Monday, February 13, 2012

Michigan-Illinois: Alive

Michigan 70, Illinois 61
Don't call it a comeback. (AP/Carlos Osorio)
In 2007, my freshman year and John Beilein's first season in Ann Arbor, I attended every home game of a season in which Michigan won 10 games. Unlike the Pearl Jam album, this aforementioned ten was not so great. That season, Michigan lost to: Central Michigan, Western Kentucky (who, at the team, was just Western Kentucky and not a team that would eventually make it to the Sweet 16), Harvard, and a majority of the Big Ten. We, the students, stormed the court after beating a Buckeye squad that would go on to miss the tournament a month later. 

Michigan won nine pre-Big Ten tournament games that season. Right now, on February 13th, Michigan has nine conference wins after beating the Illini, with five games left to play. People aren't talking about whether or not Michigan will make the tournament. People aren't talking about whether or not this "system" can work in the gritty Big Ten, where the only offense is stingy defense and offensive sets can best be described as: measured, deliberate, dignified, decorous acquiescence to the notion that scoring points is somehow like drinking hemlock. 

People are talking about seeding. A four, a five? There are distinct loci on the map of college basketball that Michigan now firmly occupies instead of the Purgatorial listlessness that once loomed over the program for over a decade. People are talking about Michigan's chances to win the conference title, regular season and tournament. That's not to say that Michigan will win either (the former hinges upon whether or not Michigan can beat the Buckeyes at home on Saturday), but people are talking about it. Think about how insane that is, as a concept and as a potential reality. A little over four years ago, Michigan was busy losing to an Amaker-coached Harvard squad, a moment in history that typifies the Universe's mischievous sense of humor. 

Now, Michigan is winning road games, defending its home court as if it were Helm's Deep, and doing it all while leaning on a freshman point guard and a limited bench. John Beilein has assembled a spaceship out of aluminum foil, duct tape, and unadulterated tactics, a craft that I would say is bound for the Moon if it wasn't clearly destined for far more ambitious locales. 

Brady Hoke led a similarly deficient squad to an 11-2 season, and yet, the question I have is shockingly rhetorical: has John Beilein's coaching job this season been any less impressive than what Hoke and the football team were able to accomplish? I would posit that the answer is a resounding no. 


As for the game itself, the formula for success was very much understood coming in. Getting Leonard into foul trouble was essentially the golden path to victory. Leonard picked up two within the first eight minutes and ended up playing only 27 when all was said and done. This also helped to mitigate the loss of JMo to early fouls; he had done a pretty job of avoiding that of late, but it happens. Michigan can't have that happen if they want to beat the Buckeyes, though. 

With that said, Leonard was pretty much invisible after his two early buckets. He finished with 5 points, a testament to some solid defense on Michigan's and a little bit of luck. As I detailed in the preview, Leonard had been tearing teams up of late, so to hold him to five points was a significant achievement. 

Otherwise, the Illini's offensive attack was as expected: frenetic, in a bad way. Michigan turned turnovers into points with regularity as if the Illini offense was a Coinstar machine. If it wasn't for a surprising 18-point effort from former starter Tyler "Don't Call Me Ken" Griffey, this game would have been a blowout. 

Offensively, Michigan scored 70 on a decent defense despite seemingly leaving quite a few points on the floor in the form of some missed bunnies. However, the most important development was the return form of THJ and Smotrycz, both scoring in the double digits and displaying an esprit de corps that had been absent for quite some time. In addition, Vogrich had himself a game, building upon his shooting performance in Lincoln. If THJ and Smotrycz continue to pick themselves back out of their respective confidence sinkholes and Vogrich can continue to shoot the lights out and provide the underrated gritty exploits that he so consistently does, this team will be a terrifying matchup for a lot of folks come tournament time. 

Player Bullets, Also Known As "Trey Burke and Those Who Are Not Trey Burke":
  • Burke--Continues to be awesome. Had another one of his high-volume poor shooting days but it's obviously not a big deal under the circumstances. Fourteen points on 5/11 shooting from 2 (0/4 from 3), 3 assists, and a pair of steals make for another decidedly un-freshman-like performance. The rest of the schedule is relatively manageable; Burke-Craft Redux this Saturday will be one to watch vis-a-vis the progression of this supposed "freshman" playing basketball for us. 
  • THJ--Let me just get this out first: WOOOOOOOOOO. Yes. This is how we do it, indeed. THJ paced the Wolverines with 15 points on 5/9 shooting (2/3 from 3), 3 boards, and 3 assists. He's getting better and better with the ball in his hands in transition...he's been dropping dimes like Patriots wideouts drop passes (I'll show myself the door now). There's nothing else to say but DO MORE OF THAT OKAY THANKS. The only negative is that his minutes were chopped up awkwardly by foul trouble, so I wonder how much better his stat line would have looked like if he was able to avoid that. 
  • Morgan--A quiet day offensively but a large part of that is obviously the result of foul trouble. Also, went 0/3 from the line, not exactly helping his percentage, which is hovering close to 50% at this point. That's not good...hopefully that doesn't come back to bite us at some point. We have zero chance against the Buckeyes if JMo only logs 12 minutes again. 
  • Novak--What can be said about the Mayor of the glorious berg of Gritville that hasn't already been said? Twelve points on only four FGA, but he did go 5/5 from the line. Also, nine rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal. The Maize Rage needs to invent some sort of Goalie/Sieve chant for Novak involving grit and whatever the opposite of that may be...Blackhawks? /self-deprecating Hawks fan
  • Douglass--Like JMo, a quiet day from the field, but did just enough to prevent Paul from giving us a legitimate scare. You would think that a senior would have displayed very little real improvement from his first 3 years to his 4th; Douglass has not only done that, but he has shown significant improvement between a month or so ago and now. Solid defense, less facepalm-inducing turnovers and long 3s=very solid plus player. 
  • Smotrycz--After predicting a double digit points performance for Evan in Lincoln, it appears that I jumped the gun by a game. Evan put in a confident 13 points on 3/6 shooting (2/3 from 3, 5/6 from the line). Thirteen off of the bench is probably not a reasonable thing to expect on the reg, but if he can keep this sort of play up then that takes Michigan from an outside shot for a conference title of either variety to a real, legitimate threat to win one. The definitive X-factor, if you will. Amateur sports psychology can often border on the absurd, but if you couldn't tell the difference in his overall demeanor in this game then I don't know what to tell you. Whatever Phil Jackson zen Beilein is using is clearly starting to work. 
  • Vogrich--For a second game in a row, Vogrich does his best Korver impression. Eight points from him in any game is just gravy. Perfect from 3 again (2/2) and a nice backdoor cut for a layup and a drive that led to a crucial foul on Leonard were impressive plays for a guy who seemingly has no game outside of shooting the trey. As usual, he continues to show a level of underrated grit, picking up 2 boards, a steal, and one possession arrow by tying up Meyers Leonard (of all people). 
  • McLimans--Only four minutes. Didn't really do anything except elicit mocking words from Raftery about him not wanting to post up and whatnot. I know that I've been somewhat irrationally hoping for him to get more minutes, but for some reason I think that he's going to hit a big shot at some point before this season is over. 

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