If anyone has read my blog before, it’s no secret that I am a lifelong athlete. I’ve poured my blood, sweat, and tears into each game that I’ve played, and I know what it’s like to come up just short. The reason I am posting this now is because of the men’s NCAA championship game that was played last night between the University of Michigan and Louisville. I am currently a student at the University of Michigan, and maybe that’s why this loss has hit me harder than any other one that I’ve watched. The boys on the team are my peers, they walk the same streets that I do, and I’ve had classes with and spent time with some of them. For all the hype surrounding them (and other revenue sport athletes), they are still 18 to 22 year olds with so much ahead of them. They are not immortals, though their physical prowess may make it seem that way. The campus put them on a pedestal, and, after achieving a number 1 ranking for the first time since the Fab Five in the early 1990s, we all watched in dismay as they tumbled to the finish of the regular season and through the Big Ten Tournament. Nobody expected them to be the last Big Ten team standing or to come within six points of a national championship, but that’s why they were so invigorating for the Michigan community. People had Michigan losing in the first round because they were reminded of last year, when Michigan, a 4-seed, got knocked out by a 13-seed. This was not last year’s team. They weren’t supposed to handle VCU’s “havoc”, but they did with aplomb. No way could they slay the giant they faced in Kansas and Jeff Withey, and, for 34 minutes, they didn’t, finding themselves down 14 with six minutes to go. But Trey Burke, the pride of Columbus who OSU didn't even recruit, willed them back with a performance for the ages. Florida and Syracuse were both supposed to beat Michigan—but couldn't. This team never did what it was “supposed” to—and they had a chance to shock the world in front of the Fab Five in Atlanta on Monday night. When they didn’t come out with a win, I left with a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Watching Trey Burke walk off the floor for what is probably the final time in a Michigan uniform struck me in a way that I haven’t experienced when I’ve seen a professional team that I cheer for lose an important game. I’ve never been the national player of the year, and I never will be. But I have been that kid walking off the field or the court at the conclusion of a season or a high school career attempting to keep my head up when all I want to do is break down. I watched Nik Statuskas attempt to keep his composure in an interview after the game: he couldn’t, and I didn’t blame him. Watching him, there was no doubt about how badly this team wanted to win the game. As heartbreaking as it was for me to never win a state title in high school, I don’t have the experience of coming within inches of a national championship as a freshman and watching it slip away. This Michigan team was special—because of the players and how much they cared about the team and the ultimate goal. How the 3 freshman, 1 sophomore, and 1 junior starter said they wanted to win for their seniors, guys who only played garbage minutes throughout the season. How Mitch McGary would throw his monstrous frame on the ground after a loose ball if Michigan was up 20 points or down 20 points. How Spike Albrecht, mere inches taller than me, stared down giants and launched 3-pointer after 3-pointer. How a team of underestimated, under-recruited guys put Michigan basketball back on the map. And now, for years to come, it won’t be good enough to just make the tournament like it was when I first stepped on campus. The expectation—and reality—is that Michigan can make the Final Four and compete for a national championship. Today, as it is everyday, it’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine. And 40 minutes last night doesn’t change that.