Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Season

The character of a season is a funny thing.

It's a feedback loop; you feel good, then better, then better. You feel bad, then worse, and worse. The season in February, May and July is exactly what you want it to be. The season changes by the day as it rocks in the calm and violent waters of the offseason, with all of us on the same vessel, hoping for a future that is bright.

In January, following the post-bowl malaise or excitement, the next season is an unrecognizable blip, a constellation of stars in the shape of something that you can't recognize until someone points it out to assure you that that is the Big Dipper, yes, yes it is.

In February and March, the squeaking of shoes and pounding of the rock drowns out the urge to stargaze for a time. The urge persists, a residual cosmic microwave background of subtle feeling -- it's an ice cream cone you had once on a hot summer day as a kid or the first time you felt something that wasn't a direct product of adult supervision. You know it's out there, was out there, and for a second, you wonder if those facts are even true. Was the ice cream that cold and that good? Did Denard Robinson burn rubber on fields across the Midwest?

In April come the rains -- or, in Chicago, the snow persist, falling lightly upon all the living and all the college football fans. But spring games pop up all over the landscape like so many rogue flowers burying stakes in the unforgiving terrain of sidewalk cracks, yearning for light and water, as is their biological imperative.

And then it all goes away, melting against the return of the sun, which, in these parts, is a nomad of sorts, coming and going as it pleases. The leaves bask in the glow as the thwack of bats symphonizes the song of summer.

In July, the air takes on the smell of bratwurst and flags fly high on the beaches and front porches of America, whistling against the breeze. It is like entering a hall of mirrors, where everything feels familiar yet unrecognizable. Amid the noise, something incubates.

Then August, and boom. The puzzle is missing pieces, but it begins to take shape. Is it too late to go back? Can we go back, to January, April, July? Is it too late to reject the imposition of reality, instead of enjoying a vague, limitless future?

Pads pop and helmets metamorphize, first pristine and gleaming then scratched and weathered. Somewhere in between, football has begun to happen, in Ann Arbor and Columbus and Tuscaloosa, in South Bend and Norman and Los Angeles and Lincoln, in Tallahassee and Knoxville and Austin and Eugene.

On the doorstep of the future, depth charts are no longer things to be hopeful or despondent about; they just are. What you've done is what you've done, and what you are is what you are.

Banners unfurl and bands boom as teams run onto the field for the first time during August's last hours. Things then fall apart, or they don't. There's no in between.

Then it's over.

---

The air slips out of the whole thing, slowly, then suddenly. Purgatorial January introduces itself, a new subletter you won't take the time to get to know. The snow packs the ground, layer upon layer, blanketing the past in forgetful white. For a time, we slip into amnesia, forgetting what just happened or, a different sort of amnesia, remembering it in some other light, something other than what it was.

The college football fans sees his breath, then it goes away. His shirt is drenched with the rains, then not. Sweat trickles in summer, then not. Then it is time again, to do it all over.

He doesn't find the character of the season then -- no. That comes much later, if at all.

January through August moves with the same rhythm each year. But from August through the first week of January, college football builds its identity for that year, like a child stepping into the world. You don't know what it means to be 18 when you're 19 -- you certainly don't know it when you're 18.

But, years down the road, when you look back and try to push away the fog, try to remember what made one season different than another, you just may know. I don't know what 2013 meant, or the year before it, or the year before.

And when this old season comes to a close, I don't know what it will mean, either. With time, maybe the meaning of the season will become clear, as our lives speed along and memories stick to seasons like barnacles clinging to a boat in a storm.

Then again, maybe each season is just a season, a collection of games dependent upon luck and weather and physiological frailties. Maybe each batch of results is just an agnostic exclamation of uncertainty; maybe Michigan is back, maybe Michigan is doomed, based on so much carefully curated evidence.

More likely, the character of a season is not a statement, but a feeling, a departure from the rhythmic norm of the offseason months. Disappointed in 2005, surprised in 2011, elated in 1997. It's really very simple, when you think about it.

The season is a feeling, years down the road -- I say that with a certainty I admit I might not have. But, it is my choice to make it, so I do.

And, years down the road into the future -- a horizon with all dimensions and none -- the character of the 2014 season emerge, when that feeling becomes clear.

The season itself is an introduction. You say hello and know its name; its character comes later.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion: An Early Look at 2014-15 Purdue basketball

Hello there, it's been a while. If there's anybody out there, I took a few weeks or so off from the blog world after Michigan's loss to Kentucky, partially from spring malaise but mostly because discerning spring football tea leaves or worse, talking about recruiting, isn't really my thing.

In any case, I've started a little preview/retrospective basketball series over at Maize n Brew, which will run each Wednesday from today until there are no more teams to preview (yes, I will even do Rutgers and Maryland).

I started with the struggling Purdue Boilermakers today, who didn't make the tournament for the second straight season and appear to be in for another rough season, barring several guys really blowing up. Could it be Painter's last season in West Lafayette? The best early guess is yes, but when a team like Nebraska can jump up into the top four of the conference, anything is possible.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Michigan's comeback falls short, Badgers knock off Wolverines in Ann Arbor

No. 15 Michigan 62, No. 21 Wisconsin 75

The Wolverines have taken care of business on the road this season, notching wins in Madison, East Lansing and Columbus; on Sunday, Michigan's season became about defending its home court. 

The No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers rolled into Ann Arbor this afternoon with a three-game winning streak, on the heels of a 1-5 stretch. Wisconsin's defense tightened up after that brutal stretch and, lo and behold, the Badgers got back on the winning track. 

However, winning at home (or on the road against a team like Illinois) is a different animal from winning in Ann Arbor against the team tied for the top spot in the conference standings. 

The Badgers clearly came ready to play, as they jumped out to an early 12-2 lead, paced by a pair of threes from Josh Gasser. The script was a little different this time around; this time, the Badgers were the ones shooting the lights out early in the game. 

Meanwhile, Michigan struggled on the offensive end, with just seven points by the second media timeout. Also, as is Wisconsin's defensive style, the Wolverines didn't have a single three-point attempt to their name by that point in the game. 

Michigan had no answer for Frank Kaminsky on the block and the slashing Sam Dekker, either. The Badgers are by no means a great offensive rebounding team --in fact, Bo Ryan de-emphasizes it in favor of getting back on defense-- but UW had six offensive boards through 11 minutes or so of play. If the Wolverines couldn't find a way to clean up on the glass and toughen up on the block, it appeared as if the Badgers were poised to upset them in Ann Arbor. 

Michigan continued to take the long twos Wisconsin routinely offers, but, unlike the matchup in Madison, the Wolverines couldn't connect. More importantly, the Badgers consistently held Michigan to one-and-done. 

With UW dominating every aspect of the game in the first half, the Wolverines might have been lucky to be down "just" 34-19 at the break. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Badgers cruise in West Lafayette, snap 3-game losing streak

No. 9 Wisconsin 72, Purdue 58

When the Badgers and Boilermakers took the floor at Mackey Arena today, both looked to rebound: literally and figuratively. 

The Badgers, after a program record 16-0 start, dropped their last three games (at Indiana, Michigan and at Minnesota). Meanwhile, Purdue rolled into Evanston with a three-game winning streak Tuesday night only to leave with a loss, an ugly 63-60 double overtime defeat. 

While the Boilermakers were not considered to be Big Ten title contenders, a win against a top 10 Wisconsin team would do wonders for its tournament seed (Big Ten and Big Dance). 

As for Bo Ryan's Badgers, a fourth straight loss would not only certainly knock them out of the top 10, it would, in all likelihood , knock them out of the Big Ten regular season title race. 

Unlike UW's trip to Minneapolis, the Bagders had a good deal more pep in their collective step today in West Lafayette. The Badgers jumped out to a 17-6 lead five minutes into the first half. However, the biggest early development was A.J. Hammons going to the bench with two fouls just a minute and a half into the game. 

A few minutes later, UW's Frank Kaminsky picked up his second as well; the Badgers struggled mightily without Kaminsky on the floor in The Barn, so the Badgers' balance would once again be tested. 

The Badgers led 20-13 halfway through the half, and while it was still early, the Badgers' defense was several shades better than it had been against Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota. Thirteen minutes into the half, Purdue was shooting just 35 percent (7-for-20) from the field. 

To make matters worse for the Boilers, Matt Painter rolled the dice by playing Hammons in spite of his foul situation. It backfired, as Hammons picked up his third foul with 9:51 left in the half. Without Hammons on the floor, Purdue would have to make shots from the outside. Coming into today's game, Purdue ranked just 7th in the Big Ten in three-point percentage during conference play (32.7 percent). 

Defensively, Purdue was up to the challenge, particularly after the Badgers' hot start from the field. The Boilermakers went into the half down 32-29, despite not having Hammons on the floor very much at all (zero first half points). 

No. 10 Iowa rolls in Evanston, handles upset-minded Wildcats

Fouad Egbaria

Northwestern 50, No. 10 Iowa 76

When the Northwestern Wildcats and Iowa Hawkeyes in their current forms meet, the difference in philosophy is stark. The Wildcats, like pre-2013-14 Wisconsin, play tough defense and slow the game down. The Hawkeyes want to run, run, run. 

Don't look now, but after a brutal home loss against DePaul and three straight thumpings at the hands of Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, Chris Collins's Wildcats have won three of their last four, including a competitive 54-40 loss against Michigan State. Size, skill and depth isn't quite there yet for Northwestern, but their identity is very clear, a crucial development for a program under a first-year head coach. 

When the Wildcats went to Iowa City on Jan. 9, they lost 93-67, allowing the Hawkeyes to score a whopping 1.29 points per possession. They'd have to do a little better than that this afternoon in Welsh-Ryan if they planned on coming away with their fourth win in five games, a win that would, amazingly, move them to 4-4 in the Big Ten. 

Paced by a couple of early threes from Drew Crawford, the Wildcats did just enough to muck things up so that Iowa couldn't run away with things from the start. By the 12-minute media timeout the Hawkeyes led 14-10; however, in typical Iowa fashion, seven different Hawkeyes had scored to get those 14. 

The Hawkeyes eventually surged to a 23-15 lead--it seemed as if Northwestern's hopes of staying in the game were evaporating fast. 

The Wildcats weren't done yet. A Drew Crawford and-1 with just over a minute left cut the Iowa lead to 28-24. After a Melsahn Basabe jumper in the paint with a few seconds left in the half, the Wildcats went into the halftime break down 30-24. All things considered, that is a win for an offensively challenged Northwestern squad against an Iowa team with scoring options all over the floor. 

Of course, the Wildcats would have to turn up the defensive intensity even further in the second half if they were going to pull off their biggest upset yet. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion Time: Iowa

Michigan left Madison on Saturday with its first win at the Kohl Center since 1999; naturally, it wasn't hard to picture the Wolverines throwing out a letdown game their next time on the court.

Luckily for John Beilein and Co., that was most definitely not the case against Iowa on Wednesday night in the Crisler Center, where the Wolverines defeated No. 10 Iowa, 75-67. As usual, I recapped it over at Maize n Brew.

Michigan is perfect a third of the way through the Big Ten schedule, one of only two remaining squads without a Big Ten loss. The other? Of course, the Michigan State Spartans, Michigan's opponent this Saturday.

Like many will express throughout the rest of this week, after wins at Wisconsin and against Iowa, Michigan is basically playing with house money this Saturday. With that said, a win in the Breslin Center would push Michigan's post-McGary-injury run from "unexpectedly great" to "transcendent." Hopefully the Wolverines learned a thing or two from the thumping they took there last season.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion Time: Recapping Wisconsin

In spite of my extreme skepticism, Michigan went to Madison on Saturday and won for the first time since 1999. As usual, I threw down some thoughts over at Maize n Brew.

It has been over 48 hours since the game ended, and, quite honestly, I'm still a little shocked. Not necessarily shocked that Michigan won, even though I had thought it an unlikely outcome. I was more surprised by how brutally efficient and downright unfair Michigan was on the offensive end. Watching it unfold live, it was almost too good to be true. Michigan's drought in the second half, when the Badgers made the run, was the only indicator of Michigan's mortality in this game. For the better part of two hours, the Wolverines were unstoppable.

This team doesn't have Trey Burke, but that's okay: they've got Nik Stauskas.