Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Requiem for a Rose


Some things are expected, yet strike with the force of the unexpected.

For me, today's news of the trade of Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks is one such example of that paradox: the surprising inevitability.

With each injury, each game missed for injuries, each column penned about the player who came to be called "General Soreness" more frequently than he was called "former MVP," the Rose era wilted, petal by petal, revealing only thorns.

That era began with something unexpected: the Bulls only had the chance to keep the Englewood native home by winning the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft. The Bulls had a 1.7 percent chance of getting that top pick, but by a fortuitous bounce of fate, the rose bloomed in familiar grounds.

I think it was time to make a move -- if not now, then during the season -- but that doesn't change the fact that this is a bitter moment in the history of the franchise.

Scott Skiles coached the Bulls to their first playoff appearances since Michael Jordan's final season with the Bulls in 1997-98. But those Skiles teams weren't true threats in any sense of the word -- Ben Gordon was a fun player to watch when he got hot, but otherwise those squads lacked any sort of starpower.

That changed when Rose joined the roster in 2008-09. The Bulls went 41-41 after missing the playoffs the previous year and took the Boston Celtics to seven games in a first-round series. Behind only Gordon, Rose averaged 19.7 points per game.

The next year, 2009-10, marked the Rose Bulls' first meeting with a nemesis they would never defeat: LeBron James.

The year after that, with James in Miami, the Bulls and James met again, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls went 62-20 and were the No. 1 seed in the East, led by Rose's 25.0 ppg and 7.7 assists per game.

That was the season when Rose transformed from the young, exciting player of his first two seasons to the dynamic force of nature he became -- for a short time.

Earlier that season, Rose did this, one of the most memorable -- if not the most memorable -- examples of Rose's upper-echelon explosion, his ability to move from one spot on the floor to the other with impossible speed and quick-twitch precision. With the aid of Stacey's King's exuberance, the play will remain etched in fans' minds for years to come:



What are you doing, Dragic? Did you not get the memo? 

Sadly for Goran Dragic, he did not. And if anyone else hadn't gotten yet, they did then. They certainly did by the end of the season, after Rose was crowned the league MVP at age 22, the youngest player to ever win the award.

In the ECF, the Bulls took Game 1 of the series, before James et al went on to take the next four. Next year, Bulls fans thought, next year will be the year that Rose -- MVP, MVP, MVP, the United Center crowd chants -- and the rest of the Bulls would get past James, like Jordan eventually vanquished the Bad Boy Pistons.

Now, all of that seems so far away. Rose flashed across the Chicago basketball landscape like a comet, only to slowly recede into the distant reaches of the basketball cosmos.

---

The following season, on April 28, 2012, it happened.

In Game 1 of a first-round series against Philadelphia, a game the Bulls had locked up, Rose jump-stopped powerfully in the lane, like he'd done so many times before.

This time, he didn't bounce back up. With that play, that one moment that started like so many other, he'd never be the same again.

The Bulls went 50-16 during that shortened 2011-12 season, but after Rose's injury, they couldn't even defeat the eighth-seeded 76ers.

Before the injuries, before the coming of age of Jimmy Butler, before the rhetorical missteps with the media, Rose unequivocally was the engine that made the Bulls go (even if one might argue that Joakim Noah was the team's heart and soul).

Enter 2012-13, filled with commercials about The Return.



That season and the offseason preceding 2013-14 offered a steady stream of news bits detailing his efforts to get back.

Finally back on the floor, the Bulls visited Portland Nov. 22, 2013 for their 10th game of the season -- and this time, it was the right knee. It was if the basketball gods, perched somewhere in the rafters up high, slung their arrows of outrageous fortune, aiming for his knees.

He missed 30 games in 2014-15 with various injuries, but come playoff time, the third-seeded Bulls once again were met with none other than LeBron James and Co.

After splitting Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, the Bulls looked to take a series lead in Game 3. Rose had started to look a little better in the first-round series against Milwaukee, rounding into a strong iteration of a post-injury Rose. He couldn't explode like he used to, but he could still get past people, albeit en route to layups instead of dunks.

And for one final time -- at least the last time I can remember -- Rose made the United Center roar.



In classic Rose form, his face remained static as he was boosted off the floor by his teammates, like he was waiting in line at the DMV or flipping through magazines in the doctor's office waiting room.

I remember watching the game at home, raising out of my seat to yell ohhh when the shot kissed off of the glass and in, igniting a frenzy at the building on Madison Street.

Sadly, it would be the last time something Rose did would produce that kind of reaction (The Bulls would go on to lose the next three games, and the series, against Cleveland).

Oddly enough, Rose's 2015-16 was his healthiest, relatively, since before the first injury. Rose played in 66 games. But regular comments about needing to be cautious with his body and preseason comments about playing for his next contract -- with two years then left on his current one -- Bulls fans began to sour on the hometown hero. Admittedly, I became one of them.

Even today, when the news crossed my Twitter feed and friends texted me about it, I'll admit that I not only thought it was the right move, but the necessary one. Better trade him now and get something instead of letting him walk for nothing in free agency, right? He's not the player he once was, one who could lead a team with serious championship aspirations? He's not the former MVP anymore, right, but one who happened to be an MVP once, long ago, in an alternate universe?

All cogent points, I think. The Bulls, whether management will say it or not, have to rebuild. And Rose, who will ask for big money once his contract is up, wouldn't be part of those plans, for the aforementioned reasons.

So, like that, it's over. I wouldn't even say the window has closed on the Bulls' title hopes -- that closed a while ago. Maybe it closed on that April day in 2012.

But as soon as I started thinking more about this as the day went on, I thought about Rose and what he meant to Chicago basketball ... and my initial comfort with the move began to wane.

Honestly, I felt a little guilty for welcoming his departure, even if I thought (and still think) it had to happen.

Sports have a funny way of both obscuring and revealing perspective.

---
As I sit here, thinking about the rebuilding project ahead, one that will see Rose wearing Knicks orange and blue, it's hard not to be hit with a wave of nostalgia.

The post-Jordan Dark Ages offered up several seasons of truly unwatchable basketball. Players like Eddy Curry, Eddie Robinson, Marcus Fizer, Jay Williams, Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) and so many others marked an era of lost searching; without MJ, the Bulls had lost their sight, ineffectively reaching in the dark.

That all changed with a 1.7 percent chance and the Bulls hitting jackpot. After a one-year career at Memphis, Rose returned to the city that raised him.

And with him, Rose eventually brought a player who could excite fans more than any other player in a Bulls uniform since Jordan. Of course, the Bulls never accomplished with Rose what Jordan accomplished -- not even close. And it would have been ludicrous to have expected such, or even one-hundredth of that.

Nonetheless, Rose brought hope. When he went down, fans were crushed. And when that happened, he worked hard to get back -- not once, but twice, then through the various nagging injuries of varying severity thereafter, including an orbital bone fracture that had him seeing double when shooting the ball to start the 2015-16 season.

What can you say? Like all of us, he wasn't perfect. Sometimes, he said the wrong thing (a problem that could have been easily corrected with a little PR work). Maybe he could have played through certain things. Maybe he could have tried to find a way to make things work with Butler.

But now, in retrospect -- with the barrier of finality in place -- who could blame him for his skittishness? For wanting to preserve himself for a 2015-16 playoff run (one that never came)? For wanting to look out for himself, heading into the final year of his contract, with an opportunity to score one last big contract?

Say he's selfish, say he didn't care about the fans, say he didn't work well with teammates (namely, Jimmy Butler). You could even say that some aspects of his game never really improved, namely his three-point shooting (excluding 2013-14, in which he only played 10 games, his career-best was a 33.2 percent mark in his 2010-11 MVP season). Maybe he never really blossomed into a true point guard, one who was capable of facilitating just as easily as he could run a one-man break and posterize some poor guy.

You can say a lot of things about him. Many of those things even have some truth to them.

But there's also this: Rose had the unenviable task of being the hometown kid, asked to help bring the franchise back to its previous glory.

And for a tantalizingly short period of time, the Bulls were on the precipice of such a return, or even an opportunity to return to some semblance of it -- until events intervened.

The strangest thing of all? I had to double check to make sure, but Rose is only 27 years old. Given all that has happened, I feel like I've followed his career for a lifetime.

---

Now, fans can only wonder what could have been. What would have happened if he hadn't gotten hurt? Would they have broken through? Would he still be playing in Chicago next season?

We'll never know. But what we do know is this: Rose made the Bulls relevant again.

He put the team on his back, carried it in the crook of his arm, like he carried the ball on lightning-quick takes to the basket -- a galloping running back, a speedy slot receiver, protecting the rock from vulturous defenders.

"Too big, too strong, too fast, too good."

That was Stacey King's usual refrain when Rose made a game-changing play. When Rose was on, that's exactly what he was.

But all things must come to an end. So, when Rose slips past a defender at Madison Square Garden next season and executes a reverse layup to avoid a shot-blocker, instead of lamenting what was lost, I'll remember what was gained.

The crossover, the acceleration, the high-flying dunks. The plays in which Rose seemed to be operating on a higher plane than everyone else on the floor. The low moments don't erase any of that.

I saw him with my own eyes. In his prime, he did things on the floor that very few players donning the Bulls uniform have ever done.

The last rose petal fell to the Chicago earth today. And 40 years from now, in true Chicago fashion, fans will still be talking about Derrick Rose: the MVP, the high-flyer, the Chicago kid.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Memory lane

Things change and stay the same.

This past weekend I visited Ann Arbor for the first time in three and a half years. The last visit there involved a car ride from Chicago to see Michigan take on Michigan State in 2012. Michigan won, 12-10, its first defeat of the Spartans since 2007, my first year at Michigan. All I remember about that 2012 game -- a largely forgettable one if it weren't for the teams involved -- is field goals and a defense that held.

Of course, things have changed a lot since then. Things have changed a lot in Ann Arbor, generally, since I graduated.

I returned this past weekend to find a Walgreens where Book and Supply once stood. Like Shaman Drum -- or as my mind remembers it, the Hottest Place on Earth -- Book and Supply is a place that now only exists in the pages of my memory. That, and an old wallet, which I lost a while back ... and with it, somehow, my old Book and Supply card.

A pizza place now sits at that corner of State and Packard, across from Bell's, a location with more turnover than the Michigan offense in 2008 at Notre Dame, a spot that that has seen Packard Pub, then R.U.B. BBQ Pub, and, now, Happy's Pizza come through.

Middle Earth, a store I walked by probably hundreds of time, closed its doors.

Blimpy Burger is no longer in the endearingly low-key spot it was before on Division -- I've yet to frequent the new spot. I hope they're still rude.

Ocker Field on State Street has gotten quite the makeover; an Astroturf sea of blue, calm southern Ann Arbor waters.

Also, this, which I hadn't seen in person until Saturday, on a morning run around town.


Bo, headset in hand, in front of the building bearing his name.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Comings and goings: ESPN, media realignment and 'opinionists'

Much like college athletics, the media landscape is experiencing its own sort of incremental realignment.

Today, it was announced that Skip Bayless will be leaving the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN), and is likely headed to Fox Sports 1 (FS1).

From ESPN PR (all four sentences of it):
Skip Bayless has decided to leave ESPN when his contract expires at the end of August. 
His final appearance on First Take will be the day after the NBA Finals conclude. 
We want to thank Skip for his many contributions to ESPN. His hard work and talent have benefited ESPN for 12 years.
On top of that, Mike Tirico, an ESPN veteran, will be leaving for NBC. These are just the latest departures in a period of turnover at ESPN, which has seen a number of big-name personalities -- of varying quality, depending on the beholder -- leave for various reasons. Those include: Bill Simmons, Jason Whitlock, Colin Cowherd and Keith Olbermann. (For the record, I'm not particularly a fan of any of these four guys, although I do sincerely miss much of what Simmons helped build with the now defunct Grantland.)

All of this reminded me of a piece I wrote four years ago about Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and "First Take," the much-reviled but also much-talked-about "debate" show. The post was simply titled: "ESPN, Skip Bayless, and Where This Is All Going."

From that post:
Here's what it comes down to. ESPN's current chosen model of glitzy, Hollywood-ized sports coverage and subsidized trolling seems to be, in my mind, one with a limited ceiling. It has only been so successful because it has piggybacked onto ESPN's long legacy of what was at one point supposedly universally respected. This is not exactly Newton standing on the shoulders of giants, if you will, but you know what I mean. As the Skip and Stephen A. Show becomes more and more absurd in the eyes of more and more people, there just has to be a point when ESPN decides to tone it down or go in another direction. Or, maybe not. Either way, it seems that this strategical resource has already been voraciously tapped. I have no doubt that Skip will continue to say ridiculous things about Tim Tebow, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and others, but I think that even the Worst Sort of Fan will become tired of it all much sooner than ESPN would hope. 
Four years later, ESPN is at a fork in the road. And, sadly, four years later, I'm not sure if the vast sports-consuming population has tired enough of the aforementioned antics to make media companies okay with jettisoning people like Bayless.

---
First, a disclaimer about my own sports consumption diet. In recent years -- having joined the workforce, picked up hobbies and the need to manage the duties of everyday life -- time spent watching ESPN has almost disappeared from my daily routine. I watch live sports when they are on the network, but, other than that, I infrequently tune in for analysis or even a stretch of lazy highlight-watching.

Part of that is that I've found other things to do besides devoting even more of my time to sports -- beyond what I already devote to watching actual games, which in and of itself is a significant chunk of time -- but another part is a purposeful alteration of my media diet. Another point worth mentioning is that I went into journalism -- as such, I like to think that choice leads me away from the type of programming ESPN provides most of the time: often shallow, substance-less, personality-driven material.

Clearly, that stuff worked for a time. But things change -- and if there's anything I've learned about the media industry, it's that it's open slow to adapt.

I have no doubt that there are many people who pay attention to what people like Bayless have to say -- this is admittedly but one metric, but he boasts nearly 1.9 million followers on Twitter. Once again: 1.9 million. 

Meanwhile, [insert bright, reasonable and articulate journalist/media personality here] and said person doesn't have quite the following. Take from that what you will.

---

Like politics, it's become clear that those who speak the loudest often find success, no matter what it is they are actually saying or how close to the truth their statements are. I could mine Bayless' Twitter timeline for examples of outright laughable assertions, but it would be fruitless for a number of reasons (most obviously, that there are so many, and it isn't worth the time).

But also, there's the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator. Sometimes, you have to wonder whether the people saying these things actually, you know, believe what they are saying. An "opinion" expressed is not so much an opinion -- for example, saying you would take Tim Tebow over Aaron Rodgers in a "one-game scenario" -- but rather a pointed barb launched to yield a reaction.

In that sense, it's not unlike a particularly strange, ruminating snake injecting its prey with venom. It's not so much that the snake is expressing a carefully formulated opinion about its prey -- i.e., that the prey is bad and deserves it because it is not clutch enough to avoid being eaten -- but rather that injecting things with poison is a thing that can be done to elicit a very specific sort of reaction. In prey, it's death. In media consumers, it's, well, the death of intellect by the proxy murder of reason.

Listen, Skip Bayless is an easy target. And following from the above, I have no doubt that he knows exactly what he is doing, and that people will pay him handsomely to keep doing that thing (see: FS1).

It should be noted that Jamie Horowitz, president of Fox Sports National Networks, previously worked at ESPN, where he helped make shows like "First Take" and "SportsNation" come to be.

So, it's no surprise* that he thinks like this (in an article from March, in which he discusses the desire to court Bayless to FS1):
"Your bread and butter are the live events and the studio shows that surround them," he said. "Then the daily grind of the daily opinion shows. That has to be the first iteration of FS1. Then you can add the pocket square, tie and cuff links later."
The "pocket square, tie and cuff links" is a reference to ESPN documentaries, namely its "30 for 30" series. Without entering into get-off-my-lawn territory too much -- particularly as a working journalist -- it is a problem that well-executed storytelling is viewed like it is an ancillary accoutrement. When it comes down to it, everybody shows highlights, everybody has talking heads at a desk saying things -- but not everybody has valuable tools like "30 for 30" or "Outside the Lines" or Grantland (RIP). Those were the things that made ESPN different, and, in my opinion, were the best things about it. I say all of these things, knowing that this paragraph is perhaps the height of naivete, and, moreover, not necessarily a formula for good business, in the short-term

I understand that in a 24-hour news cycle, you have to fill that programming space with something. And that something, for obvious reasons, can't always be filled by thoughtful things like "Outside the Lines" or documentary films, which take time and cost money. There is also the reality of shortening attention spans (again, get of my lawn, etc. etc.) -- simply put, there seem to be more people interested in all-caps Tweeting at Bayless than there are those willing to watch a carefully constructed documentary about a sports team for which they do not root. You could say that people's tastes are people's tastes -- but, at a certain point, isn't it somewhat of a feedback loop? If you keep inundating people with bad stuff, don't they, eventually, start to feel okay about that stuff, or worse, crave it? I think there's some truth in that thought.

With that in mind, Mr./Mrs. High-Profile Sports Network Person has one of two big-picture choices:

  • Fill programming space with empty calories and sacrifice reputation for short-term pseudo-success.  
  • Actually try. 
As we've seen far more often than not in today's media landscape, actually trying to do good things -- because they are difficult or cost-prohibitive or follow a less direct route to dollars -- is no longer the name of the game. (That is, if it ever was; if it wasn't before, it is certainly less the name of the game now than it once was.)

*Nor is it a surprise that nonsense words like "opinionist" are used to describe the media one is trying to build. 

---
So, we have two different situations to monitor. ESPN, on the one hand, is losing talent left and right, for better or worse. FS1, on the other hand, is trying to build itself up, using ESPN leftovers, leftovers that weren't particularly good even before they were leftovers. 

As personalities go, Tirico is the only notable loss for ESPN, in terms of actual value. As for the rest? Personally, I have not missed their presence ... but, then there's that whole social media following angle, a reminder that I am not representative of sports fans as a whole. 

That is not meant to be a haughty statement of superiority -- like all things, people have a wide range of preferences. Some prefer what most would consider "low-brow" coverage ("embrace debate"). Some enjoy a combination of everything. Some just want to read longform pieces by Wright Thompson or Lee Jenkins and watch "30 for 30" documentaries. Some want to watch live sports, only, and follow along on Twitter. Some only read blogs. Some like sports talk radio. Some hate sports talk radio. Some generally don't like talk radio, but tune in because it's something to listen to on the way to and from work. Some listen to podcasts. Some -- increasingly fewer, to be sure -- read print newspapers *raises hand*, as what they lack in immediacy can be made up for with artful presentation and the maintenance of a daily routine. 

The list goes on and on. Personally, I check several of the above boxes -- and my sports media consumption has shifted radically in recent years. I wonder where it will be 10 years from now. Given the increasing absurdity of the decisions handed down by the governing bodies of the various sports leagues (the NCAA being one), maybe I will come to a point where I decide sports aren't worth it. I doubt that will ever happen, but the fact that I've even come to consider the idea is perhaps representative of a general frustration with it all. 

And since I don't play third base for the Yankees or point guard for the Bulls or quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks -- i.e. I am not a professional athlete! -- my window to sports is informed by the coverage of it, viewed as a fan. 


So, if I'm frustrated, then it logically follows that that frustration, in part, stems from sports media's coverage -- especially the coverage provided by the very largest of sports media outlets.

---
Perhaps more than anything, I've taken an interest in media, in general: how things are covered, strategies deployed, personnel hired and fired. That's why I've greatly come to enjoy Richard Deitsch's "Media Circus" columns, which are always illuminating, thought-provoking and informative of something happening somewhere. Rarely do I ever read one of his columns and not learn something new.

It is also important to note -- although this is a point that seems to escape many, including myself, at times -- that media attempt to cater to a wide variety of people (as I wrote above). Basically, as many people as possible.

So, companies like ESPN are not going to please everyone, all the time. It's impossible. That, combined with the 24-hour programming cycle, puts decision-makers in a precarious position. And, on top of all of this, comes the management of egos, which could be seen in the demise of Simmons' Grantland. Sometimes, a good thing doesn't work because the people involved can't get along (e.g. the Chicago Bulls front office vs. Tom Thibodeau).

Above all, it's a business, which is not something that fans like to hear. People in charge will continue to use words like "disrupt" and "leverage" and "branding" with the utmost seriousness, feeling as if they are doing the right thing.

As FS1 assembles a coterie of "personalities," -- "opinionists," rather -- it appears like it is simply revisiting old ESPN tactics in an effort to beat it. While many might see Bayless' departure as a good thing for ESPN, ESPN still doesn't look good, as Bayless turned down their offer (Deitsch reported in November that ESPN planned to offer him $4 million per year). They tried to keep him at a lofty price, so they get no applause for failing to retain him. On top of that, they actually "succeeded" in keeping Smith. ("Quite frankly, I am outraged at this perpetuation of ludicrous assertions on every level of discourse.")

Instead of trying, sports media is intent on spitting out horrible sequels. We've seen this picture before.

Like college football's realignment, there will likely be further shakeup in the sports media landscape. ESPN will probably make its own moves to fill its "personality" void (likely at lower costs). Or, maybe it will try to be better (unlikely, but who knows). The whole thing makes me laugh, as I reminisce about Big Ten leaders talking about Rutgers bringing the "New York market" into the conference's media footprint. Amusingly, I think FS1 has the same idea, that these talent acquisitions will bring the "Skip Bayless market" and the "Colin Cowherd market."

FS1, meanwhile, which I admittedly have never watched, seems intent on creating the sports media version of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2." I never saw that, just like I'll never tune in to watch Whitlock, Cowherd, or Bayless on FS1. But, again, I'm just one guy, and there will surely be many who do flock to FS1. Like I said, different strokes for different folks ... even so, it's a little disheartening to know that so many do find some approximation of "value" in this stuff.

Whatever happens, as it stands now, the decisions being made resonate loud and clear: rather than do good things, it is much easier to do bad things and think about the consequences later, much easier to build something shoddily but quickly -- or maintain a previously good thing with quick, careless fixes -- than it is to make something of real value. This concept is well-timed, as I read a piece on the subject of producing good things earlier today:
So what will matter in the next age of media? 
Compelling voices and stories, real and raw talent, new ideas that actually serve or delight an audience, brands that have meaning and ballast; these are things that matter in the next age of media. Thinking of your platform as an actual platform, not a delivery method. Knowing you’re more than just your words. Thinking of your business as a product and storytelling business, not a headline and body-copy business. Thinking of your audience as finite and building a sustainable business model around that audience — that’s going to matter. Thinking about your 10 year plan and not a billion dollar valuation — that’s going to matter.
Sadly, I agree with the author's assessment and simultaneously find it to be naive (like I said, sadly).

Instead of producing good things, the biggest players in sports media have decided to bring on the noise. None of it will be good or particularly interesting or useful noise, but boy, will there be noise. It won't be fun, a fact exacerbated by the fact that these noise-making "opinionists" do have a following from which they can continue to needle venomously with useless takes.

But hey, look at all that disruption.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Notre Dame 70, Michigan 63: End of the road

You can't say this hasn't been an exciting ride.

From the back-to-back nonconference thumpings against Xavier and UConn forever ago to the upset home wins against Maryland and Purdue to the Big Ten Tournament thriller against Indiana, this season rolled up and down like the contours of the North Campus wave field.

And tonight, despite leading 41-29 at the half, the Wolverines' ride came to an end, with a 70-63 loss against sixth-seeded Notre Dame in Brooklyn.

As you already know (and heard several times tonight), these two teams won't meet on the gridiron anytime soon, but this game had all of the makings of a classic football contest in Ann Arbor or South Bend, in a Barclays Center packed with alumni of both schools. Runs, punches and counter-punches, raucous roars, and coaches' calculations. Errors, triumphs and a result, yielding elation and deflation.

Unfortunately for Michigan, the song was much the same, following the same tune that has been a through line buzzing at the season's musical heart.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton shot a combined 8-for-29 from the field, with Irvin starting 1-for-10 from the field, his shot looking as discombobulated as ever. Given his past success, you'd think the fix would be akin to restarting your computer and hoping whatever ailed it went away, but it hasn't been so simple for the junior from Fishers, Ind.

But for the first 20 minutes, Michigan looked as good as it's looked all season. The defense was swarming, and the Wolverines held a +8 turnover margin (ND-10, UM-2) going into the break.

ND's Zach Auguste turned the ball over, a steal by Irvin, who dished to Aubrey Dawkins for a layup, giving Michigan a 26-13 lead just before the 8-minute media timeout. That would prove to be the apex of Michigan's lead.

The collapse, however, didn't happen until the second half. Notre Dame cut the Michigan lead to five, but Michigan closed the half with a 7-0 run, capped by a Moritz Wagner layup that took a round-trip flight to Berlin around before coming back to JFK and falling in as time expired.

But, this is tournament basketball. After 20: reset.

Unfortunately for John Beilein and Co., Michigan didn't and Notre Dame did. The Fighting Irish bested the Wolverines in the second half, 41-22.

One storyline I've already seen on Twitter tonight is Beilein's decision to keep Wagner out for too long late (he picked up his third foul 4:15 into the second half and his fourth with 5:38 remaining), playing Ricky Doyle late in a key portion of the game. As one who is loath to criticize Beilein, I can't argue with that point.

After another season of Michigan basketball, the referendum is in: Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle and DJ Wilson (who did not play at all tonight) are not the answer to Michigan's frontcourt woes.

Wagner is.

He was a spark in the Indiana win, scoring nine points and grabbing two offensive rebounds in 16 minutes. He was a spark tonight, too, with six points on 3-for-3 shooting from the field. Of course, he's not perfect, and he's certainly not Mitch McGary -- but he is clearly Michigan's best option in the frontcourt.

In retrospect, Wagner's nearly complete disappearance during conference play will go down as one of the most puzzling parts of this season. At the very least, it was a missed opportunity to prepare Wagner for what will assuredly be a central role in the rotation next season.

In the end, Michigan didn't make the plays that teams need to make come tournament time. I don't know how many finishes Donnal et al didn't convert at the rim, but it was too many (and I hate to criticize guys like that, but it is what it is). A missed attempt at the rim by Donnal with just over two minutes to go and Michigan down 64-61 stands out among the rest.

The game was still in reach late, with Michigan down 66-63 and possessing the ball after a Wagner rebound with 44 seconds left.

The possession ended with a familiar shot: an inadvisable three by Irvin, launched from Uniondale.

I get it, though. Late in the game, players like Irvin want that shot, no matter how many they've missed before that particular shot. But it wasn't even about the player taking the shot, but the circumstances of it. Michigan could have taken a two and forced ND to make its free throws. It could have even called a timeout and figured something out (although a player on the floor would have had to call it) -- and, as we know, there aren't too many people better than Beilein at drawing something up in the sand out of a timeout.

But neither of those things happened, and Irvin's long-range attempt fell off the mark.

Really, there was no other way for this to end.

Michigan's offense, predicated almost entirely on the success of its three-point shot, took this rusty bucket of bolts just about as far it could. Losing is never fun, but when looking back at this season, and factoring in the injuries to Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, it seems to me that the Wolverines squeezed out just about as many wins as they had a right to.

It's easy to think "what if." What if Michigan wins tonight and then gets a matchup against Stephen F. Austin, who looked fearsome tonight but perhaps plays into Michigan's hands (see 2013 VCU game)?

What if?

Well, the tournament isn't about what-ifs. Results are all there is. The cold bracket cares not for injuries, team history, feel-good stories, justice.

A Friday night in Brooklyn is the only thing that matters, in a building hosting more fans than the average game for the NBA team that happens to play there.

---
There are thoughts to add and little observations to wrap up in a bow, but now's not the time for that.

But, Michigan basketball is at a crossroads. Beilein has taken Michigan to the next level, but the success of recent years has set a bar that is not consistently attainable for most college basketball programs, let alone Michigan's, which has had its successes over the decades but is otherwise not among the elites.

So where do we go from here?

Michigan brings in point guard Xavier Simpson, two bigs standing at 6-10 and 6-11, and 6-4 SG Ibi Watson. Everyone from this team returns, save LeVert, of course, and most likely Albrecht, despite occasional rumblings that he could come back for another go.

I won't pretend to know how I think the aforementioned current high schoolers will perform as freshmen, but expecting anything of note is not a good idea.

For the most part, this team will, at its core, be what it was this season. The only difference will be whether or not certain players can: a) take a jump (e.g. Wagner) or b) get back to previous levels of play (e.g. Irvin).

For now, there's not much use speculating. Beilein will be back, and Michigan will, for once, have a fairly experienced college basketball team, led by juniors and seniors. Every rotation player of note currently on the team will be a junior or senior (Wilson will be a redshirt sophomore).

As topsy-turvy as this season was, it wasn't without joy. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman gradually proved himself -- he might not ever be an elite player, but he plays fearlessly. And unlike the prototypical Beilein player, his offensive game is more playground than Princeton -- take the ball to the hole and make a play. That's something every basketball fan can respect, even in a day dominated by the three-point shot.

Michigan has work to do, that much is clear. The program is in a strange place -- two down years following two transcendent ones, led by a coach who has exceeded inherent expectations everywhere he's been and is widely considered one of the best tacticians in the game.

But what happens when success breeds augmented expectations? What happens when making the tournament is seen as a given rather than a luxury? What happens when fans start wondering why the program doesn't reel in the most talented players rather than lauding the coach for identifying and developing the diamond in the rough?

We'll find out next season, I suppose.

For now, we say goodbye to a 2015-16 season that was simultaneously disappointing yet seemingly perfectly fit to reasonable expectations.

One team moves on. Another doesn't, beginning its offseason: the season of questions.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Michigan 57, Wisconsin 68: Good 20, not quite 40

Unlike Wednesday night against Northwestern, Michigan came out firing in Madison.

Zak Irvin, in particular, led the charge with seven early points as Michigan jumped out to a 9-2 lead and the offense organically generated open looks.

Also unlike the last game, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman didn't get on the board until four minutes had elapsed in the second half.

The most obvious point of divergence from the last game: the final score. Michigan played a strong first 20, but couldn't follow up on that first-half effort, as the Wolverines (20-10, 10-7) fell 68-57 in Madison.

Irvin led the way with 14 points. Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson and Ricky Doyle each added 10 apiece.

Bronson Koenig led UW with 19, while Nigel Hayes (16), Ethan Happ (12), and Vitto Brown (14) also made big contributions.

Michigan attempted just 13 3-pointers in the game (making 5 of them), while the Badgers shot 21 -- I'm not sure how many times Michigan has been out-attempted from beyond the arc this season, but it played a role in the result tonight, as Michigan just doesn't have enough juice inside the paint to win against solid competition (which UW most definitely has been since we flipped over to 2016).

With the win, the Badgers have now won 10 of 11 and move into the top four in the conference standings, an improbable sentence given their early-season struggles.

The Wolverines and Badgers raced to the half after a competitive 20 minutes, with the former up just one -- Michigan was 20 minutes away from just about locking up an NCAA Tournament berth.

But nothing comes that easy with this team.

Mark Donnal picked up his third foul in the first minute of the second half. Michigan played a relatively solid first half of defense -- Wisconsin was saved on a few scrambled possessions with fortuitous openings and late shot-clock shots -- but the Wolverines would need to get it going, as they were fortunate the Badgers missed good looks in the first.

It was all a matter of when the inevitable Badgers run would come. And with Michigan leading 40-39, the home team turned it on, going on an 8-0 run and energizing the Kohl Center crowd.

But as the half went on, Michigan began to miss open looks of its own, killing its comeback effort. Derrick Walton missed an uncontested layup in transition and a possession later Irvin missed a somewhat contested layup after a Walton steal.

That's about all there was to say about this one. Michigan missed its opportunities to inch closer down the stretch -- and with Irvin pressing to make plays, turnovers followed -- while the Badgers made key shots to keep the Wolverines at bay.

The silver linings? Irvin had a strong first half, hunting his shots and making them, before fading in the second. In addition, Doyle made an impact on the game with 10 points (5-for-5), including a thunderous alley-oop dunk and a strong finish at the rim through contact, not to mention a nice catch and finish on a tricky arcing feed from Abdur-Rahkman. It isn't much, but Doyle's performance is a nice little footnote on what was otherwise not a great night for the visiting Wolverines.

Now, Michigan turns to its regular-season finale against an ailing Iowa team, which lost tonight against Ohio State in Columbus. The loss, Iowa's fourth in their last five games, pushes the Hawkeyes out of the top four, for the moment, due to a tiebreaker with the Badgers.

Fortunately for Michigan, a win against Iowa would be a win against a ranked team, ailing one or not.

A loss at home and Michigan will head to the conference tournament with a far greater mental weight than it would otherwise have.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Michigan 72, Northwestern 63: The bucketmaker

Zak Irvin drove to the basket for Michigan's first bucket, almost six minutes into the game -- fitting on a cold night across the country, as snow sprinkled softly across the land.

By then, visiting Northwestern already built a 10-0 lead before Irvin's two in front of a far-from-capacity Crisler Center crowd. Atmosphere and execution formed one homogeneous arena-shaped blob of listless discontent.

Despite its cold start, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman's 19 points, 16 points from Derrick Walton and a big second half from Aubrey Dawkins led Michigan (20-9, 10-6) to a much-needed 72-63 win against the Wildcats on Wednesday night in Ann Arbor.

Michigan overcame a brutal night from beyond the arc (4-for-15) to score its sixth in a row against Northwestern in Ann Arbor.

Coming into tonight, Michigan's tournament ticket balanced precariously in the air -- a gust of wind, good fortune, would send the ticket flying nearly into its grasp. Or, gravity would do its work, sending said ticket hurtling just inches above a metaphorical paper shredder below.

Jerry Palm placed Michigan in the "last four in" category heading into tonight. A loss would necessitate the tall task of a win at Wisconsin or at home against Iowa, not to mention likely at least one win in the Big Ten tournament.

It wasn't pretty, but conference play often isn't. Northwestern big man Alex Olah once again had his way with the Wolverines, scoring 14 first-half points, while the home team started 0-for-8 from beyond the arc -- a familiar story, to be sure.

Slowly but surely, however, Michigan clawed back into it, led by Abdur-Rahkman's nine first-half points. And just in time, Duncan Robinson buried Michigan's first triple of the game as time expired on the first half, sending Michigan into the break down by just one.

In the second, however, Michigan would have to find a way to check Olah, who made hay in the paint and flashed the ability to stretch the defense with mid-range jumpers (and even one three).

But just like the first, Michigan creaked out of the gates.

Multiple Michigan turnovers paired with an 8-0 NU run once again put the Wolverines in catch-up mode. Early in the half, the Wolverines had already tallied nine turnovers, and continued their cold first-half shooting from three, missing their first two attempts of the second half.

While Irvin and Robinson's shots were off, Abdur-Rahkman continued to make it happen, including a nifty spin into a left-handed layup. A couple minutes later, he maneuvered around the elbow to drop a slick bounce pass to Ricky Doyle on the right block for two.

After a strong effort at Maryland (16 points, 9 assists) and two weeks ago at Minnesota (16 points), the sophomore Abdur-Rahkman has increasingly flashed his value to the team, as an individual playmaker and as a sometimes capable distributor (the latter of which was notoriously not in his arsenal, even earlier this season and certainly not as a freshman).

For a guy who was seemingly lost in the shuffle of preseason ruminations on the minutes hierarchy, he's done quite well to take advantage of his opportunities of late.

A Dawkins triple tied it at 44 with just over 11 minutes to play. A Northwestern turnover on the next possession gave the Crisler crowd new life.

And, speaking of guys lost in the shuffle, Kam Chatman gave Michigan its first lead of the game with a pair of free throws after tough work on the offensive glass.

NU briefly retook the lead, but yet another strong drive for two by Abdur-Rahkman and Dawkins's third triple of the game gave Michigan a 57-54 advantage with 4:15 to play. With the shot clock winding down on a later possession, Abdur-Rahkman rebounded his own miss and added two more points at the rim, padding Michigan's points-in-the-paint advantage (frame that clause for posterity).

Then, on a loose ball situation with a minute and change left, Dawkins took it coast-to-coast, expertly shielding a trailing Olah to score at the rim and open up a seven-point lead from which NU could not return.

Olah led the Wildcats with 19 points (8-for-16). NU's second-leading scorer, Bryant McIntosh, scored just four points on 2-for-7 shooting from the field.

The Wolverines head to Madison on Sunday, where they'll face a Badgers team that has bounced back from a brutal 2015 portion of the season and is also fighting for a tournament spot.

As it always is at the Kohl Center, a win will be tough to come by.

With that said, if the Wolverines can carry over tonight's effort from inside the arc, a win isn't out of the question. More importantly, it can't be looked at as a luxury -- Michigan should be somewhat safely in the tournament field, but you just never know. The margin for error is still too thin to take anything for granted.

Now, though, let's celebrate the bucketmaker, a player who shoots the three well (38%), just like a Beilein player should, but isn't defined by it.

And if the idea of bucking an established convention -- in this case, in the form of explosive drives to the hoop, crossovers and spin moves -- isn't the most quixotic idea in all of sports, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Michigan 66, Ohio State 76: Oh no

What is a basketball, but an orange orb, darting through the heavens, like a dimpled comet, on its way to cutting the cord

As ESPN embarked on the avant-garde cinematographic journey dubbed "Floor Seats," a basketball game was played. 

Supposedly. 

That game featured the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes, second-tier Big Ten squads sitting at 9-4 and 8-5, respectively, in league play -- both, to some degree, fighting for an NCAA tournament spot. 

Unfortunately, watching this game on TV was like sitting behind a stanchion at Wrigley Field. But perhaps it was fortunate, as save for a brief spurt early when Michigan led 12-10, the rest of the game essentially filled the mold of the standard 2015-16 Michigan basketball loss. 

The Buckeyes shot 54 percent from the field (59 percent in the second half) while Michigan shot just 20.8 percent from three. Michigan showed transient glimmers of life late in the second, cutting the deficit down to as few as seven points as late as just under the five-minute mark. 

But they didn't have enough to make it any closer, falling 76-66 in Columbus and moving to 19-8 (9-5) on the season. 

Mark Donnal led Michigan with 17 points. Meanwhile, five Buckeyes scored in the double digits, including Marc Loving and Jae'Sean Tate, who led the home team with 13 apiece. Duncan Robinson was held to three points on 1-for-6 shooting. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin combined for a 10-for-28 night from the field. 

Save for a few very isolated mini-bursts, Michigan's offense struggled from start to finish. 

Michigan started slow, picked it up, then was handled by OSU's bench players A.J. Harris and Kam Williams in the first half. 

Meanwhile, Michigan, back to a Caris LeVert-less state, started 5-for-16 (2-for-7 from three), with nothing coming easy, as is usually the case when the shots don't immediately start falling on the road. 

Tate and JaQuan Lyle complemented the bench squad with a combined 15 first-half points of their own, and the Buckeyes took a 36-28 lead into the break. 

Michigan kicked off the second, surprisingly, with activity in the paint, including a bucket by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, a finish by Mark Donnal and a drawn foul by Donnal at the rim (which, like Dakich said, should have been an and-1, but resulted in a split pair of free throws). 

But, just like that, Ohio State had its way with the Michigan defense, extending the lead to 10 with a thunderous dunk by Trevor Thompson off of a lob pass. 

Michigan proceeded to pick up its sixth foul of the second half -- just over five minutes in. When it's not your day, it's not your day. 

A Zak Irvin three cut it to seven late, but Michigan didn't have the juice to get any closer, with a lifeless offense and an interior defense that might as well have not been there. 

With the loss, Michigan still needs at least one more win to feel somewhat comfortable about a tournament berth. Lose out, and it's dire straits. 

At Maryland, Northwestern, at Wisconsin and Iowa: that's how the Wolverines close the regular season. 

If tonight didn't inspire confidence vis-a-vis the prospect of pulling off an upset, you wouldn't be alone, particularly with how the Wolverines have played on the road. Even Northwestern, which had tournament hopes at the beginning of the season that have since fizzled out, won't be an easy out by any means. 

Michigan fans will simply have to hold on -- it's going to be a bumpy ride.

And if you're feeling more confident than that, you'll probably still need to hold on, to something, after tonight's dizzying exercise in how to not broadcast a live sporting event.