The thing about college sports is that the clock is always ticking. From the moment you arrive, the hourglass is turned over, and every advance is marked with another drop of sand. Turning sophomore means your freshman year is over; becoming a junior means your hourglass is halfway gone. Senior year, every game is your last something or other.
All of this is fine if you are collecting markers as you trade in your minutes. But for Bernard Robinson Jr., a senior at Michigan, it’s been mostly one-way transactions. He keeps making deposits, but there’s nothing to spend. Three full seasons with no NCAA tournament? At Michigan? What were the odds? And here he was, Tuesday night, only a few games left in his college career, and his last chance at a Big Dance was likely hinging on one game.
The Wolverines were barely on the bubble. They needed a win.
Against their most hated rival.
Well, college sports is supposed to come down to moments like this. And Robinson, once a high school phenom out of the nation’s capital, threw himself into it like election eve.
For much of the game, it looked as if he’d get his reward. He played hard-nosed and court aware. He made fine assists, finding open men who converted on everything, from jumpers to slams. He alley-ooped a pass to young Brent Petway for a lay-up. He alley-ooped another to young Courtney Sims, who got it down, bringing the crowd to its feet.
And when Robinson wasn’t making passes, he was stealing them. He ripped off two in the first half — turning the first into a rim-rattling three pointer on the other end — and he stole two more in the second half, one to preserve a nine-point lead.
And when he wasn’t stealing or dishing, he scored. He hit several big three pointers and a nine-footer with a man all over him. He would finish with 15 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals.
In short — if you can use that phrase for a guy 6-feet-6 — he played a complete basketball game.
But it didn’t completely work out.
When playing hard isn’t enough
“He played his heart out,” Tommy Amaker said of his senior leader, after the Wolverines lost a close one to Michigan State, 72-69. “I think at this point, Bernard is leading the best way he knows how, by playing hard.”
Sometimes, that’s enough. Sometimes it is not. Michigan had nice leads in this game (eight points at halftime, 12 points with 11 minutes to go) but the Spartans chipped away. The Spartans chipped away with huge three-pointers — none bigger than Chris Hill’s with less than a minute left. And at the buzzer, once again Robinson had endured another storm with no rainbow in sight.
Now he stood in the locker room, answering questions.
“Man, it’s tough,” he said. “We had the lead. We felt like we should have won it.”
Someone asked if he thought his team’s best chance at the tournament — and his — had been on the line.
“We knew everything,” he said. “We knew all the scenarios. We knew how big this was. That’s what makes it so tough.”
The sand keeps dropping.
Great expectations and plenty of twists
Robinson has only a few games left at Michigan. He has been here four years, but as he admits — “it feels like a long four years. A good four years, I learned a lot, but a long four years, too.”
The coach who recruited him is not the man who coaches him. Michigan, during Robinson’s stay, endured the whole Ed Martin scandal and the punishment for it. There was a deconstruction and a reconstruction. Put it this way: If the average college experience is a paperback, Robinson got a Russian novel.
“When I was recruited here, I expected to win a lot,” he said.
But things happen. Robinson himself had a setback, an off-court incident that cost him his captaincy. But if college is a limited field, it is also fertile soil. Things can grow quickly. And by most accounts, Robinson has grown from his setbacks. He has played hard this year. The team is improving. If fates were kinder, they might see to it that Robinson got at least one NCAA tournament.
“Tonight didn’t help,” Amaker said.
In fact, it might have killed U-M’s chances. They are 15-9 now, only 6-7 in the conference, with just three games to go.
There were some promising moments for U-M fans. Sims played a whale of game
(19 points), as did another freshman, Dion Harris.
Meanwhile, Bernard Robinson stood in the post-game line to shake hands with the Spartans players, knowing they were going, once again, where he may not.
“I feel it all winding down,” he said. “But we have three left. Maybe something will happen.”
He sighed and headed for the showers. It seems unfair, but that’s the truth of college sports. The hourglass runs out for someone, as it gets turned over for someone else. The games go on, and the never-ending countdown begins anew.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).