Monday, March 26, 2012

On Losing, Coping, and the Meaning of This

On two consecutive weekends, Michigan saw an otherwise successful season come to an end with an almost existential abruptness. Seniors--Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, Shawn Hunwick--saw their time as Michigan athletes end on a sour note, an otherwise cheerful classical symphony ending in an out-of-place minor key.

The basketball team spent the time between November and March actualizing the entirety of its potential, doing everything that it could with what relatively little it had to spare. The ride was a nearly ceaseless crescendo, a buildup to something great. It fell apart in the end; the idealism of deserved Fate--of positive outcomes reserved for those who have traversed the darkest corners of the realm of athletic pursuit--was dealt a heavy blow. Is this how it was supposed to end? The curtain falls and you sit in your seat in the dark amphitheater waiting for more, and more never comes. That is all there is. You get up and leave.

The hockey team rolled into the sequestered vacuum that is the NCAA hockey tournament with a shiny #1 seed and a roster that had seemingly experienced the athletic equivalent of a renaissance. Whether by virtue of Jon Merrill's return or survivalist instinct, the latter mirroring the same sort of late-season push we saw last year and the year before, it was breathtakingly automatic, the quintessential example of the sports cliche "flipping the switch." The streak was not only intact, it was as if it had never been in danger. As others more qualified than I can probably corroborate, this wasn't a vintage Michigan team featuring electron virtuosos like T.J. Hensick or top-notch two-way stalwarts like Kevin Porter. And yet, the results speak for themselves.

After Lynch's late equalizer and the remaining time expiring without another goal, it was not difficult to harken back to last year's championship game, in which regulation time ended 2-2 after a late Michigan goal. UMD's first goal bounced just over Hunwick's outstretched pads, the second on a UMD power play, in which a shot in close rebounded almost miraculously onto the UMD attacker's tape for a second point blank opportunity. A Rohrkemper goal tied it late, like Lynch's late goal on Friday; overtime hockey once again. The land of dread. The land of affirmation. Overtime hockey is elaborate, fevered theater. It is a Shakespearean sword fight, each combatant slowing bleeding out his life slash by slash, until one or the other has no more blood to give and thus clutches, spins, and falls.

UMD's final goal came after Michigan had spent most of the early minutes of overtime in its own zone, frantically attempting to catch its breath, to stave off the final blow. A crashing UMD forward, essentially untouched, came through and potted the winning goal. It was over.

Again, Michigan entered the perilous domain of overtime hockey, looking to make its second wind count. Survival was the only instinct playing out at this juncture. At that point, everything else fades away, ancillary to the order of the moment. Overtime hockey is so Darwinian thought set upon the framework of sport.

A rebound and a weak backcheck later and the puck was in the back of the net only a few minutes into the overtime period. Again, it was over, as if someone was repeating a bad joke after it failed to elicit laughter after the first telling. There was nothing Hunwick could do, and the fact that he was mostly helpless makes a bitter end even more difficult to take. After a career filled with save after incomprehensible save, saves that defied the laws of physics and conventional wisdom, it would all naturally end with a sequence beyond his control, one of those moments in which agency is nowhere to be found. The puck didn't care what came before; it went in the wide open net, invited by its stark dimensional reality. The puck was oblivious to history. It always is.

After these things, there must come some sort of response. Experience gives one the ability to skip certain steps in post-loss processing, insofar as watching sports can inspire feelings of personal "loss." You've got your denial, and it saves you and everybody around you a lot of time and broken household items if you just skip to acceptance.

Single-elimination hockey is Fate neutered, in which the thing that actually happens seems off, askew even, like a picture on the wall that has fallen to either side. A degree off-center. Bizarro. More so than anything else, the NCAA single-elimination format takes Fate, capitalized, and sends it through a grinder and a furnace, in the process revealing that Fate is not really a crystallized absolute but a collection of individual possibilities, flecks of charred, hardened reality. All it is is survival; the fleck that makes it through is the one that is. That's it. It's a little unappealing, isn't it?

But, I think, that's how it is. Whether we're talking about the Big Dance or NCAA hockey, Destiny and Fate--capitalized--are not self-aware. They don't know what the basketball team has been through throughout the span of Zack and Stu's careers, or the fact that the Michigan hockey team was fighting to continue one streak while also trying to vanquish another (i.e., no national titles since 1998). This sort of literal, rationalist thought sort of guts the entire enterprise of collegiate athletics of some of its most idealistic aspects--that things are or aren't meant to be, that people deserve certain things, that outcomes affirm or erase the journey--but I think that's mostly okay. Is that a loser's attitude? I honestly don't know. It may just be white noise in the end.

When I think back on the career of a player like, say, Mike Hart, what comes to me immediately is not the fact that he never beat the Buckeyes or won a national championship. If that's what comes to you then I think our respective worldviews are doomed to never meet at any point.

The way that these two seasons ended was bitter, unfortunate, and for a brief period of time after these games ended, seemingly unfair. The basketball team had its chances; hit even a couple of the many missed layups/bunnies and trade one of those late Burke threes for a possession of actual offense and Michigan probably wins despite being outplayed. The hockey team had its chances. The Wolverines outshot Cornell and had over double the PP opportunities, including 5 in the excruciating second period. Any grievances about the ostensible "randomness" of the whole thing seem to be directed at the game of hockey itself rather than the format of the tournament. The simple fact that Michigan has come away with only two titles throughout this over two decade long stretch of tournament appearances is irrelevant.  These things happen for a reason, and as much as we like to write these losses off as either instances of grand cosmic misfortune or the absurdity that is the single-elimination format, it's all about cold, hard probabilities and inglorious toil. Even with probability and work ethic on one's side, it may not work out, and not for lack of luck. Hockey is often beyond explanation in this way, and by explanation I mean an explanation that is all-inclusive/comprehensive or one that we want to hear, that assuages the pangs of frustration that follow such a loss. Sometimes it bounces this way or that way. Why? It just does, and it does often, so that patterns seem to appear to us even though they do not exist.

Hockey is "close but no cigar" taken to its logical extreme. It is a sport that, in a way, mirrors life: work really hard and you might get you want. Tight defense, shots, PP opportunities...these don't guarantee success. Despite the attempts to distill the essence of sports into verifiable statistics and formulas, it is often just a game of hamfisted probability. Ascribing vague notions of luck or fate to the outcomes of sport or life seems a bit pointless, but the process of coping is, in a way, inherently pointless.

Then again, maybe this is my own way of coping. Maybe looking at the outcome of the Cornell and Ohio games in the way that I am is just my way of distancing myself from the proceedings. I know that I didn't always look at things this way, as if these losses suggest anything more than the fact that, on these days, my team lost because of X, Y, and Z. In light of the Sugar Bowl and all the breathless talk of redemption that accompanied it--from many, including myself--this all might seem a little hypocritical. Maybe. Then again, as sports fans, we often say what benefits us at the time, even when we may claim otherwise in other situations.

What is clear to me is that Shawn Hunwick and all of the other seniors wanted this more than you or I. The same of course applies to Zack and Stu. The level to which they wanted this eclipses yours, rendering your frustration inconsequential by comparison. After the layers of personal frustration and other somewhat selfish (but understandable) reactions are cast away to the ether, all that remains is memory. I've said this many times before and I'll say it again: championships may come or they may not, but the memories that these players give us while representing Michigan are what matter most because they are what endure. While I would have hoped for a better end for Hunwick, Novak, and Douglass, or a victory in The Game for Henne, Hart, and Long, it becomes increasingly immaterial as the years go on.

One day, a young child will be taken to Yost for the first time. A mother or father will be able to tell this child, their child, this tabula rasa of a being, the story of Shawn Hunwick. This story could quite possibly plant the very first inkling of the beauty of sport in this child's head. True to hockey form, it also might not, but there will be another day when another child is told the same story. This will happen again and again until one day, the child finally understands. I truly do not know if being able to tell the tale of a championship once won is worth more or less than that. Let the details come later.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Good Times, Bad Times

Michigan basketball circa 2008-2012: intermittent hope and despair

For the second year in a row, Michigan faces the possibility of losing its floor general. Morris and Burke have been the Lewis and Clark of the hardwood, blazing new trails of achievement heretofore unknown in my lifetime. On their backs, the Michigan basketball program was able to crawl out of the chaotic primordial soup of untapped evolutionary potential in which it laid mired for so long. Although it seems "unfair," as if this is happening to us at a seemingly disproportionate rate, there's an obvious explanation for this perception: Michigan just hasn't been good enough to be in this sort of a position until now. The world of modern college basketball is a double-edge sword at its soul; a certain level of success ends up being a sort of punishment, not unlike a professional team existing in the no man's land between "teams that totally tanked" and "legitimate contenders."

The situation is a little more dire this time around. In its attempts to replace Morris this past season, Michigan at the very least had the option of playing a freshman Burke (in addition to Douglass, who was an unspectacular but obviously capable ball handler). The options for a Burke-less 2012-13 season are seemingly non-existent at the moment. Stu is gone and the little-used Brundidge is transferring, leaving a true freshman Stauskas as a potential ball handler (a guy who isn't a point like Stu wasn't one), a walk-on Eso Akunne, and Amedeo Della Valle, who is listed as a PG on Rivals and a SG on Scout, and, you know, hasn't committed to Michigan yet. Needless to say, a Burke departure would foment a RUN TO THE HILLS scenario.

With all of that said, this moment was inevitable. As the season wound down, it was difficult not to acknowledge the possibility of a Morris Redux situation; Trey wasn't going to not take a look. Burke is in the awkward but tantalizing place known as "being good enough to consider leaving but perhaps not good enough to be a first rounder." With the April 10th deadline fast approaching, this may be a pointless exercise, but here are the reasons why Burke might and/or should return for an encore:
  • Burke's father claims that he's received reports of Trey going anywhere from 18-24 in the draft. Of course, this does not jibe with most mock drafts, which leads one to fill in the blanks and assume that said reports are coming from the typically nefarious Wormtongue-ish sorts that are ruining college basketball (i.e. agents and other assorted shady dudes). Looking at the standings as they are, the 18-24 spots would be occupied by, as of Tuesday
    • Denver--With Ty Lawson entrenched there, Trey's definitely not looking at competing for a starting spot here. Darius Morris's supposed YMRMFRSPA, Andre Miller, is going to be an UFA next season, so Trey could be a solid backup here, but do they want another short point guard on their roster? 
    • Golden State--This could actually be an option, as GS only seems to have 3 pure guards, period: Stephen Curry, little-used rookie Charles Jenkins, and Klay Thompson, who is 6'7''. With the way that the Warriors like to run, I'm not sure this is a good fit for Trey, though. 
    • Philadelphia--Jrue Holliday is a very solid young player, who also happens to be 6'4''...another backup at best situation here. 
    • Houston--Kyle Lowry has come into his own the last couple of his seasons; he's averaging 16 ppg, 5 rpg, and 7 apg. He's also signed through the 2013-14 season. Goran Dragic is a solid young player off the bench who seems to have gotten better and better as this season has gone on, although I'm admittedly not familiar enough with his game to know if he's actually a 1 or if he's the standard NBA combo guard. 
    • Indiana--Darren Collison is a similarly small PG so I'm not sure that the Pacers want a second guy like that. Plus, Collison has shot better from three this year (39%) than Burke did this season in Ann Arbor (35%), while also being a better defender. 
    • Memphis--Mike Conley's contract was somewhat inexplicably at the time extended by 5 years in 2010, but he has since definitely earned that extension. Backup situation. 
    • Boston--Despite some rumors that Rondo might be dealt, he's still there...Trey's probably not unseating him.  
With a little less than 20 games to go, the standings will probably be shaken up to some degree, but probably not in any significant way. Either way, the board as it stands is not too inviting if Trey wants a good shot at starting/going in the first round. 
  • Of course, Darius Morris's NBA career thus far could end up serving as a cautionary tale that Burke seriously considers when making his decision. While Trey is a better college player than Morris was, being 5'11'' and not being truly exceptional in some other aspects of his game do not help his NBA resume. 
  • Re: the height factor, players have made it in the league while not being's just that they all do other things really well to make up for it. For instance, a guy like Darren Collison is: lightning quick, a very good defender, and a very solid 3-point shooter. Burke is not a transcendent athlete or 3-point shooter, and it's been proven that he can be pushed around on the pick and roll (also known as basically the only "offense" NBA teams deign to run). Odds are he isn't getting any taller, but if he can get a little stronger via another year of collegiate S&C and up his 3-point percentage, he becomes a desirable pick in next year's first round. 
  • This is specious at best, but perhaps Brundidge's departure came on the heels of some good information that Trey would be coming back? Again, this one is a reach, but who knows. With Beilein seemingly having such little confidence in Brundidge to the point that Trey was playing outrageous minutes every game, there's probably little reason for Brundidge to believe that a similar scenario wouldn't play out next year. 
As for the cons, i.e. reasons why he might bounce? Well: 
  • It's no secret that Trey and Jared Sullinger are's also no secret that Sullinger's return to Columbus for a second season has seen his draft stock dip to some extent. Sullinger is still a surefire first-rounder, and so his hypothetical drop in the draft is entirely different from what Trey would potentially go through, but there's no doubt that Sullinger's decision to return will be on Trey's mind. 
  • Does Trey really want to go through another college season in which he is depended upon as heavily as he was this past season? That is, does he really want to subject himself to the physical burden of playing at minimum 35 minutes, often more, in basically every single game? While it's not like we're talking about a running back deciding to forego an additional year of pounding, the minutes do add up. 
  • The general logic of NBA prospects vis-a-vis the draft and playing in college may compel Trey to leave. It seems that the majority of players who consider the draft end up, you know, leaving, whether it is the right decision or not. Like the 5-star recruit that comes into college envisioning no scenario in which he does not start over other highly touted guys, these draft fringe sorts inevitably feel the same way. Of course, there's The Money; even the NBA minimum seems like an infinite amount of money to a college kid, and, as we all know, college kids don't usually have long-term outcomes at the forefront of their worldview. 

If you told me to make an amateur prediction, Id tell you that I'm leaning toward Trey returning. However, I would be lying to you if I said that I believed that with any sort of confidence. Thankfully, we don't have to wait too long to find out. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Miscellaneous Minutiae, 3/20/2012

General Site Stuff: With the basketball season ending as abruptly, cruelly, and in somewhat-surprising-but-not-really fashion, not unlike Woody Harrelson's character in No Country For Old Men, the focus will of course shift back to Michigan footbaw. Yes, great news...except it's March.

With spring practice underway and the spring scrimmage in less than a month, there's some football substance to be talked about, including but not limited to: who will turn into Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson because they lost/gained a certain amount of weight (and by "certain amount" I mean "any amount"), how much these coaches get it, and whether or not we are going to die against Alabama. After that, it's the Eliot-esque wasteland of rumor-mongering and general retching in the corner, a psychosomatic reaction to a world in which baseball is the only major sport being played at a given time (well, after the NBA and NHL playoffs are over).

There'll probably be a few more basketball posts to wrap up the season and look ahead to next year...after that it's back to being all football, all the time. Feel free to follow me on Twitter--also known as the thing in which all signs of civilization melt away, one hashtag at a time--and subscribe via the widgets to the left. Once I remember, I'll also add a link to my SB Nation profile for my stuff over at Maize 'n Brew.

Better Than Nothing: Spring practice is upon us, the next major step to having real football again (after Nation Signing Day). I ran through some spring ball questions on both the offense and the defense over at MnB. It would be redundant to reproduce all of those observations here, so just go read those if you want to know what I think about Will Campbell, what underclassmen I will definitely not irrationally tether my hopes and dreams to, and other important questions of our time. Here's the visual evidence that football things are happening:

For what it's worth, the group of linemen seen driving the sleds in the beginning goes as such from left to right: Lewan-Mealer-Barnum-Omameh-Schofield. That probably means nothing, but it seems like, if they were to play today, that that would be the starting 5. It's easy to say this in the doldrums of March, but that line is not half bad. Lewan and Omameh return, and Schofield swings out to the right side (where he would probably be an upgrade over Huyge), leaving LG and C as the only question marks. I would imagine that a guy like Kalis will get a chance to challenge Mealer, but I'm really rooting for #57, for obvious reasons.

Mattison Says Things of Various Interest: As representative of the new zeitgeist as Hoke's pressers have been, it's hard to argue against the fact that the coordinator pressers are infinitely more interesting. While some of the spring verbiage is bound to be fluff, much of what Mattison and Borges end up saying is actually pretty interesting. The presser transcript (HT: Heiko) is worth reading through, but here are the points I found most interesting, funny, or worth mentioning at this news-starved juncture in the offseason:

  • On EE Jarrod Wilson:  “He’s young. I’ve seen that he’s a guy that’s got his books in his hand, and he just came from a class that he’s never seen before, and he saw some pretty girls probably, I hope."
  • Re: Thomas Gordon, Mattison emphasized that he "must play faster" and "must play more reckless." I thought that was an interesting choice of words, and perhaps is a window into why Woolfolk took some playing time from Gordon despite the latter looking pretty good as a starter. It's important to keep in mind that he was moved to safety from the linebacker position under RR, so him not playing fast enough is not exactly a surprise. Gordon isn't the fleetest of foot to begin with, but one way to look faster without actually being faster is by knowing the system: a 4.6 guy that knows where he's going is faster than a 4.3 guy that has no idea what he's doing. This of course applies to the rest of the defense. 
  • Regarding Craig Roh's move to SDE:  "Craig Roh will be a better football player moving into a 5-technique than he would be out on the edge where there’s a lot of open spaces." I'm so glad he wasted away as a linebacker for a if you needed any more confirmation that the previous coaching staff had mostly no idea what it was doing on defense (and I say this as a once staunch supporter of RR). 

Silver Linings: Nick Baumgardner runs through the season that was, with a quote from Novak that just about sums it up in my mind, emphasis mine:
"A year ago, Darius (Morris) left, and everyone said we were screwed," Novak said. "We proved a lot of people wrong.
"We won the best conference in the country."
When I remember this season, I won't think about the way that it ended; I'll remember that it was the first time Michigan was able to accomplish something that gets you a banner in seemingly forever. Say you what you will about the Buckeyes and Spartans being better teams...they indisputably are better, at this point in time. The thing is...that banner is going up, and this time it's staying up.

If you need any more data to assuage your angst vis-a-vis how it ended, look at how the Big Ten teams have performed in the tournament: four teams in the Sweet 16, and it would have been five if Purdue had not done the standard "run the shot clock out and get a horrible shot" routine near the end. Yeah, Michigan won that conference, and anybody that wishes to denigrate this team can pry the share of that title out our cold, dead hands.

NCAA Silliness: Dennis Dodd on the Jamar Samuels thing. I am far from having the answers to how to remedy the situation of the modern student-athlete re: payment or not, and I know that rules are rules, but...I sort of have to wonder what the breaking point for all of this will be. Samuels was ruled ineligible for accepting a $200 payment from an AAU coach, because, according to the coach, Samuels "needed to eat." Again, rules are rules, but isn't it a bit ridiculous for someone to ask something like this in light of the modern college athlete's place relative to the multi-billion dollar institution of which he or she is a part and not allowed to directly benefit from:
Essentially what you have here is the AAU coach for a K-State basketball pipeline, financially supporting players. How is that fair to other Big 12 coaches or any coaches? 
He also references an NCAA enforcement officer once telling him that "if it wants to, it (the NCAA) can classify a ham sandwich as representative of the university's interests." If you can't tell, this piece is about as reactionary as it gets: yup, the NCAA is completely in the right guys, nothin' to see here.

This is nothing novel, but as awesome as college sports can be 99% of the time, there exists a dark, mostly nonsensical underbelly. I'm pretty sure we're going down a road which ends in players getting paid "legally," especially in light of the new 4-year scholarship thing...I mean, this can't keep going on indefinitely, right? We can't keep living in a world in which players can have their college careers destroyed--even if they actually do need money to eat, despite Dodd's belief that this is basically inconceivable--because of a measly $200 while everybody else involved gets to swim in pools of money like Scrooge McDuck? Nobody is calling for A-Rod-esque payouts for college athletes, but come on, make it somewhat equitable fergodsakes. People like Dodd--who back the NCAA unequivocally while also unwittingly revealing its ridiculousness--aren't really helping the cause.

Ann Arbor, never change: So, this happened. Some guy was all "I posit that The Corrections is not, in fact the worst thing fact, Winston, I do believe I somewhat fancy it."...and then it was on like Ernest Hemingway circa the late 1920s. Don't ask me why they're talking like they're from Victorian England and not Southeast Michigan, okay.

If the punchee was in fact a Franzenite, then the puncher was pretty much doing everybody a service. Hemingway is currently sending a thank you letter from the grave, the entirety of which reads like so: "Thanks." Ha, minimalism!

More? Eye on College Football spring practice primer on Michigan. Mark Titus on the tournament thus the Buick Verano commercial he is absolutely right.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Michigan-Ohio: The End

Michigan 60, Ohio 65
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) 

Trying to make sense of the NCAA Tournament is like trying to count the grains of sand on a beach. Once you've made what you believe to be a certain amount of progress--you've counted each and every singular grain in your hand--the tide comes in, obliterating everything, weakening your assertion by introducing something entirely new to your worldview. Upsets happen all the time; it is the ordered disorder of this entire thing, a relatively brief spectacle that can either build upon or utterly destroy the five-month slog that precedes it. How upset you should be after this is a product of your pre-conceived notions of Michigan's abilities relative to college basketball as a whole, the somewhat distorting effect of a shared conference title, and most importantly, to what extent you think Michigan "overachieved." For what it's worth, overachieving is not really a word I have any use for, generally, but in any case I think it's misapplied with respect to Michigan, anyway. Optimally/maximally achieving? Yes, I would agree with that. You can expect that people who call others in life overachievers probably look something like this:

Some of the following might sound overly negative or critical of the team and Beilein and the program's General Direction, but I want to make it clear that that is not my intention at all. Anybody that has any complaints about Beilein and the program on a macro level (i.e., not regarding things like his 2-foul strategy and other little strategic issues) is quite frankly an idiot and not somebody worth the time. The future is very bright. 

Michigan was somewhat of a victim of its own success in a way that actually hurt it come tourney time. Over-achieving is only a relevant descriptor if attached to the notion that "Michigan wound up with a 3-seed, an achievement that exceeded our own personal expectations" rather than "Michigan quite literally did things it was not/should not have been capable of doing with regularity." The thing is, you perceiving any sort of ceiling, with respect to individual players or a team as a whole, is based solely upon your likely misinformed notions, and so "overachieving" is a physical impossibility. Not coincidentally, "giving 110%" is also a stupid turn of phrase. You achieve what you can achieve but what you do achieve. It exists in a stasis universe, free from the warping free radicals that are your expectations and perceptions of how things should be. 

Michigan just finished a season in which it never lost consecutive games (until the very end, obviously) en route to a 13-5 conference record and a share of the regular season title. The problem is, when Michigan lost, they lost. Each defeat was an increasingly redundant episode in a series of autopsies; his low Offensive Rebounding Percentage, Inconsistent Perimeter Shooting, and lack of athleticism, yes, that's what got him in the end. Well, we knew that, Doc. Why are you surprised, then? After the initial, visceral reaction, after coming to grips with being on the losing end of the ever shameful tournament "upset," could we honestly say that this wasn't a distinct possibility? 

Of course not. At this point, Michigan is basically a mid-major that happens to be in a major conference. That's not meant to sound like an insult, but, rather, a statement of where Michigan was this season, physically, depth-wise, and talent-wise. That will change next season, when Michigan will go from having Morgan and Smotrycz as its only "bigs" to a roster that is overflowing with front court options and size up and down the roster, generally. McGary, GRIII, Stauskas, Biefeldt, and Horford are all essentially being added to the fold next year (the first three will of course be freshman, Biefeldt is coming off a redshirt year, and Horford will return from an injury that kept him out for most of this season), and with every meaningful contributor outside of the two seniors returning, the fundamental problems that persistently loomed whenever Michigan went scoreless for extended periods of time or couldn't end a defensive possession on the glass will probably cease to persist. Michigan will undergo a wholesale genetic transformation next year, and the feeling that Michigan's potential success is a largely fragile, tenuous thing--like two people capably throwing an egg to one another from thirty yards apart without breaking it--should by and large fade away, as should the feeling that Michigan is phenotypically mid-major in every way while simultaneously carrying the genotype of a major conference. 

As Michigan battled back, there was a point where I thought that this might not have been an upset at all. Ohio was the more athletic, aggressive team throughout the contest. Burke et al looked like they had bricks tied to their ankles; tired, slow, athletically deficient. Some have argued that Ohio had the two best players on the floor, and while I'm not sure that that is the case, it is one that can be cogently argued. 

The fact that Beilein was able to make this work in the Big Ten with a squad that could, in all honesty, be less talented than the MAC champion, is truly a wonder. Unfortunately, Beilein can only conjure up so many acts of tactical sorcery before the cruel physical realities of Michigan's roster catch up to them. Via Beilein's tactical brilliance and Trey Burke being Michigan won many more games than it lost this season, but, in the Big Dance, it only takes one. Michigan's style of play lends itself to having that "one" play out at any time, whether against a maniacally fast Arkansas team on the road, top-to-bottom talented squads like OSU and MSU, or in the first round against a 13-seed from the MAC. 


A couple days have passed and the sting of a season cut short in this way has long subsided. Consider an alternate reality in which Michigan loses the Sugar Bowl in OT: the Coale catch is called a touchdown and Michigan is subsequently unable to move the ball, as had been the case all game. This reality would have been a sour one, but it wouldn't have completely wiped away the twelve games that came before, and, for the seniors, long careers full of memories of moments of brilliance that transcend any piece of paper on which records are written and stats recorded. I assume that most Michigan fans feels the same about this. 

Well, as much of a cop-out as it may seem, I mostly feel the same way about this. This season has been incredibly fun. Back when Zack and Stu were freshmen, Michigan basketball was truly fun for the first time in a long time, and this year was like that drawn to its logical end. The tournament in Maui (in which we got our first glimpses of what Trey Burke could do), the first Northwestern game, Purdue on the road, beating the Spartans at home, Jordan Morgan outplaying Jared Sullinger, the second Northwestern game, the Minnesota game last Friday, and so many other memories...linger. One loss does not incinerate all of that. As much as I still feel we were capable of making a run to the Sweet 16 and being a tough out for a team like UNC, it wasn't the reality that came to be. The fact that people often fill out multiple brackets--sometimes even six, or seven, or more, even--is demonstrative of the fact that this crazy tournament is simply a royal rumble between a nearly infinite set of permutations, one of which becomes the tournament that we actually come to watch. This permutation saw Michigan lose in the first round; so it goes. 

If there's any reason for any disappointment to persist, it's for the fact that Zack and Stu could not go out on better terms. In January, the football team showed us that sometimes a cosmic payoff awaits at the end of a long, difficult journey. The basketball team, on Friday, showed that the aforementioned is just quixotic gibberish, or, at minimum, doesn't represent the rule. 

It hurts that, in the process of losing, Michigan's constitutional flaws were regularly manifested by Stu's and Zack's play. It hurts that, as we entered the second half, many were calling for Zack to eat bench while Smotrycz played the 4 in his stead. It hurt that, late in the game--I don't remember exactly when--the ball was kicked to Zack in the corner, standing there, open for a brief second. He hesitated and didn't take the shot that he had made many times before. Several minutes prior, I thought: I'm going to laugh when Zack comes in late in this game and hits a big shot to give Michigan the win, and everything else will be forgotten and words like GRIT will be bandied about facetiously. It didn't happen. 

There will be a time to be excited about next year's reinforcements and what they bring relative to the departing seniors, about how the coming season decidedly won't be like the disappointing post-Lee & Merritt 2009-10 season. That time is not now. I've said more than a word about the seniors's contributions and what they have meant to this program. In spite of this game and their limitations as players, they have laid the groundwork for Michigan's future success. Without Zack and Stu, there is no McGary, GRIII, Stauskas, etc in a Michigan uniform. The ending did not befit the journey, but wasn't the journey fun? 

Miscellaneous Bullets: 
  • Trey Burke and the pick and roll. As a basketball play, I'm not the biggest fan in the world of the pick and roll. Part of this is due to the fact that my high school team played a strict brand of basketball straight out of Hoosiers: straight man-to-man, 4 passes, so on and so forth. This offense did not include any ball screens, and much of my bias against them thus stems from that experience. In addition, many teams, in college and the pros alike (moreso the latter) have "offenses" that essentially consist of the P&R and, you know, aimless dribbling. It's gotten to the point that analysts refer to things like "the pick and roll" offense, and I sort of just shake my head a little bit. These kids and their crazy music and their ball screens! With these GET OFF MY LAWN points out of the way, there's no denying that it is a dangerous and easy to employ basketball play if you have a PG like Trey and a guy like Smotrycz that can pop out or a mobile guy like Morgan that can roll downhill with speed and then thunder dunk in your face. With that said, the word is out: hedge hard and odds are Burke won't be able to handle it. Maybe an added 5-10 pounds in the offseason is in order? Also, HE IS A FRESHMAN...this has been said a billion times already and that isn't even enough. 
  • Threes, Threes, Threes. Michigan had brought the deficit to 3 before firing off a series of unnecessary 3s. I'm not sure why any defender is ever fooled by this, but when Trey has the ball up top it's pretty obvious when he's going to give it token dribble and a shimmy or two before jacking up a three. It's obvious the first time and it's definitely obvious the third or fourth time. I sort of have to wonder whether this was by design or if Trey was just sort of in gunslinger mode; the former would be on Beilein and would clearly be the more disappointing of the two options. I would have liked to see have seen us try something different on one of those possessions, but, as they say, it's in the past. It didn't seem like we were really running much of anything near the end, probably because we weren't running anything. I'm kind of dancing around it, but yeah, the offensive strategy at the end of this game--rather, the lack thereof--is on Beilein. 
  • Nothing Left. I know that it's been a long season, but it's somewhat curious that a lot of the guys just looked like their legs were completely dead. You would think that having almost a week to rest up for this game would've seen them coming out strong, but the same thing occurred during the Minnesota game in the BTT coming off of the regular season finale. Then again, you can only play with essentially 6--7 if we're counting Vogrich--for so long before the minutes start to seriously add up. 
  • Not Hangin' With Mr. Cooper. Brian sure was right about Cooper. He took a couple shots that made me go "wow, is he really taking that shot?" You know those threes several feet behind the arc that Stu will take on occasion? Yeah, DJ Cooper shoots those ALL THE TIME with aplomb. It's not like this wasn't in the scouting report; we knew that there has never been a shot he didn't like or thought he couldn't make. It's just frustrating that a guy who shoots 35% from the field (31.6% from 3) was able to fill it up in the manner that he did. There was a defensive breakdown or two on our part but most of his shots were just "pro shots," as Dylan put it. I would've liked to see more Stu on him rather than Trey, but oh well. 
  • Jordan Morgan. Despite the prominent deficiencies in his game, Jordan Morgan has dunked his way into my top 10 favorite Michigan basketball players. With that said, he absolutely needs to add something to his offensive arsenal--something that he can be comfortable doing a few times a game and not once or twice a month maybe--that can take the pressure off of the perimeter guys. With McGary coming in this becomes less urgent, but I don't think an 8-10 foot jumper is too much to ask for. Morgan has his struggles (even against a MAC team like Ohio) because he doesn't have above average athleticism, and while his footwork got him to a the basket a couple of times in this game, it could have been deemed "awkward" at best. Going forward, I think this awkward routine around the basket can be avoided if JMo can develop confidence in a short jumper in put back situations. It seems unlikely now, but remember when Zack and Stu pretty much couldn't do anything at all off the dribble? A short-mid range jumper would be JMo's equivalent "skill that gradually improves and becomes a legitimate tool as an upperclassman." 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lookin' For Some Peace of Mind: South Region Preview

Yesterday I briefly surveyed the landscape of the East region. Of course, since then, Fab Melo was ruled ineligible, which only further emphasizes the negative slant I took when looking at the Orangemen. I still feel incredibly uncomfortable with picking Vanderbilt and FSU to make a deep run, but that was yesterday...this is today. Onward, to the South.

You shall not pass. (via Kentucky Basketball
Kings of the Hill
This region features the Kentucky Wildcats, who have been by and large invincible this season save for a last-second three at Indiana--a game that feels like it was played years ago at this point--and a slip up against the 'Dores last weekend. Such is life. Still, the Wildcats are the favorites to go all the way, and for good reason. There's not a team in the nation that can match up with Kentucky's balanced scoring (4 players averaging double digit points, with Miller and Teague averaging 9.6 and 9.4 ppg respectively), and Anthony Davis is simply a terror on both ends of the floor. I hope he gets to enjoy a successful tourney run, because odds are he's not going to do much winning with whatever NBA team drafts him first overall in the upcoming draft (I'm looking at you, Charlotte Bobcats).

The only real concern is youth, as an experienced Vanderbilt squad gave UK some of its toughest games this season (including the Cats' second loss, obviously). Still, it's obviously not impossible to win with a young team.

Otherwise, the in my opinion weakest 2-seed in the tournament resides here in the form of Duke, with Baylor being the 3 (another team I'm not really waxing poetic about). If a 2 or a 3 seed goes down in the opening round, these two teams have a pretty good chance of being that team.

Teams That Will Somewhat Inexplicably Make Me Look Stupid
The two obvious candidates here are Indiana and UNLV, whom I have making it to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, respectively. That's right, I have the Runnin' Rebs going to the Elite 8.

The tale of the tape vis-a-vis Indiana is that they don't play much defense, which also happens to be the reason why I believe Duke is not a legitimate contender (the fact that they were in contention for a 1-seed not too long ago is ridiculous). Indiana has the firepower to keep up with a lot of teams, but if the 3s don't fall then you can expect the same sort of thing as when Michigan's don't fall--namely, PAIN. I have IU eeking out a close one against New Mexico State before beating VCU in the second round, though, FWIW.

I like UNLV because they can score the ball (76.7 ppg), their assist to turnover ratio is pretty good (1.34, good for 13th in the country), and they shoot the 3 as a team about as well as Duke. Chace Stanback is a 6'8'' G-F that shoots the three at a 46.4% clip; I think he could be a big mismatch for whomever Duke or Baylor decides to throw at him. In any case, UNLV is my sort of Cinderella team of the 2012 go out and make me look stupid, you guys!

Double Digit Seeds of Note
VCU is an obvious one to watch out for here as far as the 12-seeds go because, uh, last year. I have them picking off Wichita State in the first round and no I will not be providing you with any cheap Shaka/Shocker puns.

Otherwise, I think Xavier could be a team to watch, as much as The Brawl still might be imprinted on your mind as the lasting image of 2011-12 Xavier basketball. They have been very up and down but there's no doubt that they could pull it together to beat a Notre Dame that I'm quite frankly not sure deserved a 7-seed and a very flawed Duke team in the Round of 32. Or, you know, they could completely flame out in the first round and go quietly into the night.

Goliath's Fatal Flaws 
Despite last weekend's loss, I don't believe UK has any serious flaws. Duke and Baylor, on the other hand, are different stories. Duke has struggled on the defensive end, and they of course do lean on their 3-point shooting more than a true big name contender probably should. Ryan Kelly's foot injury is also an issue going forward, which isn't really fair to call a "flaw" but is something to watch out for.

Of Baylor's 7 losses, 5 were against the top two teams in their conference (3 against Missouri, 2 against Kansas). Their two other losses were against the next two Big 12 teams in the standings, ISU and KSU. Is this significant come tourney time? The answer is admittedly "maybe not," but being unable to take it to the top half of the conference doesn't exactly inspire confidence in a team that is supposed to go far in this tournament.

Intriguing First Round Matchup 
The 8/9 matchup here is the best of its kind in this tournament, pitting two interesting teams in UCONN and Iowa State against each other. UCONN's struggles are well-documented, with the narrative from many coaches (namely Jim Boeheim) and some analyst types being that they would be far from surprised if UCONN played to their talent and made a run. I for one am more than skeptical, but there's no doubt that they do have the talent to make a run, and far stranger things have happened in March. The good thing about having a relatively meaningless regular season (again, I say relatively) is that you can suddenly turn it on in mid-March and vindicate yourself. Unfortunately for UCONN, UK awaits in the next round, which could make any sort of second wind the Huskies may have somewhat irrelevant.

Iowa State is a team that we all familiar with, having played them earlier in the season in the non-conference schedule. Royce White is obviously the headliner of this ISU squad, and he's a guy who definitely has an NBA future ahead of him. The Cyclones also have an array of eager and capable 3-point gunners to complement the versatile White, making them a team that you would rather not have to face at this point in the season. I'm not sure that UCONN will be ready to check ISU's shooters, allowing the Cyclones to advance to the next round with the unenviable task of facing Kentucky.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

East Coast Bias: East Region Preview

We're only a couple of days away from MADNESS, so I feel somewhat compelled to put my baseless predictions/things that will inevitably be wrong down on the Internet for posterity. I'm going to try to get through all four regions before Thursday, and today I'll start with the Syracuse-headlining East region.

Kings of the Hill
Syracuse, Ohio State, and Florida State come in with the top three seeds in this region, with only the Seminoles coming off of a conference tournament title. The Buckeyes of course fell in their rubber match with the Dawson-less Spartans, and Syracuse fell to Cincinnati in the Big East tournament last Friday. I think this is probably the strongest 1-3 group of any region.

Teams That Will Somewhat Inexplicably Make Me Look Stupid
This section provides two obvious candidates in Vanderbilt and FSU, both of which I have making it to the regional final, with the Seminoles getting to the Final Four. With Vanderbilt, the reasons for suspicion are obvious. In the last four years, they've lost to Murray State, Richmond, and Siena in their first-round matchups. Yes, this Vanderbilt squad is an upperclassmen-laden one that should be equipped to handle the pressures of the tournament more than most of the field, but the consistent string of early exits is worrisome. With that said, I think the 'Dores get through the Fightin' Tommy Amakers and Wisconsin in the second round before ousting the Orangemen in the Sweet 16.

Florida State, on the other hand, invokes the "be suspicious of teams that get hot and win their conference tournaments" rule. Plus, there is still some irrational residual suspicion emanating from football season when I try to consider what the 'Noles will or won't do. I think they get through the Bonnies and Longhorns before beating the Buckeyes, who I think will see their inconsistent shooting knock them at some point.

Double-Digit Seeds of Note
This region seems the least likely to produce a Cinderella story, but insofar as I have to pick one I think the 10-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers are the most equipped to make a run. On first glance, their sub-20 win record does not inspire confidence (19-13, 9-9), but upon closer inspection they have had a number of close calls against the powerhouses of the Big East. In a sense, they're kind of like Northwestern except they're actually in the field (sorry, day). Senior forward Kevin Jones fills up the stat sheet in a big way (20 ppg, 11 rpg), and I'm fairly certain that bearded forward Denis Kilicli is an actual grizzly bear that somehow made it through the NCAA Clearinghouse. With Gonzaga having to travel across the country to take on the Mountaineers, a first round 7/10 mini-upset is certainly not unreasonable.

Goliath's Fatal Flaws
As mentioned, the Buckeyes' outside shooting will be their undoing at some point; it only takes one poor night to send a team home, and as great as Sullinger is offensively and Craft is on the defensive end, if Buford et al don't bring their best from three then a Sweet 16 exit is possible.

However, in probably the most mind-boggling statistic in recent memory, Syracuse sits at 341st out of 345 teams in defensive rebounding percentage; they are the anti-Michigan State, in that sense. I can't remember the last time such a poor rebounding team made a Final Four run (or even was a 1-seed, period).

Intriguing First Round Matchup
I'm not incredibly high on Texas but, to their credit, they are still in fact Texas and thus have talent. Their opening round opponent, Cincinnati, has been on fire of late. I was at MSG for Saturday's Big East title game, however, which was incredibly ugly, with the Bearcats scoring 14 points in the first half. Neither team seems particularly equipped to survive past the Round of 32, but I think this will likely provide the most exciting opening round game in this region. Although he hasn't been terribly efficient, Texas's J'Covan Brown has been scoring like a madman, and I think Texas gets a memorable performance here from him en route to a victory before eventually getting bounced by the Seminoles in the next round.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Michigan-Ohio: Knocked Out But Not Out

Michigan 55, Ohio 77
Trey Burke, in a state of utter discomfiture with the state of things and unable 
to reconcile the proceedings with his preexisting worldview, as 
Aaron Craft beckons him to "come at me, bro." (AP/Michael Conroy)

There are times when, while watching your team play, you can come to the conclusion that today is simply not your team's day. Saturday's game was like the first half of Permian's state title game performance against Dallas Carter in Friday Night Lights, only instead of being confined to a single half it was drawn out throughout the rest of a very miserable 40 minutes of basketball.

Michigan had a single, lonely point well into the game, and it only took a couple of minutes for me to start to expect Jared Sullinger's shots to start bursting into flames upon their descent into the basket. It was pretty obviously not our day no later than five minutes into the game. What then remained was approximately 35 minutes of uncomfortable twisting in the wind, a performance, like the regular season losses in Columbus and East Lansing, serve to demonstrate just how far this team is from being able to beat a Buckeye squad like this (and other equivalent teams) without having an above-average percentage of low-percentage shots go in, or home court advantage, or the right bounces at the right times exactly when they are needed.

If not for Corey Person's best MJ impression in the waning minutes of the game, Michigan would have put up 48, just a point less than their output in the meeting in Columbus in late January. Unlike the game in Ann Arbor, Jordan Morgan was not the one who knocks this time around; Sullinger scored over, around, and through him en route to a 24-point effort. Trey Burke lost the rubber match against Aaron Craft, forcing Trey into hopeless spots on the floor and long-range shots with a measure of difficulty mirroring that of Trey's final missed three against Arkansas. Michigan shot 25 treys and made four; one of them came from Josh Bartelstein. This was the very definition of a rout.

With most of the disconcerting details out of the way, it would do most people well to remember that the Buckeyes are pretty darn good, in spite of some late season signs of vulnerability, Sullinger's apparently sliding draft stock (not that that means much at all), and Buford's THJ-esque slide into a somewhat inexplicable offensive slump. This is a team that would have been a one-seed if not for yesterday's loss, and while the manner in which Michigan lost was without a doubt disappointing, it was by no means unprecedented. As I've said before, when Michigan loses it's quite clear why they do so, and in a way that's a sliver lining, albeit a meager one. It's not anything that can be rectified right now unless Jordan Morgan magically becomes a 7-footer between now and Friday and Stu Douglass or Zack Novak develop the ankle-breaking handles of The Professor, also known as "the one white guy on the AND1 tour."


The far more disconcerting performance was Michigan's quarterfinal matchup against a Minnesota team that many seemed to look at as a sort of Clemson-esque circa the 2009 tournament, in that they are an athletic team that isn't necessarily the most skilled or polished. Whether or not this analogy was actually cogent, Michigan's inability to get anything going on offense outside of Trey Burke until the later stages of the game was a little worrisome. Minnesota certainly had more to play for, and Michigan having not played since the previous Sunday did no favors in getting the Wolverines off to a good start. In the same vein, Michigan won't be playing again until Friday, an eternity from now. Once the previews start rolling in, I think it will be difficult not to come into with some deep-seated yet largely unarticulated concern as to whether or not Michigan will replicate its performance against Minnesota in its opening round matchup against the Bobcats.

It's arguable that Michigan actually got a better deal by getting a 4-seed and thus avoiding Belmont. With that said, it's very easy to envision Michigan getting off to a slow start against Ohio, setting the stage for another down to the wire outing. As great as that tying shot from Evan Smotrycz was, I think we would all like to avoid that. Luckily, Michigan's pod presents no enormous mismatches; Temple does have 3 bigs that are 6'9'' or taller, but only the 6'11'' Michael Eric seems to be a significant contributor. Ohio has some firepower in the form of DJ Cooper and a couple solid forwards that are approximately the same size as Jordan Morgan. Cal and USF are both fairly meh squads. In short, none of these teams are the Buckeyes or Spartans*, of course, so any hand-wringing on the heels of Saturday's loss should have by now evaporated in the lobe of the brain that produces rational thoughts (that exists, right?). If painful memories of the trio of drubbings at the hands of the Spartans and Buckeyes should arise, with reason, it will be only until the round of 16, where the Tar Heels likely await.

I don't need to tell you that that would mean that Michigan had advanced to the Sweet 16 if the above scenario unfolds. That isn't half bad for a team that is led by a freshman, has no size or depth, and whose offense revolves around a general artificial series of passes leading to low-percentage threes, if some analysts are to be believed (they aren't). Predictably, many said analysts are already picking us to get bounced immediately--yes, Gottlieb--to which I remind all of this.

Most importantly, we are nearing the ends of the Michigan careers of Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. No matter what happens, remember that this is supposed to be fun, that it has been fun, and that despite the importance placed on the 1-6 games that Michigan is about to play, you cannot erase the flesh and blood and the ever-lingering resonance of what has led us to this point. These things are constant, the only things in life that evade the atrophying effect of time's passage.

Enjoy the ride. Go Blue.

*Remember, very few are; they're in the overall top 8 for a reason.

Friday, March 9, 2012

You Don't Know How It Feels: How The Other Half Lives

Another year has come and gone, and the Northwestern Wildcats will not be a part of the tournament field once again. The Wildcats fell in their first round matchup with the Gophers yesterday, a game went to overtime and was quite possibly a microcosm of the entire season and even the entire history of Northwestern basketball. Of course it took overtime for Northwestern to eventually be put down. Instead of zooming off screen right before putting down the horse with the broken leg, Northwestern's demise is always as gruesome as possible and they always make you watch...oh they make you watch.

In the waning seconds of regulation with the game tied at 61, Minnesota's Andre Hollins took a step back jumper that clanged off of the rim, resulting in a long rebound that hit the floor with approximately 3 seconds left. An eternity. Civilizations rose and fell, and many an outlook straddled the increasingly stark line of demarcation between hope and nihilism.

JerShon Cobb grabbed the rebound on the bounce and tossed it to Sobolewski, a step or two ahead of him. Sobolewski made it just past the three point line, shooting off of one foot, almost like a long range tear drop shot. The tear drop streaked across the air, pulled along ever so slightly by the invisible gravitational pull of each eye present tracking the ball in its ascent and descent. It clanged off the heel of the rim: could there have been any other outcome?

Northwestern will once again miss the tournament, and this season will have served as arguably the most painful campaign in a long series of seasons ending in ennui and all five known stages of grief. The Wildcats faced 11 RPI Top 50 opponents and came away victorious only once, but it's the unbearable closeness of many of those losses that makes any of this relevant. In and of themselves, they are simply good efforts met by slightly better efforts from significantly more talented squads, but together they accrue into a legitimately cosmic gripe: why me? The Powerball machine of life has spat out wrong number after number in Evanston's direction, the accompanying losing tickets providing enough loose paper to build a flammable, ironic monument that gets close to piercing the upper crust of Earth's atmosphere but doesn't quite get to peek its head out amongst the stars.

It wasn't too long ago that this was the case for our very own Wolverines. Under Amaker, the Wolverines on two occasions missed out on the tournament only to go on to win the NIT once and lose in the title game the other time, as well as the 2002-03 season, which could have possibly ended in a tournament berth if not for the self-imposed post-season ban (Michigan was a 3-seed in that Big Ten Tournament). Amaker's final team needed to beat the top-seeded Buckeyes in order to potentially win a tourney berth, but at least it was there for the taking. Of course, the unmentioned years of that era were forgettable in the worst sense.

Michigan has come a long way since its attempt to move on via the Ellerbe hire and the Amaker Era, one of often tantalizing brilliance interspersed with mind-numbing incompetence and failure at the systemic level. Since Beilein's arrival in 2007, Michigan has made the tournament three times, won two tournament games, and likely has a 3-seed in the Big Dance locked up barring a loss today. I don't need to tell you that that we've been to the tournament in the Beilein Era more times than Northwestern has in the entirety of its basketball history; this is not meant as a dig but rather another impetus to sit back and truly appreciate what we have here.

A couple of years ago, during the Year of Unmet Expectations that was the 2009-10 season, I felt much like BYCTOM after Evan Turner hit that shot. I wondered if success was an attainable thing, and if the previous season was just a Coke machine in the desert. Turner's shot went in with as much metaphysical certainty in its trajectory as Sobolewski's heave lacked in certainty.

So, Northwestern fan that isn't Mike Wilbon or Mike Greenberg, I know how it feels. I've been there...well, close. I've stared into the abyss of the NIT and the paralyzing notion of a certain thing's seeming impossibility, and I lived to tell about it. While I cannot promise that it will get better--especially as Michigan at its worst is still privy to far greater resources and, probably, institutional "want to" vis-a-vis the basketball program--I can say with certainty that as much as you may or may not believe that a deficit of luck had something to do with this year's failures (and past failures), a surplus of luck, in turn, is in fact decidedly not what would be the driving force behind any future success. When you lose close game after close game, luck is no longer a reasonable explanation. Leave the superstition to the Cubs fans, please.

Michigan went from losing close games to winning them, not because they "learned how to win" or an attitude of winning--whatever that means--was installed. Michigan did it by hiring a brilliant tactician with an eye for talent. I know what you're thinking, and no, I'm not saying that Northwestern needs to fire Bill Carmody, although I will say I was a little surprised when I recently discovered that he has been at Northwestern since 2000 (in this era of "" sites, it's kind of impressive that he's still hanging around despite not having taken them to one tournament appearance). I think a little more alumni support and perhaps the decline of the Illinois basketball program (hypothetical, of course), would do wonders for the Wildcats' ability to compete, but the thing that bridges the gap between a continuous series of close encounters and the other side, the land of the other half--the winners--is not luck but something that is obvious even to the layman. Northwestern's last field goal in regulation came with just under five minutes remaining, and, additionally, only one field goal was scored in overtime. Somehow, I don't imagine Beilein's 12th Michigan team looking so unequal to the task of vanquishing the apparition of superstition, that luck has a regular hand in our affairs.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Miscellaneous Minutiae, 3/8/2012

Things We Coulda Done: Our very own offensive coordinator appeared on the Huge Show, and although generic sports talk aspersions apply vis-a-vis Huge, this interview, and sports talk radio in general, there is one quote that, in this bleak stretch of the offseason, can be considered at least moderately interesting. When asked about whether or not there was anything that he would have possibly done differently:
Well I think from a schematic perspective we probably--you know early on we were still kinda testing the waters with how much under center play we would have and we knew that we wanted to do some of that because we wanted to feature some of our tailbacks a little more and take a little pressure off Denard...and I think that had we to do it over again we would've been a little more spread offense early on and gotten better at that.
He goes on to expand on that, using the appropriate word "weaning" to describe the process of slowly filtering out the I-form/under center/non-spread part of the offense in favor of the spread that Michigan had begun to perfect with Denard under RR. The point itself isn't necessarily that interesting but it is kind of cool to hear Al (or any coordinator at a high profile program) say that sort of thing out loud. The coaching business is one in which mistakes--or even talk/intimation of mistakes having been made at some point--are anathema, and so it's refreshing to see that he is humble enough to admit that he would've have even done anything differently at all.

Who knows what would have happened had Michigan not spent the first three quarters of the Notre Dame game uselessly plugging away under center. In an alternate universe where Michigan decided to spread 'n shred all game, that game likely doesn't turn out to be the exercise in coronary-inducing horribawesomeness that it was. Clearly, Borges realized that a combination of 75% derp, 25% DENARD is the perfect mixture if you want to produce a game for the ages; he is obviously some sort of alchemist and/or sorcerer. Don't ask him about bubble screens, though, because that stuff's basically his hemlock.

Also, in case you were wondering and didn't feel like listening till the end, there are not "Brady's Bunch" signs anywhere in the hallways of the Michigan coaching offices. So, there's that.

Dolla Dolla Bills Y'all: Are you a person with not very much money? Would you like to have more money? Well, you're in luck! As part of a 6-day "executive education program,"Dave Brandon, Brady Hoke, and John Beilein--and others, including softball coach Carol Hutchins--will be disseminating their leadership experience to the great unwashed masses. Perhaps after consuming the boundless business acumen of these figures, forged in the competitive fires of modern collegiate athletics, you can have more money than you currently have. Profit! Unfortunately for you, person with no money, this program will set you back approximately $15,000. Oh, there's always a catch.

This will of course spark the usual "DAVE BRANDON IS AN EVIL BUSINESSMAN ARGHHFHF" yelling match across the Michigan Internet, which is an argument that I am generally not too concerned with. It's not that that I don't care or think that everything Dave Brandon does is in the best interest of the maize and blue rather the green, it's that the only salient point here, in my opinion, is what Brady Hoke will say during said program. My idealistic expectations for what a Brady Hoke-led seminar on business and/or "how to get paid, son" does not include bland power point presentations, corporate buzzwords like synergy and leverage (although leverage may pop up under a very different context*), or other such empty theatrics. No, Brady Hoke's presentation would simply be him calling up each member of the audience, lining up before them and yelling "Set...HIT." Over and over again. That, and a brief message on the importance of brand marketing:


Third Time's a Charm...OR IS IT?: As Big Ten tourney time is upon us, I got to thinking about Michigan's potential opponents in the quarterfinal round. Most would agree that Northwestern would be somewhat of a nightmare of a matchup, given the closeness of the two regular season contests and the Wildcats' unique offensive stylings. I feel confident enough in saying that the Wildcats will win, meaning that we will end up facing them for the dreaded third time in a single season.

I did some aimless Googling around to find the answer for why beating a team three times in one season is notoriously difficult. I did not find anything substantive, as most of the results were simply articles containing quotes from players and coaches saying that "beating a team threes times is difficult." As you might suspect, it is pretty much just another one of those sports-isms that we could do without. It's sort of like when a child asks their Mom or Dad to explain how something like gravity works: it just does, honey. Why is it hard to beat a team thrice in one season? IT JUST IS, OKAY.

Having engaged in two OT contests against the Wildcats, Michigan is literally more familiar with Northwestern than they are with any other team. If Michigan loses, it will be likely for these reasons in this approximate, extremely unscientific order:

1) Poor outside shooting/too many threes (i.e., 38 of them)
2) THJ reverting to Evil Handlebar Mustache-wearing Three Point Attempting THJ
3) Morgan's shoulder still being even vaguely stingery
4) John Shurna looks like Steve Novak from outside
5) Luka Mirkovic

6) Some mystical force that somehow prevents teams from defeating the same opponent three times in the same academic year

Times They Are 'A Changin': As the college football world continues to drift in the ether of non-action, the only comforting thing is that, at the very least, the People That Matter are talking about change. Larry Scott, who has seemingly been running point on the playoff discussion amongst the relevant ADs, says:
"Once we start to get to the point where a consensus is emerging around a model or two, that's when conferences will be asked to kind of officially vote on something," Scott said. "It's a little hard to predict when exactly but it's probably summertime.
"I don't know if there will be a point where our conference declares exactly what it supports until there's a specific proposal in front of us. We're kind of far from that point and there's a lot more work that I need to do and my colleagues from other conferences need to do to narrow options and think of all the implications."
Yes, this process will continue to be incredibly annoying in every way. There will probably be many stupid things along the way, and you should not be surprised when you hear these things. For example, Mike Slive's insistence that a potential playoff system accept all qualified teams, regardless of their status as champions--or not--of a conference. This is obviously stupid, but did you expect anything else after the SEC West Title Game Redux to which we were all painfully subjected? I can see it now: a 4/8 team playoff, all SEC. I just shuddered, as you probably did.

The point is, this will happen slowly, like all things in life that involve bringing together people from all over the country to deliberate over a thing that nets certain people unbelievable amounts of cash, which, come to think of it, is just like our...yeah. I will say that a world in which Mike Slive is the primary focus of the ire of pro-playoff folks, as opposed to Jim Delany, is a much better world.

Here and There: The continually nonsensical parade of conference realignment has gotten to a level of insanity that makes the term "realignment" seem hilariously misapplied in light of everything. This senselessness has continued on for so long that I read about Temple re-joining the Big East in 2012--after having been kicked out unceremoniously and didn't even think twice about it. After all, this is a conference called the Big East, a conference which will eventually include teams like Boise State and San Diego State. Irrationality and bitter survival instinct reign supreme here.

Still, we are talking about TEMPLE, here. I know that they've gotten better and that the Big East is not exactly in a position to be choosy, God. The Big East has essentially turned into a trip to Golden Corral/Old Country Buffet/insert other purely AMURICAN eateries; you put everything on your plate at the same time, or at least as much as you can fit on the first go around. Macaroni and cheese? Yeah! Mashed potatoes? Yup! Fried chicken, a vague pile of "salad," and a scoop of ice cream just to save time once the shame starts to hit and getting up again becomes not only a physical impossibility but a literal walk of shame? Oh boy! Then the gravy starts leaking into the salad and the ice cream melts onto the cheese and beets in your salad and the liquid from the soggy broccoli you heaped onto your plate reluctantly advances into the adjacent corn bread and OH GOD THIS HAS BEEN A HORRIBLE MISTAKE.

The only person that finds any of this expansion/realignment business to be rational or generally pleasing is of course Bill Cosby, noted Temple alum.*

The following is a pictorial representation of the process that is realignment:

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Fin. 

*Fun fact, but Bill Cosby is the only Temple alum you are aware of because he is the only Temple alum that actually exists. This is fact.

More? A sure way to make someone that is young feel old is by saying that he is "entering his third decade of life." BTT roundtable on MnB for which I was a contributor. I'm looking forward to Olmec's continuing service as the mouthpiece of Temple athletics.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Michigan-Penn State: And We Give Thanks

Michigan 71 (23-8, 13-5), Penn State 65 (12-19, 4-14)

Weeee are the co-champions, my friends. (AP/Ralph Wilson)

Michigan's first bucket of the day was a Tim Hardaway Jr. three, streaking through the air like a comet, a manifested harbinger. Seconds in, the outcome was determined. Close the book, turn out the lights.

Michigan put up a reasonable number of threes (18) and made ten of them; they were, as they say, en fuego. Penn State rallied back as teams often do--holding a 15+ lead is easier said than done--but they game was really never in doubt. When PSU brought it to within 6 after sneakily managing a 13-0 run, Zack "True Grit" Novak hit an off-balanced two to momentarily halt the advance. Later, with Michigan up only four in the final minute, THJ spun full circle, away from an imminent double team, dribbling past the free throw line extended. Rise and fire.

Hardaway Jr. shot the lights out for the second game in a row, Smotrycz demonstrated the confidence which at one point in the conference schedule began to assume a retrospective patina of unreality, and Burke was Burke. With the threes falling and Michigan dominating a conference opponent--leading by as much as 19--in spite of having a less-than-ideal roster to work with and an opponent rebounding 45% of its misses, you'd have to imagine that John Beilein was of the rare mental state that coaches find themselves in when everything's going well, when stress is just a remote foreign concept, like driving on the left side of the road, a place without collegiate athletics, and the nation of Djibouti. Tell him that Penn State beat us to the boards almost half of the time when we were on defense and he won't even hear you. He's too busy smiling.

Later that day, William Buford would go on to hit a nearly impossible shot. As much credit as we owe him for that, I find it hard to believe that this moment decidedly outside of our realm of agency is the ultimate validator of this team's season. Thank you, though. I switched away from the Blackhawks-Red Wings game just in time to catch Buford's final crushing yet saving salvo. In the split second that it took for me to go through the neurons started to fire out increasingly incomprehensible, nonsensical thoughts--Buford scores, OSU wins, split championship, WOOOOO, first since '86, WOOOOOO, MUPPETS, WOOOOOO--a tiny kernel preceded these events like the preface before the chapters of a book.

What were the players thinking?

We are all a little bit Stu Douglass, mouths agape. Oh man. We're also a little bit of Zack Novak, with our shirts off in the back of the room, at the very edge, as if he were about balanced on the very edge of the world, his balance determined by the outcome of this game being played somewhere else. Michigan had won a Big Ten championship. Juxtapose the above scene with Dali's "Persistence of Memory" and I'd simply nod. Michigan basketball won something.

They are us and we are them. Everything is nothing and nothing is everything. Time is everything and everything is Time. The national championship in 1989, the day that sanctions fell, the Ellerbe hiring, the Amaker hiring, the Beilein hiring, Darius Morris leaving, Trey Burke changing his mind, this game...all part of the same moment. They're all the same thing in that they all lead to now, this time of ours.

I visited on Sunday night only to find championship shirts already available. My win is your win, capitalism. As I debated between the maize, blue, and gray options provided, I thought about that shirt, which I've mentioned here before many times. As I debated which color was best--and if I shouldn't just buy all three out of respect--I pictured that shirt, sitting in my closet, having been worn many times this year and many times since one of the cheerleaders threw it into the student section my freshman year in a game against Central Michigan, which we lost.

It is a context-less shirt, devoid of any meaning except that which the wearer brings to it. It is a dull yellow, not even pretending to be the more rambunctious highlighter yellow that has become maize over the years. The only text on the shirt reads, "2007 2008 Michigan basketball," with a large block M bisecting the two years. Other than that, the shirt was minimalistic and matter-of-fact, more a statement of time than a prideful association. It is 2007, and this happens to be Michigan basketball. Here's a shirt.

Yes, it was a cheap shirt used during a t-shirt toss, but the maker of the shirt unknowingly produced what would become a valuable relic. In this way, wearing it has become a sort of inside joke and as well as a reminder, a wearable admonition to remember that which preceded all of this.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Michigan-Illinois: Head Body

Michigan 72 (22-8, 12-5), Illinois 61 (17-13, 6-11)

Tim says "Nnanna-not today"...yeah, that's how good I feel 
about this (AP/John Dixon)

In this day and age, when the stakes have never been higher, the payouts never bigger, the stages never larger, it would seem that empathy has gone the way of other collegiate dodos: the leather helmet, unironic invocation of the term "student-athlete," and the dynasty (i.e. the Wooden years). There's no time to feel sorry for anyone, because the moment you start doing that is the moment you start falling behind, and then roles spin like a top and reverse; people start feeling sorry for you, and ain't that just a shame. 

There haven't been many instances in my time as a sports fan when I have watched one of my teams grind an opponent into fine powder only to feel a little bit sorry about the whole thing. I have never seen (well, through the TV) a gym sound so devoid of life as Assembly Hall seemed to be from the word go last night. By the end, I was feeling this thing they call empathy, as watching Illinois look so spectacularly confused on offense was like a compact 40-minute reminder of the Amaker era. Meyers Leonard deferred and played with a general lack of something that was obviously not up to the moment. Brandon Paul threw up impossible shot after shot, and I'm not sure whether Illinois fans should be shaking their heads or asking "well, what else is there?" Nobody else contributed anything of import, and all the while Bruce Weber gnashed his teeth and stomped his feet for a while before seemingly coming to grips with his Fate. It was a veritable funeral march; doubt lingers no longer in Champaign. 

And so, in a way, this one was over before it had even begun. The Illini were as careless and generally purposeless in their half-court sets as they've been throughout the last month or so of play, each possessive a sort of atomic theater. Parts moving chaotically here and there with great uncertainty and with no discernible meaning. Scientists have partially cracked the subatomic code, but I'm not sure that the smartest man alive could explain the theory behind the Illini offense under coach Bruce Weber as it currently manifests itself. 

With all of that said, this was a smashing victory for the Wolverines, one that a contender wins in precisely that way. Michigan held a 2-point lead--46-44--halfway through the second half. They had the chance to allow things to fall apart and allow a reeling Illinois team back into it. They did not. They went head body, according to plan*. The big guys fall hard, you know.

I'm not sure what it is about playing Illinois, but it has for whatever reason brought out the very best in THJ this season. He was just about as efficient as you can possibly be, and his shot was crisp, clean, and confident. Bacari Alexander will now be given the task of using whatever psychological tropes he can muster to convince THJ that they are playing Illinois before every game from here on out. John Gasaway says: 

It's hard to disagree. This Michigan team has, by varying combinations of Trey Burke, Beilein sorcery, TRUE GRIT, and Bacari Alexander motivational ploys, manufactured a 22-8 record with THJ struggling for long, bleak stretches of conference play. Imagine, oh imagine, what this team can accomplish with a THJ circa the end of last season added to the fold. It might be a little much to expect him to shoot this well all the time, or as well as he did during Michigan's tourney push last season, but if he can maintain the nearly palpable aura of confidence that was on display last night, this team will be very, very difficult to beat. I hate to inject cold expectations into this wonderful paragraph of pure optimism, but if Michigan was a pretty solid Sweet 16 bet before, a wheelin' and dealin' THJ ups that by a round. Most importantly, it seemed that this was the first time THJ was having fun on the court. 


As you all know, Michigan just needs to take care of business in Happy Valley and hope for a Buckeye win for a piece of the Big Ten title. Even if it doesn't happen, THJ's potential return to his former level of play is arguably more encouraging/important news. 

In any case, as flat as the Illini were--and as seemingly incompetent as Bruce Weber has been--Michigan went in and won this with authority. Michigan simply needed to execute the offense, play solid defense and let the Illini give them free points via turnovers or possession of the ball after a pointless 30 second possession that results in a Brandon Paul brick from 25 feet out. The Illini were the very definition of the punch drunk fighter, waiting to be out out of their misery; after a series of surgical, pinpoint flurries--a body shot then to the head and back to the body--and the Illini were done, and Michigan was victorious, with a chance to play for a potential share of the championship belt on the docket.

*Yes, if you can't tell I recently watched The Fighter. 
**This asterisk doesn't track back to anything but I'm just going to put this here: Jalen's performance wasn't a masterpiece in sports commentary but it was fun. People often forget, but this is all supposed to be fun and generally enjoyable. Jalen dominated the mic a little too much at times, but given the fact that he was calling a Michigan game, that's to be somewhat expected. All in all, his off-the-cuff, effervescent delivery was refreshing, especially when juxtaposed with the stylings of one Jay "Sam the Eagle" Bilas. 

Player Bullets, Also Known As "Just Like Daddy": 
  • Burke--So, lost amidst the sea of THJ praise, Trey had himself a game. He was 7-13 from the field (2-3 from 3), with 5 assists to only 2 giveaways en route to a 21-point virtuoso effort. It's hard not to say this after almost every game, but he seriously looks like a senior out there. If he doesn't win Freshman of the Year then I don't even know what to say. 
  • THJ--See all of the above, but to lay it out numerically for you: 25 points, 6-7 from the field (a perfect 4-4 from 3), 11 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block. Perhaps most encouragingly, he toed the FT line 10 times, making 9 of them. 
  • Novak--Off day from the field (1-7 total, 0-2 from outside) but he did the gritty chores that he always does. He took a key charge and pitched in 4 assists and 5 boards (2 of those of the offensive variety), en route to a quiet but typically Novakian performance. 
  • Douglass--Hit tone-setting threes to start each half but was off otherwise (2-9 overall, 2-7 from 3). Didn't need anything more than a couple threes, no turnovers, and solid D from the Swiss Army knife, and that's what Michigan got. 
  • Morgan--Again, Michigan didn't need a huge performance here but Morgan definitely showed up big down low, making Leonard work for his points. Quite frankly, Leonard was very tentative and, dare I say it, soft throughout most of the game, and it's logical to think that JMo's classically hard-nosed D played a significant role. He had an efficient day from the field, going 3-4 with his only miss coming on a rare 10-12 foot jumper in the paint. He did sustain a shoulder injury of the stinger type as a result of a physical box out on Leonard; needless to say, if Morgan is really hurt then Michigan could be in trouble, whether THJ is shooting the lights out or not. 
  • Smotrycz--Impressively fouled out in just 13 minutes of play...which is fine, as he was tasked with trying to defend Leonard, an enormous mismatch. Hit a three and also picked up a pair of boards and a pair of steals. 
  • Vogrich--Was hoping he'd have himself another game playing back in his home state but went scoreless instead. Did notch a steal. 
  • Christian--Got in there over McLimans for 5 minutes of play, enough time for him to score his first bucket since the Memphis game and also have a nice finish negated by a charge call. Also grabbed an offensive board and recorded a block in his short time. If Morgan is actually hurt enough to sit out the PSU game (just speculating, of course) due to precautionary thinking, we could get a good look at CC, which really couldn't hurt even if he doesn't play at all heading into the post-season tournaments.