In 2008, the year after the Notre Dame football team went 3-9, the Michigan football team did the same. Now, a year after a preseason top-15 Irish basketball squad failed to make the NCAA Tournament, it looks like the Wolverines could be headed down the same path.
Believe me, it hurts me to make that comparison.
I can’t believe Michigan is only 9-7 (3-2 in the Big Ten). A few weeks ago I was concerned that a Tourney bid was slipping away. Now? It’s out of reach, and John Beilein’s boys have a big hill to climb just to get back into the conversation.
Not everyone was as surprised by this as I was. AnnArbor.com Michigan beat writer Mike Rothstein made the connection between these two teams back in November, before the season tipped off, stating in an interview with MGoBlog.com that he feared Michigan could miss the Tournament just like the Irish did in 2009. He covered Notre Dame last season for The Journal Gazette, and heading into his first season in Ann Arbor, he noticed the similarities.
Though I did find it interesting, the comparison didn’t really concern me at the time. Although I wasn’t surprised that the Wolverines were considered a top-tier Big Ten team, I was surprised to see them ranked so high (No. 15) in the preseason poll. And even after the season started collapsing, I didn’t think to myself, “I should have seen this coming!” Just because Michigan’s make-up, on paper, is similar to Notre Dame’s, doesn’t mean it should suffer the same fate. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
“What gave me a feeling this might happen — and I had it the second I watched this team in Orlando against any real competition — was the lack of a reliable third scorer and a leadership void,” Rothstein said via e-mail on Thursday, before Michigan beat Indiana 69-45 at Crisler Arena. “Despite a killer schedule, what did Notre Dame in a season ago was missing the little things/stability guy in Rob Kurz. This year the biggest issue for Michigan is all about personnel. People may talk about shooting and defense and yes, those are important, but the focus and intensity C.J. Lee and David Merritt brought to the Wolverines kept everyone else in line on every possession.”
Even with minor personnel changes, it’s hard to argue that the loaded Big East didn’t contribute significantly to ND’s demise. ND didn’t have the most difficult non-conference schedule in the country last year, but they did head into Big East play with a 9-2 record, including a win over then-No. 7 (and eventual NCAA Tourney team Texas). So the theory that the Irish got swallowed up by a brutal conference slate certainly makes sense.
But what about Michigan? The Big Ten has been just as good as expected, but that’s irrelevant as far as the Wolverines are concerned. Their troubles started before Big Ten play began, as they dropped games to Marquette, Alabama, Boston College (in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge), Utah, and Kansas, while failing to beat any team of note. How do you explain that?
Rothstein’s reference to the seniors of last year’s Michigan team, Merritt and Lee, seems more than plausible. They didn’t fill up the box score, nor did they necessarily catch your eye with spectacular play. But they were fifth-year seniors who had been through some tough times.
“The leadership void is a big issue and that hole helped lead to some ill-advised shots in the offense,” Rothstein said in the e-mail. “With this team, bad offense leads to poor defense and this is how the cycle is going to go.”
Much like that Notre Dame team from a year ago, Michigan relies heavily on the outside shot and has been playing poor defense. When they’re not hitting from deep, as has been the case for much of the season, and they’re not getting enough stops on the defensive end, well, that’s not exactly a formula for success.
So did Michigan buy into its own hype after receiving the high preseason ranking?
“While I don’t think they thought they’d coast to a NCAA Tournament bid…I think they felt they were better than they were,” Rothstein wrote. “At the time, that was bad. Now, I think they still believe the same thing and that is good for them because it keeps confidence. This stretch could be the rejuvenation point or the breaking point.”
The stretch Rothstein referred to started with last night’s game, which was a must win for the Wolverines. Now the real brutal slate begins — No. 15 UConn on Sunday, followed by road games at No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 6 Purdue, and finishing with a home game vs. No. 8 Michigan State on Jan. 26.
If the Wolverines want to dance, they’re first going to have to fight.