AT LEAST FOR ONE NIGHT, WOLVERINES GIVEFANS SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE

The snow fell on the parking lot. The seats inside were largely empty. It was the last home game at Crisler Arena, and it was seniors night — both of which were mixed blessings in this sunken Michigan basketball season.

On the one hand, this U-M team has only two seniors, neither of whom has broken a real sweat all year.

On the other hand, if you were a senior, would you want this as your farewell night?

Nuh-uh. Not this mop-up game in a season that has already flooded the basement. Not this sedate arena which — thanks partly to spring break — had hundreds of empty seats. Not this Michigan team which had lost five in a row and has often seemed dejected and discordant.

Exit sighing. Never mind that U-M ultimately blew out last- place Northwestern, a team that can barely bring the ball upcourt against a press. This game did little good for the Wolverines, except polishing the NCAA apple, and giving guys like Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor and Jerod Ward a rare chance to smile.

“It feels like we haven’t won since my freshman year,” sighed Taylor, a junior, who scored 26 points in what many think was his final home game for Michigan. “It felt good just to play as a team again, and have some fun.

“Now we have to try and win our last game and hope the tournament committee is on our side.”

Well. Hope springs eternal. But whether the Wolverines make the NCAA tournament is, at this point, significant only for travel agents. The way U-M has played, if it hits the road as a low tournament seed, it will almost surely be beaten in the first round — and I’ve seen a lot of surprises by Michigan teams over the years.

This one, however, is still searching for a leader, a style and a comfort zone, and you can’t be looking for such things this late in the year.

Exit sighing.

Lack of leadership

“Did this year feel less like college basketball than any of your others?” someone asked Travis Conlan in the locker room after the win.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s been a really long season.”

This is college basketball. Teams lose a few close games, they lose their way, they lack leadership, and they sink. It is no coincidence that this Michigan team lacks a senior presence. Even the Fab Five had guys like Rob Pelinka, James Voskuil and Freddie Hunter, steady older players who kept the thermostat at the proper setting.

These Wolverines are in the hands of their juniors and sophomores, and none of them is ready to be Moses.

“How much do you blame yourself for what happened to this team this year?” someone asked Taylor.

“A lot,” he said. “When the year began, a lot of people were looking for me to be the go-to guy. And I was probably too tentative at times.”

He looked down at his feet.

“I’ve never gone through a year like this. I’ve never gone through a five-game losing streak — not in high school, not anywhere.”

He shook his head. Someone asked if he thought he’d played his last game in Crisler Arena — meaning a jump to the NBA.

“No,” Taylor said, “although a lot of other people are thinking that. As far as I know, I’ll be back next year, unless something unforeseen happens.”

“But did you take an extra look around when the game was over, just in case?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I guess I did.”

Exit sighing.

Holding out hope This is a sad way to end a home season — or as sad as you can get with a victory. The Wolverines fell behind lowly Northwestern 9-2 before wiping the sleep out of their eyes.

And even at halftime, they led by only five points. Steve Fisher put a positive spin on it afterwards, but he has to know, deep down, that if they struggle for a half with Northwestern, they are not exactly cured of what ails them.

In fact, I’m not sure they can ever be cured. The Wolverines are a fine collection of talent, but they are not a fine team. And to think they will suddenly become one is to suffer what Maize and Blue fans always suffer this time of year — and have been suffering ever since Fisher took that 1989 crew to a national championship:

False hope.

Sure, the glorious is possible. But the inglorious is more likely. Better that Michigan fans should savor the hanging dunks of Traylor and the finger rolls of Taylor that they witnessed Wednesday night. Better they should freeze the smiles they saw on the U-M bench.

That may be it for the happy stuff. The Wolverines play one final road game and then wait to see if there’s any more basketball this year. “We gotta hope for the best,” Traylor said.

Then he and his teammates headed out the Crisler doors and into the windy night. Bundle up, fellas. It’s cold out there. And it may not get any warmer.

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