Despite a torrid run through the NCAA Tournament, besting North Dakota St., VCU, Kansas, Florida and Syracuse, the buck stopped inside the Georgia Dome. The Cardinals were simply better than the Wolverines on that fateful night.
Some would wonder if the team had peaked with this National Championship Game appearance. 2013 National Player of the Year Trey Burke and teammates Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Mitch McGary were surefire first-round picks, most projecting Burke and McGary to be lottery picks. The Wolverines' best returning players were Canadian Nik Stauskas and the enigmatic Glenn Robinson III.
But then something happened: McGary opted to stay for another year in college. Burke would go on to be drafted by the Utah Jazz after a swap with Minnesota in the NBA Draft, with Hardaway, Jr. later falling to the New York Knicks in the latter part of the 1st Round. Michigan went from being expected to taper off from their excellent season inside the Big Ten Conference to hovering around being a top team in the conference.
Sometimes things do not always go according to plan.
McGary, the sophomore big man, saw his back flare up with strenuous issues that were expected to hold him off the court for many weeks or months. McGary though seemed to make progress, and missed only two games before returning for a game against Iowa St. Unfortunately, McGary has not taken the floor since the Wolverines' hard fought loss to at-the-time No. 1 Arizona at the Crisler Center.
Michigan stood at 6-4 on Dec. 15 following that tumble to the Wildcats. Without McGary and the rest of the team still trying to click, it appeared that those projections for the Wolverines following the National Championship Game were going to be correct. In-state rival Michigan St. was busy setting the pace in "The Great Lake State" with a 9-1 record and near the top of the polls. It looked as if the consensus choice for the Spartans to be Big Ten Champions was a foregone conclusion.
However, the script was flipped.
Since their loss to Arizona, Michigan has suffered just three losses. This 16-3 record over the last three months has helped the Wolverines lay claim to this accolade:
For the first time since the year 1986, the Michigan Wolverines have claimed an outright Big Ten Title.
In the wake of their explosive 84-53 victory against the lowly Illinois Fighting Illni, this Wolverines club accomplishes something not even the National Runner Up last year could. Not even "The Fab Five" could produce this kind of success while they were in Ann Arbor. With their 14 conference victories, the Wolverines have already claimed the most wins in conference in 21 years.
This season tipped the scales in the Big Ten Conference and in America and made one thing, above all else, abundantly clear:
Michigan is rising towards becoming an elite program in college basketball.
Under the direction of head coach John Beilein this season, the Wolverines rarely wavered. They stayed the course instead, and despite walking into some of the nation's most hostile environments, the maize and blue were amazing.
Michigan strung victories at the Kohl Center in Madison, the Breslin Center in East Lansing and Value City Arena in Columbus. As if it were not impressive enough, the Wolverines won those games by an average margin of 7.33 points, including a 10-point victory at Ohio St. Speaking of the Buckeyes, with their 1-0 record against them this season, Michigan holds a winning tally over them for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
Beilein not only showed a tremendous sense of X's and O's, but also a brilliant feel for preparation. It is incredibly difficult to win on the road consistently in college basketball.
And perhaps more outstanding for Beilein is that he never obtained victories in Columbus or Madison, and had won just once in East Lansing prior to Michigan's 75-70 victory over the Spartans in January.
Within league play, Michigan was terrific away from Ann Arbor. They fell just twice on their road slate in the wild and wacky Big Ten Conference, and have failed to lose back-to-back games all year.
Every great team has a star at the forefront. Last year it was Trey Burke. And this season it is Nik Stasukas.
Stauskas was in the house all season as the catalyst for the Wolverines, and could very well come away with Big Ten Player of the Year honors. It would be the second consecutive year that a Michigan player would hold honor to that distinction if it plays out that way. The Ontario native currently averages 17.3 points per game with a usage rate of 23.4 percent, and with a TS% of 65.6 percent, Stauskas ranks 23rd in America as one of the best shooters on the floor night in and night out.
12 times in 28 games the sophomore guard has scored 20 points or more this season. In Big Ten play, Stauskas is currently averaging 16.76 points a night, with a season-high 26 coming against the Iowa Hawkeyes in a win in late January.
In just a year, Stauskas has emerged from a complementary player to the best Wolverine on the floor. Michigan could not claim the Big Ten Title without this transformation.
But Stauskas is far from the only contributor on this team. Caris LeVert, playing in a role that was filled by Stauskas just a year ago, has been dynamic from the three-point arc all season long with a FG% of 40.9.
Freshman point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. eased into his role late in the season, but has flourished more often than he has not in the latter portion of this season.
The sea of maize and blue once appeared to be rough going into the year. But with tremendous composure all season long despite the losses of several of their key contributors from a season ago, Ann Arbor can celebrate for now for this team, with the hope of more celebrations, and a chance of avenging their defeat in the title game a season ago, still to come.