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.

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