Sunday, January 22, 2012

Michigan-Arkansas: The War of Novak's Aggression

Michigan 64, Arkansas 66
Preface: CBS didn't switch to the game until there was 13:20 or so left in the first half, so I missed the beginning of what metastasized into a 20-point deficit. 

William Tecumseh Sherman and Zack Novak: related?

This was the quintessential college basketball game, one that could have easily passed for an opening round tournament game. If this was played at Crisler, the arena and the weather and a general voodoo that permeates college basketball at large would have come together to prevent the Razorbacks from starting the game on a ridiculous shooting tear far exceeding their ability. And, of course, they wouldn't have been able to ride the waves of pure energy that a home crowd can generate for a team. However, this game was played in Arkansas, and geography is more than half the battle in college basketball, as we all know. 

In the end, this doesn't mean all that much. The nature of the loss makes it particularly hard to stomach (cutting a ridiculous deficit down to 2, the last shot being 99% in, a lost chance to stick it to the SEC, etc.), but it hasn't really changed the outlook for the season; Michigan will make their money throughout the rest of the conference schedule. Although Arkansas looked like the Monstars on this day (I think I remember the Monstars pressing a little bit), their performance to date suggests that they are a bubble team at best. This wasn't a bad loss, but it wouldn't have been a great win insofar as tournament resumes are concerned. It would have been nice to see Michigan travel far away and dispatch an unorthodox team on the road, but it didn't happen. There's nothing to say but "oh well" and move on (/continues to write stuff). 

The story of this game is pretty simple. Arkansas came out en fuego, hitting their first 11 shots. Misses were few and far between even after that prolific run. Michigan's defense wasn't quite airtight, but some of those shots were just insane, video game shots, Arkansas players contorting their bodies like Kobe Bryant to rip an off-balanced three through the net. Arkansas ended the game shooting exactly 50% overall and 45.5% from 3. Their season averages: 43.8% and 34.7%, respectively. "Sometimes when you're on..." 

The rest of the game was simply a struggle against the current of Arkansas's shooting and defensive pressure, an excruciatingly slow chipping away of the lead (I think a Big Ten=slow HURR joke goes here). Michigan was lucky enough to enter the half only down 13, even luckier than they were to only be down 7 at the half against Northwestern. The press wasn't an enormous factor from a turnover perspective, as far as I can remember. In fact, Michigan turned the ball over only ten times, under their season average of 11.3 TOPG*. Other than the frenzied Burke turnover that lead to the Novak FALCON PUNCH of BJ Young**, I can't remember the press really affecting Michigan significantly. With that said, Arkansas did a good job of pressuring in general, and a number of offensive possessions consisted of Burke fighting off on-the-ball pressure and traps, trying to make something happen as everybody else sort of stands around, existing. Michigan's half court sets were in a constant state of frenzied disorganization, as if somebody was adding or taking away an electron from the atomic structure of their offensive game plan. 

At the same time, even if Burke dribbles the ball too much a la Morris...who else would you rather have dribbling the ball on this team? This question would be pretty frightening if we hadn't known about this problem since basically the beginning of the Beilein era. Other than Trey, the only one who can create his own shot on a regular basis is THJ, and he's still reluctant to do so for whatever reason***. Novak and Douglass can do things occasionally, but they're not going out and creating with any regularity, despite my facetious citing in this space of Zack's future AND1 basketball career. Vogrich literally cannot (or is told not to) do anything on the bounce and Smotrycz on the dribble is often a horror show. It's hard to get anything done against a zone or man-to-man in the half court game when most of your team is either too unathletic or unskilled to make something happen on their own. So, every play for Trey is basically this commercial: 

There were innumerable occasions when Vogrich or Smotrycz would hold the ball 40 feet from the basket, waiting for Burke to free himself from a defender, presenting zero threat to do anything with the ball but hold it and wait for Burke to retrieve it and start "the offense." It's getting to the point that I almost feel sorry for Trey while simultaneously being in awe at his ability to play 39 minutes against a pressing team and still have enough energy to frown at the end when the last shot rattled out. This is doubly impressive in light of Appling being gassed after 31 minutes last Tuesday. 

After Novak turned into LeBron playing in Cleveland, Hossa in Detroit, etc., he and Trey tried to will Michigan to victory in spite of the rest of the team's general ineffectiveness. Novak hit a three to silence the ESSSS EEEEE CEEEE crowd--a crowd that has apparently never seen a hard foul before--and cut it to 6, after which Arkansas brought it back to 11 for a stretch. Novak hit another 3, took a charge, and tapped out a ball to extend a possession down the stretch, vengefully torching Arkansas like Sherman did Atlanta. Morgan was outrunning Arkansas's bigs and slamming down precision passes in that way that usually means Michigan is winning/going to win (or that good things are happening in general). Burke was Burke; tireless, a bundle of thankless, humble effort. 

Hunter McSouthern Guy Mickelson managed a layup as the shot clock was just about to run out, bringing the lead to 4, 66-62, after which Burke cut it to 2. Upon fouling during the next possession, an Arkansas player flew across the lane to corral a rebound (right through Smotrycz, as if he wasn't there) on a missed free throw, eventually resulting in a second chance for the Razorbacks. Luckily, Arkansas missed on the front end once again, giving Michigan a chance to win the game on the final possession. 

Coming out of a timeout, the last play was disjointed and seemingly purposeless, but in retrospect...I'm not sure that I would have trusted the ball to anyone's hands but Trey's. The ball went in on a ridiculous step back from well behind the arc and then, on a whim, bounced out, determined to finish this chaotic and nonsensical game of college basketball with a thematically consistent final salvo. That is, consistent insofar as chaos and nonsense can be consistent. 

*FWIW, I thought it was a hard foul and nothing more. There's zero chance that he was actually trying to hurt Young, but I'm sure Jay Bilas will shortly be lobbying for Novak's excommunication from the game of basketball. Also, I have to laugh at the Arkansas fans in guys got the flagrant foul. Stop booing (protip: he wants you to boo). 
**On the other hand, Arkansas only had 8, 5 under their season average of 13.4 TOPG. I thought we'd be able to force more.
***Even when he does attack, he hasn't shown the confidence that he seemed to have last year. For instance, THJ's drive near the end of the game (when it was 64-62, about a minute left) ended in a sort of meek flip. 

Player Bullets, Also Known As "Trey Burke And Those Who Are Not Trey Burke":
  • Burke--The box score doesn't really do his performance justice. He continues to not shoot the ball too well (6/19 overall, 1/6 from 3), but he is just a gamer, and I say that in as unironic a manner as possible. Throw in 7 boards, a 6:2 assist to turnover, a steal, and another of his now patented blocks, not to mention his tireless handling of the press and the offense as a whole, and that's a strong performance. He takes a bad shot from time to time, but with other players being about as useful as a box of paper clips, I'll reiterate that I'd rather Trey do it than someone else. 
  • Hardaway--I'm getting to the point where, instead of tinkering with a recalibration of expectations, I'm just throwing all preconceived notions out the window and starting with a blank slate. If anything, it makes watching him play less frustrating. Went 3/8 from the field (1/4 from 3), 2/2 from the line. The song remains the same. 
  • Novak--The Mayor of Gritville traveled away to Fayetteville to remind these Ozarkian folks what the best ville-suffixed city is. He did have one charge, but overall these refs seemed to not know how to call the charge, even more so than usual. Led Michigan with 17 and was simply an assassin from the field (6/9 overall, 5/7 from 3). This team is going to be so much less ragey and intense when he's gone and it will be terrible. 
  • Douglass--A very rough day from the field (2/10 overall, a horrible 1/8 from 3), but he did pitch in 5 assists to 1 TO. Maybe I'm confusing him for Vogrich with this, but did seem to get beat more on the bounce in this one than is normally the case. To his defense, Arkansas is a pretty quick, athletic team. Quite honestly, they might end up being the most purely athletic team Michigan has faced all year when all is said and done. 
  • Morgan--Yes, you could say that his point totals are entirely dependent on others finding him wide open near the basket, but he doesn't score those points if he isn't running the floor hard. A great second half of dunks and layups for Morgan...consistently beat Arkansas bigs down the middle of the floor. That's the type of effort we need from him. He's still somewhat hit or miss around the basket when he has to actually maneuver himself around a defender. I would have liked to have seen him take that jumper instead of hesitating before that 3-second call was made. I remember him making a nice elbow jumper earlier this season, and this one would have been just outside of the paint. Now isn't the time to experiment, I guess, but I think the 10-13 footer is a shot that he can make. 
  • Smotrycz--An absolute ghost. Finished with 4 points on 1/2 from the field in 15 nondescript minutes. Did have a pair of offensive boards, including a tip in right after the Novak flagrant foul sequence. Usage is obviously down since entering the doghouse, but 15 minutes is more than enough time to do something, anything. Although it didn't hurt us in the end, having that Arkansas player come across the lane to rebound a free throw from Smotrycz's block is embarrassing from both a technique and an effort perspective. As they are playing now, Smotrycz and THJ are preventing this team from being a a sure thing re: the tournament. 
  • Vogrich--0/2 from the field, was shook by Young pretty badly on one defensive sequence. Dropped a dime on the Novak three before the end of the first half and showed some nice smarts in driving and dishing to a crashing Smotrycz on another occassion, leading to a pair of free throws. Still a painfully limited player, and despite having flashed great range from 3, is shooting 24% from there. 
  • McLimans--Two minutes...not a factor again. Not really a good sign that's he gotten four minutes combined in the last two games, especially with Horford still being out. 

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