

Tomorrow is different.  Tomorrow we again get to summit the mountain of college basketball.  Duke, UNC, Arizona, Louisville, Florida, Kentucky, OSU, and yes, even MSU, will all be looking up to us.  I don’t know how long it will last.  I’m not even sure we’ll be there for more than a week.  And as I said before, this isn’t the holy grail, or even something most schools would celebrate.  But for at least week, we’re the best in the land according to those who rank these things.  Given how far we’ve come and what we’ve had to crawl through to get here, it’s absolutely worth celebrating.  

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