ANAHEIM, Calif. — In a year that featured so much promise and so much outstanding play, there was always something lingering over Michigan’s basketball team.
This team could defend anyone. But the offense, especially against teams like Texas Tech, just couldn’t keep up.
It was the story in three brutal losses to Michigan State this season. And, in the end, it was the final chapter of Michigan’s 2018-19 season.
The Wolverines won 30 games this year, but after bowing out with an offensive collapse during a 63-44 loss to Texas Tech in the Sweet 16, this Michigan team will go in the books as John Beilein’s best club that went without a banner of any kind.
To be clear: Michigan lost three games to MSU and one to Texas Tech. Those are two outstanding basketball teams, two of the best in the country. Against everyone else, the Wolverines are 30-3.
But they’ll finish 30-7 with some real emptiness in the offseason. Because this is how college basketball works on the big stage: You’re ultimately judged in March. Back-to-back 30-win seasons is a great thing, something undreamed of in Ann Arbor a decade ago.
But Beilein has raised the bar here. And when you don’t quite reach it, it stings.
The Wolverines couldn’t finish off the Big Ten regular-season title. They couldn’t quite finish off the Big Ten tournament title. And Thursday night in Anaheim, every one of this team’s flaws caught up with them, two wins shy of a return trip to the Final Four.
For Michigan basketball, this is mostly uncharted territory.
The Wolverines spent so many years under Beilein trying to establish themselves as a top-flightprogram. Just getting to the NCAA tournament was a cause for celebration not that long ago. Five Sweet 16s and two trips to the national title game in seven years later, March success feels normal.
But with that, the feeling of ending short of the ultimate goal — make no mistake, that ultimate goal was to get back to the national title game and win it — but still priding yourself on moving forward is no longer bittersweet.
These losses are just bitter. And they’ll no doubt serve as fuel as Beilein enters another offseason likely rife with change and development.
A few Wolverines will ponder the NBA in the coming weeks. Charles Matthews has one year of eligibility left, but he decided to go through his senior day earlier this year after testing the NBA waters last spring. Thursday may have been his final college game.
Ignas Brazdeikis, the team’s leading scorer and the Big Ten freshman of the year, will also have a decision to make. So will Jordan Poole, who — like every other underclassman on the roster — will have the opportunity to work out for pro teams this summer if he chooses.
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Regardless, Michigan will enter an offseason where offensive improvement has to be the top priority. This team never had Michigan’s typical brand of shooting. It never quite replaced Duncan Robinson, Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, three players who were capable of busting droughts with a big shot.
Those droughts popped up when opponents forced Michigan into one-on-one situations. The Wolverines were never a good one-on-one basketball team. When teams were athletic enough to switch everything, Michigan struggled without Wagner’s pick-and-pop game or Abdur-Rahkman’s ability to just grind out a bucket.
Michigan won 30 games because its defense is outstanding. Texas Tech’s was just a bit better. And when faced with a defensive challenge this year, Michigan couldn’t score enough.
That’s the frustrating news.
The good news?
John Beilein is still John Beilein. And his program is still considered one of the best and most consistent in America.
Michigan will lose pieces this offseason, just like every year. Beilein’s been able to make fixes with expertise a number of times. Michigan’s been through a lot worse and gone on to win championships.
This program has evolved constantly.
The odds suggest it will again.
Follow the Detroit Free Press’ Nick Baumgardner on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.