Despite title game loss, Michigan is back -- and not going anywhere

By Jeff Borzello | College Basketball Writer

ATLANTA – Monday night didn't end with Michigan cutting down the nets, and it didn't end Michigan's 24-year national championship drought.

But the Wolverines just being in that position means one thing: Michigan basketball is back.

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It went through plenty of lean years, going from 1998 (later vacated) to 2009 without an NCAA tournament appearance. Before this season, the Wolverines hadn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1994. Before 2012, Michigan had gone 26 years without a regular-season conference championship.

And now, although the Wolverines didn't end up on top, it doesn't diminish their achievement -- and it also doesn't lessen the motivation for them going forward.

“I think there's still work to be done,” assistant coach Bacari Alexander said.

Michigan isn't a program that gets close to the ultimate goal and then falls back to the pack for an extended period of time. The down years -- decades, really -- are in the rearview mirror. The Wolverines are now a team that has been to three straight NCAA tournaments, shared the Big Ten regular-season championship in 2012, and was the national runner-up this season.

The goals and visions have changed for Michigan and its players.

Corey Person joined the team as a walk-on back in 2008, when Michigan was still in the midst of a 20-year tournament drought.

Things are certainly different now.

“We're raising the standards on what Michigan is about. It's not about making the tournament anymore. It's not about finishing in the top three in the Big Ten. It's about winning Big Ten regular-season championships, winning Big Ten tournaments, and ultimately, trying to win national championships,” Person said.

“And that's where we're at now. It's no more hoping we can make it to the dance. It's going to the dance and being the main attraction and winning the big thing. I think that's where Michigan is at now.”

Much like it wasn't the favorite heading into this season, Michigan won't be ranked as the preseason No. 1 team in 2013-14. In fact, it's likely the Wolverines won't even be the Big Ten favorite.

There are so many questions left to answer. Outside of Nik Stauskas, the other four starters for Michigan all have potential NBA aspirations this season. And none has made their decisions public yet.

Trey Burke was asked about it during the postgame press conference on Monday night, and he said he wasn't even thinking his decision. Freshman Glenn Robinson III wasn't ready to talk about it, either. Neither Tim Hardaway Jr. or Mitch McGary said much about their futures.

“I think the biggest thing that you take away from this with such a young group is the leadership that our seniors displayed. It's the template for future teams,” Alexander said. “We feel our core group of young guys is a good enough group to propel Michigan basketball even further in the future.”

If forced to predict the future, it's likely that Burke will leave -- and at least one of the other three players, too.

But Michigan can look at it this way: Hardaway and McGary didn't play all that well on Monday night, and the Wolverines were still in the game in the final minute. Robinson had 12 points, but he didn't exactly dominate, either. Michigan can still compete without one of those players next season.

The presumed loss of Burke will obviously hurt, as he swept the National Player of the Year honors and carried Michigan at times. Another loss will also be tough to overcome, but John Beilein will still have the players to be a factor next season.

If two of the NBA quartet return, that's a great starting point. Throw in Stauskas, and that's a trio that few times in the country will be able to match. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford will both be back down low, and Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert played quality minutes late in the season.

The incoming recruiting class has good pieces, too. Derrick Walton was one of the 10 best point guards in the class of 2013, and Zak Irvin blossomed into a top-40 recruit last summer. Mark Donnal is a quality big man who will provide some minutes.

“This is a great position for us,” Robinson said. “We're going to do everything that we can to be back in this position next year and be here.”

Is Michigan the favorite to win a title next season? No, but they are going to be in the conversation as a Final Four contender.

And that in itself means the Wolverines are already back.

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