SAN ANTONIO: Some years, the final loss of the season sears the soul, one play here, another play there, trailing those on the bad side of the basketball gods to their grave.
“Eats you up forever,” Michigan coach John Beilein said.
This was not one of those nights.
The Wolverines’ 79-62 loss Tuesday to Villanova in the national title game no doubt packed a devastating wallop.
In the locker room afterward, Lima senior graduate Zavier Simpson was near inconsolable, burying his head in his towel. Jordan Poole labored through tears. Silence filled the void occupied the past month by water fights and boundless joy.
The more you want something for your team, your coach, your school, the harder the end.
“This sucks,” Moritz Wagner said.
Yet Beilein was at peace. Outside the locker room, the coach, gracious as always but unusually relaxed, revealed his big offseason plans.
“My St. Louis Cardinals won today, 8-4, and I will become a rabid Cardinals fan,” he said with a grin wider than the San Antonio River. “I might take a trip to St. Louis just to relax and have a nice Budweiser and watch the Cardinals.”
The coach will lose no sleep this offseason.
No, Michigan did not play well against the Wildcats, hitting 3-of-23 shots from beyond the arc. But with the benefit of hindsight, you could have played the NCAA tournament 10 more times, and an all-time Villanova team that won every game in March by double digits—the first to do so since UCLA in 1967 —would have mowed through nine of them just the same. Maybe all 10 if you could have forecast the infernal championship cameo from Donte DiVincenzo, who came off the bench to bury Michigan with 31 points.
No one was toppling Villanova.
“Even if we had played our best, it would have been very difficult to win that game with what DiVincenzo did,” Beilein said. “Incredible performance. Sometimes those individual performances just beat you, and you just take your hat off and say, ‘Good game. We played you the best we could, and tonight you were better than us.’”
Unlike in 2013, when the championship slipped away against Louisville, the 65-year-old will remember this ride only for its place among the most rewarding of his career, a lightly heralded Michigan team he branded as substance over flash —and rebranded into a defensive Goliath—evolving from unranked in the preseason to winners of a school-record 33 games. We’ll also remember it is as his finest hour, the year you could truly say a staff extracted everything and more from its roster.
“Awesome!” athletic director Warde Manuel told the coach in the tunnel afterward.
If anything, this year left Beilein—under contract through 2021 and expected to soon sign an extension—and those who will stay excited as ever for the future.
The confetti was not yet off the court before star-in-the-making freshman Poole said he planned to reside in the gym this summer, calling the offseason “life or death.”
Michigan will lose seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, along with perhaps junior star Wagner (likely)—who projects as a mid-second round draft selection—and tourney standout Charles Matthews (unlikely). Wagner declined to tip his hand, saying, “This night has nothing to do with next year.”
If Wagner returns, Michigan is the Big Ten favorite. But even if not, a team led by Matthews, Simpson, and Poole fortified by a top-15 recruiting class should develop into another force.
A championship force? If this year proved anything, a team can dream.
“I’d love to win a national championship for those guys, for the University of Michigan, for all those great students, all of our alums,” said Beilein, who officially just assumed the mantle as the best active coach without a title. “For me? This year is why I coach, to be in that locker room right now with those kids. To have this opportunity to tell them, this is life. You have these great highlights, then all of a sudden, in a blink of an eye, you have this great sadness, and your season is over.”
“But in the long run there is a lot of joy.”
The pain will fade in no time. The memories will carry on forever.