When college basketball pundits and writers talk about a team's success over the last 3 years and the future of that team, the word that generally gets thrown around is program. Program, in my opinion, gives off the impression that it's run like a professional sports team, full of offseason roster turnover and coaches that are often times more concerned about winning games than about the long-term well being of their players. There are certainly programs in the college game, especially now with the recent development of one-and-done players. The perfect example of a program is a team like Kentucky, with seven players entering the NBA Draft and the aforementioned roster turnover on par with most NBA teams. John Calipari continues to win and produces results for the folks in Lexington, but fans are often looking for more than just a program: they're looking for a family.
As cheesy as it sounds, college basketball teams are generally made up like families. They live together, they take classes together, they eat together, and they play basketball together for hours every day, not to mention road trips into hostile environments as a team. These are kids, not grown men who have played ten years in the NBA. When faced with adversity, you rarely hear NBA players turn to their teammates for help and advice. In college, that's different; you turn to your family.
I use this word family because it has been the epitome of what has made Michigan basketball so special over the last few seasons. Despite Michigan's mediocre 16-16 record, the Wolverines continued to develop this family bond throughout the season. Before the season began, no one outside of the Michigan locker room believed that Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman or Aubrey Dawkins would be a legitimate contributor to this team. Max Bielfeldt, a player now getting serious looks as a graduate student player, was nothing more than a lifetime bench player. But those players weren't concerned with what writers and experts were saying. They believed in themselves, and their teammates believed in them.
Perhaps my favorite example of the Michigan family mantra is with freshman Austin Hatch. Hatch's story is deservedly well documented, as he was able to overcome two plane crashes and a coma to walk, speak and be a member of the Michigan basketball team. It seems extremely unlikely that Austin Hatch will ever be a legitimate contributor on the court, but Hatch's inspiration is truly amazing. If you knew that one of the 15 guys on your team, in your office, in your class had suffered through two plane crashes and continued to work his ass off every day, wouldn't you be a little bit more motivated to excel at what you do? John Beilein didn't have to honor Hatch's scholarship, but he did. Because Austin Hatch is family.
How is this relevant to Michigan's program? Michigan finished at .500 despite injuries to two of their best players, and started three players that were extremely under-recruited for the second half of the season. Guys like Dawkins, MAAR and even Spike Albrecht continued to improve, and will be primed for even bigger roles next season.
But the main domino in this entire piece is Caris LeVert. On Tuesday, LeVert announced he would be returning to Michigan for his senior season. LeVert accepted a position on the campus honors society on Monday, and clearly wants to get his degree. LeVert has integrated himself as a valued member of not just the Michigan basketball team, but as a member on campus that truly cares and wants to make the most of the university he is attending.
LeVert could have looked to Frank Kaminsky, the National Player of the Year that beat Michigan twice, as inspiration. Kaminsky came back and Wisconsin was a dominant force in the Big Ten. But if you followed Wisconsin throughout the year or in the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin was more than just a basketball team thrown together. It was clear they were a family.
LeVert's return along with every other major contributor makes Michigan one of the top 10 or 15 teams in the country next year from the start. The bullseye will be on their back from the get-go, and Michigan has the leader in John Beilein to ensure success. Whether Michigan returns to the Final Four or flops out in the NCAA Tournament is not contingent on solely the play of the team, but on the camaraderie. College basketball is supposed to be about more than wins and losses, but about the development of yourself and the people around you. More than anything, it's about family.