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." 

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