WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Last time I looked, the NCAA tournament was a sporting event, not a shower. But you listen to the Michigan Wolverines in these suddenly losing times, and they act as if the post-season will rinse away their troubles and leave them smelling like a champion. “Something about being in the tournament,” Terry Mills said Sunday afternoon as he slipped on his coat. “You get there, everything moves up a notch.”

Then again, you could say the same thing about the electric chair. The fact is, pointing to the post-season future is awfully convenient, especially when you’re losing in the regular-season present.

On Sunday, Mills was talking in the quiet hallways of Mackey Arena, where U-M had just officially been squashed from any Big Ten title hopes with a last-second 79-77 defeat by the Boilermakers.

It was a low moment, the Wolverines’ sixth loss in the conference, their second in a row. Odds are they will finish third or maybe fourth in the final standings. Only two of the five starters are making serious contributions.

Still, they talk of blue skies, of better days. How important is the Big Ten title anyhow? A few minor adjustments, and come the NCAAs, we’ll be back to the magic.

Now. I could be wrong. But I’m a present guy. I don’t figure to wake up tomorrow looking like Robert De Niro when I don’t look like him today.

And right now, the Wolverines don’t look like they’re going to be storming any castle of hoopdom. Or haven’t you watched them drop three of their last four games?

True, the last two were to good opponents (Michigan State and Purdue). True, both games were on the road. But, hey. The mark of this Michigan team, its strength really, was supposed to be its poise and cool in the BIG GAME. Defending national champs, right? They find a way to win.

So where is it? What progress?

It wasn’t here on Sunday. Not when Rumeal Robinson uncharacteristically missed two free throws in the final two minutes. Not when Mike Griffin’s attempted in-bounds pass with two seconds left went smack off the hands of Chuckie White. Not when the U-M defense had serious trouble defending the easiest of lob passes in to Purdue center Steve Schefler, a man who believes if you can’t count the threads in the net, you’re not close enough to shoot it. He finished with 26 points.

Still, this is what coach Steve Fisher said after the game: “We made some progress today. We did some things we wanted to do. We’re marching towards the tournament.”

Marching? Losing three of their last four? Maybe walking would be a better word. Or hopping. On one leg. Is that what Fisher meant?

Or maybe he knows something we don’t.

The truth is, you can look at the Michigan situation two ways.
* 1. They hardly seem to be the well-oiled machine they were when they won the national championship last year. They’ll get to the tournament and be defeated early. Or. . . .
* 2. This is just like last year. They had almost the same amount of losses and only finished third in the conference. And they still won it all. So what are you worried about?

Make the call.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? A question of balance

Personally, I just like to tap on the thing to make sure it’s real. I am a realist. And here is what really bothers me about the way the Wolverines play these days: I can’t get a grip on what they’re doing.

When it seems like they should keep going inside to Mills, they suddenly pop an off-balance three-point attempt. When it seems like a patient designed play is on order, Sean Higgins throws one up from another zip code. When it seems like team defense should be the imperative, they are letting guys go over their heads for rebounds.

“A few times out there today, the same (Purdue) guy rebounded his own shot,” Mills admitted. “Mike Griffin ran past me and said, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ “

A good question. Little things like that, like grabbing loose balls, boxing out, grabbing missed free throws. I see these things missing. Which makes me wonder about the coaching. I believe Steve Fisher is a good coach, I really do. But is he an effective coach with these kids? Are they listening to what he’s telling them?

I know Higgins can’t be listening. Let’s admit that Sean is a nice kid and has had a tough time and is young and should get better and then let’s tell it like it is: He is a liability to this team right now. He comes in, throws it up, doesn’t matter how far away. He heaves a ridiculous cross-court pass that is stolen and converted into a lay-up. He plays as if he just threw his schoolbag down and took off his jacket and is sort of winging it for a few minutes before he has to go home for dinner.

Loy Vaught is not playing the way he did earlier in the year. “Confidence, a mental thing,” Fisher said. Griffin is a Fisher favorite “for the little things,” but they must be pretty little because a lot of people can’t see them. Demetrius Calip and Tony Tolbert are supporting cast, at best. Which leaves the Wolverines as a two-man operation, Mills (30 points Sunday) and Robinson (20 points), and Robinson, a great talent, seems to be shouldering too much of the responsibility.

Yet ask him what this team needs to fix and he says, “We don’t need to fix anything.”

And ask Fisher what’s wrong and he smiles gently and says, “We’ll be fine.”

I don’t know. Is it me? I just don’t see this group playing cohesive basketball. And I don’t see results on the scoreboard to tell me otherwise.

One thing I’ve learned about defending champions, no matter what the sport: They all believe that they can do it again. But championship play — especially in college basketball, where one hot team on one hot night can knock the favorite right off the mountain — should not be taken as a given.

I wish only the best for the Wolverines. I really do. But they may find out the hard way that what you don’t have today doesn’t just appear on your pillow tomorrow. The tournament, as I said, is not a shower. Sometimes it’s just cold water.

Splashed right in your face.

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