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."

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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.

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