Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Michigan-Michigan State: Survival of the Fittest

Michigan 60, Michigan State 59

On the heels of a faith-shaking performance in Iowa City over the weekend, there couldn't have been a better opponent to have come into Ann Arbor than this one. Another uninspired performance at home against a rival squad and it would have officially been time to invest in real estate near some hills, to which we would have to run. Somewhat lost in the shuffle is the fact that the Spartans came in with a shiny #9 ranking despite a recent loss at Northwestern; this wasn't Izzo's best or most talented team, but they are contenders once again. The Darwinist order of the Big Ten states that if you don't hold serve at home, you're as good as dead, resigned to the dustbin of history (also known as "receiving an invitation to the NIT"). 

Luckily, to continue the evolutionary/natural selection theme, the Wolverines shed the brittle shell they wore in Iowa City in favor of a much grittier, tougher one at home, a shell that, for one, included a non-starting Evan Smotrycz as part of its makeup (perhaps one of the major culprits in the decidedly un-gritty performance at Iowa). 

The first half was eerily reminiscent of the first half of the Wisconsin game. The Wolverines led the entire half, with the Spartans surviving by using their elongated necks to reach the choicest of produce size to pull in board after board on the offensive end. The Spartans scored 20 of their 29 first half points in the paint, largely a product of corraling 25% of their misses. The Spartans, particularly Wood, were not connecting from outside whatsoever, allowing the Wolverines to pull into the half with a 7-point lead. 

However, it didn't come without some difficulty, as MSU rattled off a 9-0 run late in the half before Stu executed the old-fashioned 4-point play and THJ converted on a pair of free throws. Minus the Spartans' poor shooting, it was a fairly foreseeable half. Michigan came out with energy and knocked down some shots, only to give up some second chance buckets to Green, Nix, et al. Being a Big Ten home game, the Spartans naturally attempted zero free throws in the entire first half (not that I remember any fouls that should've been called). Burke and Appling took turns zipping up and down the court, flashing some serious ESSS EEEE CEEEE speed in the process. Sidebar: this match-up is only going to get better with these two floor generals running the show (assuming, you know, nobody goes pro and whatnot). 

The second half continued to be the Trey Burke show, as the rest of the team seemed to shut it down for a stretch that attempted to squeeze the life out of Michigan's hopes for a victory. The offense bogged down for extended periods of time, leading to a few frenzied possessions extending late into the shot clock only to result in a Burke drive into trouble down low near the baseline.* Michigan found themselves down 4 (57-53) with about 4 minutes left in the game. THJ had another rough outing overall, but he did score two big buckets late to put Michigan down 1 before Burke pulled down a defensive rebound and pushed it down the court with the alacrity of one Derrick Rose, finding a wide open Stu Douglass near the basket. Michigan produced a final stop of one of the most gut-wrenchingly long possessions ever. The ball clanged off the glass and the rim, effectively squashing the memories of Kalin Lucas's late game winner that haunted me just several seconds earlier. Three in a row; GAME BLOUSES. 


Click for one of the greatest things ever (HT: swamyblue)

A win's a win, but like I said after the OT win against the Wildcats...we cannot count on Denard to bail us out every time with his emanations of pure cheer and awesome rays. I mean, superstition dictates that he and Roy have to be at every game from here on out, right? 

It was hard-fought and at times even a bit aesthetically displeasing (especially on the offensive end), but, in conference play, all that matters is the end result. Michigan held serve, and beating a quality Spartan squad sure doesn't hurt. For now, Michigan retains its spot at or near the top of the Big Ten food chain. In LOTR terms, this game was the celebration in the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring, full of merriment, drink, and cheer, yet untainted by what was to come. The next five games, on the other hand, represent the perilous trek to Mordor, ending, of course, with a trip to Breslin. So it begins

/end nerdery

*This is one of the few criticisms I have of him thus far; he seems to put himself in bad spots from time to time by dribbling down into the opponents' bigs near the baseline--about halfway between the hoop and the corner, which is essentially No Man's Land against defensively-attentive squads--or attempting the sometimes dicey pass across the baseline to the other corner. This is a minor quibble, and sometimes the offense just collapses like "a flan in a cupboard", to quote Eddie Izzard, necessitating some seemingly ill-advised dribbling. 

Player Bullets, Also Known As "Trey Burke And Those Who Are Not Trey Burke":

  • Burke--The heading for this section has probably never been more apropos than after this performance. Burke's defensive performance against Jordan Taylor was impressive, but the freshman scored a third of the team's points en route to essentially putting the team on his back last night when it counted. He flashed some range that I previously thought only Vogrich had, hitting a trey from the top of the key while standing just in front of the edge of the M at half court. Twenty points on 8/11 shooting (3/6 from 3), including two steals and two blocks (!) on the defensive end, make for arguably the most impressive performance for the young freshman to date. He did get a little dribble-happy around the perimeter at times, but, like I said, I think that was more a product of the offense just not doing anything and the pick and roll being mostly ineffective (from what I remember) after a few instances of success in the first half. If this was hockey, I'd give Trey, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd stars for this one. Rod Beard asked the question during the game, but I think the answer is pretty obvious: Trey Burke is our best player. I've mentioned this before, but Burke often reminds me of a poor man's Derrick Rose, and a poor man's Rose is still far richer than whatever most teams in college basketball are trotting out. 
  • Hardaway--Another rough performance from the field from THJ. The fact that we won in spite of this is encouraging...I have to think that the light will go on eventually. THJ's early struggles seem to weigh on him in a fashion that affects his play for an extended period of time, leading to a feedback loop that pushes him to take tough perimeter shot after shot. When he did attack the rim, good things happened more often than not (4/4 from the FT line). With that said, he did score two clutch buckets in crunch time, and that's what counts when the dust settles. He also didn't seem to be 100% after coming up a little gimpy early in the game, so take that FWIW. 
  • Novak--Another gritty performance for the Mayor of Gritville (population: Zack Novak). Ten points on 4/8 shooting (2/5 from 3), including two very impressive 2s. The first was his classic jump stop move past a defender in what seemed like a hopeless situation, resulting in an easy bunny. The second, a fadeaway near the elbow with the shot clock running out and a man in his face that dropped in without touching the rim. Tremendous. Only one foul in a game such as this is another point against benching him in future in two early foul scenarios. 
  • Douglass--Got the start over Smotrycz and it appeared to be the right decision. Stu is a limited player in a lot of respects, but his experience was an obvious asset, especially considering that he logged 36 minutes compared to Evan's 10. Nine points on 3/6 shooting (1/3 from 3) four boards and yet another steal lead me to believe that he should continue to start as we head into the Stretch of Doom of the schedule. 
  • Morgan--Honestly, given MSU's size, this was not a game that Morgan would likely have had a lot of offensive success. He did look good early on the pick and roll with Burke, which was encouraging. Was fed a couple other times as well, including one instance when he was unable to convert on that little hook shot in the lane that he often makes. Only four points, but it's very good to see him get involved early instead of being mostly invisible until the second half. I'd like to see us continue to get him involved as such. Despite the Spartans dominating the boards, I thought he held his own defensively (he did also contribute a clutch block of Appling on the final possession, an underrated play in that entire sequence). 
  • Vogrich--A pair of boards, as well as an impressive reverse layup that I didn't think he had in him. Bench minutes were hard to come by in this game, which is going to be pretty unsustainable down the stretch if Michigan doesn't want the starters to wear down considerably. Not much of an offensive impact but he continues to grab some boards and generally not do anything stupid with his minutes. Overall, I've been pretty pleased with his play of late. 
  • Smotrycz--It's fitting that somebody should enter the doghouse for a game in which one Lloyd "Doghouse" Carr was sitting right next to the Michigan bench. It's hard to say how permanent this move will be, but given the lackluster performance at Iowa, and Stu's generally positive play last night, I think he should continue to come off of the bench, working his way back up to more regular minutes. He did flash some quick hands, snatching the ball from a Spartan big twice; did turn it over on the first one while bringing it up the floor on the break, as he is wont to do. Again, he needs to learn what he can and can't do; there's no shame in knowing one's limitations. In the game of basketball, knowing what those are, even if it depresses the ol' stat line, gets you minutes and, eventually, out of the doghouse. On the positive side, he did have two nice takes to the basket, one resulting in a 3-point play. When the 3s aren't falling, we need him to do more of this. His handles aren't good enough yet to be taking it out in the open floor or anywhere in the middle of the floor, really, but he has been surprisingly effective off the dribble from the wing. 
  • McLimans--A bit surprised to only see him get 2 minutes, particularly given MSU's size across the board. I guess it's just a product of the game being close, but, as I mentioned in the Iowa recap, I'd like to see him get a few more minutes, especially in light of Horford's continuing absence. 

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