by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CHICAGO — The difference between Friday and Sunday is the difference between a party night and a school night, between the fun starting and the fun ending, or, in college basketball’s thrilling, season-ending tournament, the difference between a future and a past. Three Michigan schools, two of them strangers to this kind of spotlight, woke up Sunday with a sweet taste of success and dreams of more, more, more. By evening, reality had hit home: One taste was all there would be.

Different day, different ending. For Michigan, it was a wild finish that came up a few shots short against UCLA. For Detroit Mercy, it was a shot-clanking collapse against a fast-breaking Purdue team. For Western Michigan, it was an exhausting chase of a taller, stronger enemy named Stanford.

All different games, all different styles. But by sunset, the three schools had this in common: a final trip to the airport.

Different day, different ending. There were no smiles this time. No wild tumbling huddles, no fist-pumping dances. But while coaches insist there’s no such thing as a moral victory, maybe there is such a thing as a moral defeat. Something good from something heartbreaking.

Let’s begin with UDM. Here is a school that has always had to push up two manhole covers to get noticed. Overshadowed by Michigan and Michigan State and plagued by an unglamorous glow, it has lost recruits and stumbled inside a city famous for producing wonderful basketball players. The problem is, those players all go somewhere else.

Maybe that changes after this weekend. Oh sure, Sunday was hardly the kind of game the Titans wanted as their exit cue. They couldn’t buy a basket early, and they were smoked by Purdue’s transition game. Derrick Hayes — who had 27 points in Friday night’s upset over St. John’s — had only one basket Sunday.

One basket? Two points?

“They never let me get in my comfort zone,” he said after Detroit’s 80-65 loss. “They denied me the ball and played really physically.”

And yet, Perry Watson’s team did not accept defeat as dessert. It came out in the second half and fired shots the way a trapped man fires bullets, desperately and wildly. Many went in. The gap closed, opened, closed, opened. No, the Titans’ game plan didn’t work, but their talent was obvious. And afterward, Hayes, a senior, said it best:

“This whole thing has been awesome. A lot of people around the country didn’t think we’d be here. They didn’t think we’d be 25-6 or beat a St. John’s. Now maybe they’re thinking, ‘OK, cool, U-of-D’s on the rise.’

“I’m gonna take this memory to my grave. It’s something you tell your grandkids about. And even though I’m finished playing now, I’ll come back next year to check out how the team is doing.”

Will you?

If the answer’s yes, you have to call that a victory for this school.

Now, WMU’s on the map

And how about Western Michigan? Players may have passed on UDM, but at least they knew where it was!

Who knew about the Broncos? Who could find the school on a map? Western was one of those “You-gotta-be-kidding-me” teams. You know, the kind that when they’re selected for the tournament, fans wail, “You gotta be kidding me!”

Such teams are supposed to politely accept the trip and leave before they soil the carpet. But Western, like Detroit, wagged a finger at the naysayers, and Friday the Broncos stunned highly touted Clemson by three points.

Yes, Sunday was a different kind of reality. The Broncos played a wonderfully fast first half, racing to open spots and hoisting quick shots, swarming like locusts whenever Stanford had the ball. But the Broncos are a small team and Stanford starts a 7-foot-1 center and, eventually, the game of inches catches up to you. Western tired. Stanford asserted its muscle. Early into the second half, the Broncos seemed to be chasing a faster-moving bus.

And then a nightmare. Rashod Johnson, Friday’s star, frustrated with only four baskets in this game, missed a shot and thought he was fouled. He yelled at the ref, “I can’t get my shot off! I can’t get it off!” A few seconds later, Stanford banked in a basket, a foul was called, and even though the foul was not on Johnson, he made a face and the ref took offense.

“Technical!” he called.

Johnson was stunned. It was his fifth foul. He was out of the game with 12 minutes still on the clock. Just like that, all the magic of Friday was gone. Johnson is the emotional leader of this squad, and losing him was like taking away Elvis’ hips.

Twelve shakeless minutes later, the dream was gone, 83-65. Johnson, visibly shaken, sat by himself in the cramped WMU locker room afterward.

“Did it take awhile for it to hit you, that your career was over when you heard that whistle?” he was asked.

“No,” he said, bravely, “I knew it when they blew it. But I had to control my emotions. I mean, what can you do?” He stopped, wiped his eyes, sniffed hard, and you realized that maybe it was hitting him right then and there.

And yet, despite that downbeat moment, there were plenty of good emotional souvenirs. The Clemson victory had put the team on the map. And in the closing seconds Sunday, Johnson and Jason Kimbrough still rose to greet fellow senior Saddi Washington — a kid who missed a year-and-a-half with two major knee injuries — as he came off the court.

“It’s been real,” they said, almost in unison, as they hugged. “I love you, guys.”

Different day, different ending. But you know Western now, and the Broncos know how precious is a moment in the spotlight. How can that be bad?

Better to have danced and lost

The answer is, it can’t. It was good for UDM and WMU (21-8) to make the tournament, just as it was good for Eastern Michigan, which bowed out in Round 1 against Michigan State. Even one appearance in the dance does wonders for your program.

And as for Michigan, playing almost 1,000 miles away? Well, a second-round loss won’t make traditional U-M fans proud. But considering this team rose from an NIT berth last year, survived a tumultuous season with one coach fired and a brand-new assistant given the reins, considering all that, these guys still gave UCLA everything it could handle, fighting right down to the final seconds before losing, 85-82 — well, maybe some maize and bluers can find a reason to take heart.

Remember. There are fans in Kansas this morning who are calling for blood. There are fans in Cincinnati who want heads to roll. Clemson backers are angry. South Carolina fans can’t understand.

It is the nature of this big dance, which sometimes pairs you with the pretty girl and sometimes pairs you with the devil. For what it’s worth, for the most part, basketball fans in our state got a pretty good run.

And by the way, don’t throw away that remote. There’s this team up in East Lansing that has a little date with destiny Thursday night.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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