ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Just wait until basketball season.
That refrain became an expression of hope for Michigan fans during the past few months — as football Saturdays turned increasingly dreary in Ann Arbor. Everything would be fine, the thinking went, once the Wolverines took the court at Crisler Center.
During the past week, however, the hardwood has been as unkind as the gridiron.
First came a stunning home loss to the New Jersey Institute of Technology on Saturday. Then Michigan lost to Eastern Michigan at Crisler. The first defeat was national news. The second stung as well, coming against a school located only a few miles away.
“We tried too hard a few times,” coach John Beilein said Thursday. “Sometimes guys want to win so much.”
Michigan (6-3) has won two Big Ten titles in basketball during the past three seasons — with a Final Four appearance in between. The program’s rise under Beilein was especially welcome since it came at a time when the football team was going through an unusually rough patch. It’s been a decade since Michigan won the Big Ten in football, and the Wolverines fired football head coach Brady Hoke last week.
Beilein’s basketball team looked ready to pick up the slack again, beating Syracuse the same day Hoke was fired. But then came NJIT. And Eastern Michigan.
The football coaching search is providing enough drama at Michigan. Now the basketball team might end up on the NCAA tournament bubble?
“Right now we’re definitely going through our struggles athletically,” said Mike Martin, who played football at Michigan before being drafted in the third round by the Tennessee Titans in 2012. “But in my mind Michigan is still going to remain one of the best schools academically and athletically.”
The football team’s future remains the single overriding issue facing Michigan athletics. A big-name hire — like former Wolverine Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers — would bring optimism back to the Big House right away.
“That football program, everybody knows is the driving force for the athletic department in Ann Arbor,” Martin said. “We need to make sure we get somebody that embodies all the aspects of what it means to be in that position.”
For now, the fan base is taking its lumps. Rival Ohio State is playing in the college football playoff. The manager of NJIT’s bookstore said people from Michigan and Ohio have been ordering the little-known school’s athletic gear — that’s presumably Michigan State and Ohio State fans eager to rub it in.
William Campbell, a former Michigan football player who is now on the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad, said he was shocked when he found out about the loss to Eastern Michigan. Someone sent him a screen shot.
“At first I didn’t see it — I thought the dude sent me a screen shot of Michigan versus Michigan, and Michigan won. And then I saw the ‘E’ and I’m like, ‘E? Who did we play?’ ” Campbell said. “Like, ‘We lost to Eastern.’ “
After all of its success in recent years, the basketball team won’t descend into turmoil because of a couple unexpected losses, but the Wolverines will need to raise their level of play to contend for another conference title — and the NCAA tournament selection committee won’t look kindly on those NJIT and Eastern Michigan results.
Next up for the Wolverines is a game Saturday at No. 3 Arizona. Guard Spike Albrecht, who says he’s been dealing with an unspecified lower-body injury, said assistant coach LaVall Jordan had some encouraging words recently.
“He said it best the other day, just yesterday,” Albrecht said. “He said the season’s roughly six months, which is roughly 180 days. We just had four bad days, so we’ve got a lot of basketball left to play.”
Beilein and the basketball team have plenty of time to return to the level Michigan fans have grown accustomed to, and at some point, the football team will hire a new coach, with all the hope and promise that usually brings.
“Michigan’s Michigan. It’s going to get back on its feet,” Campbell said. “It’s a legendary school, all about tradition. If they get the right guys in there, everything will be back to order.”