Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Miscellaneous Minutiae, 1/31/2012

optimism vs pessimism
Guess which one Michigan fans are right now? (HT: Toothpaste for Dinner

Recruiting is still stupid...news at 11: So, last week I briefly laid out the reasons why I think paying inordinate amounts of attention to the dizzying highs and terrifying lows of recruiting is: a) stupid and b) why grown men whose emotional state depends on recruiting success should be treated with suspicion. Of course, this past weekend's happenings only serve to underscore that fact.

Psst. Hey, come here. Yes, you, Mr. EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE Guy. It's going to be okay. We will have a top 10 class, filled with great players and, by all accounts, good dudes. "But it could've been top 5!" Stop it. If you are shocked that Michigan isn't getting every single recruit that you've ever heard of in passing, or that Urban Meyer is recruiting well, then you are not very smart. Click on any of the weekend recruiting threads on MGoBlog and subject yourself to the apocalyptic wailings of folks proclaiming the end of Michigan because we didn't get somebody who most probably hadn't even heard before this past week (i.e. Kozan)...it's a bit much. I mean, I was really taken aback, and that's saying something given some of the recruiting misses--and the resulting Internet meltdowns--over the years.

As far as I'm concerned, both Michigan and Ohio are bringing in very good classes. Regardless of what the recruiting services will try to tell you, measuring the respective worth of two classes on a micro level is about as impossible as picking who the two "best" teams in college football are, as the BCS aims to do. Also, when you really think about it, acting disappointed and reacting in the way that many have reacted is sort of a slap in the face to the tremendous kids that Hoke has already gotten to commit.

Luckily, the hysteria will soon be coming to an end with NSD falling on Wednesday. Just know that if you are measuring the success of Michigan's 2012 recruiting efforts vis-a-vis Ohio/Urban Meyer/a perceived level of Ohio malfeasance gone inadequately punished, you will be disappointed...and it will be your own fault.

Big Dance Projectin': Various hoops folks are coming out with their early bracket predictions, and Michigan seems to be in good position according to guys like Palm and Lunardi. Obviously these don't mean anything given that they're only based on what has happened thus far but it is interesting to see that we're getting some respect. I have a hard time believing that Michigan will actually be a 4 or a 5 when push comes to shove, but we'll see. Again, Wednesday will go a long way toward determining what Michigan will do the rest of the way.

Bowl Games Coming To Your (College) CITAYYY: In the continuing effort to justify and/or validate the existence of bowls like the Beef O'Brady's Bowl, one AD suggests moving "secondary" bowls (a word that, in and of itself, already indicates a level of unworthiness) to campus locations instead of farflung/undesirable places like, say, Shreveport.
Also, the AD proposed that all teams that qualified for a bowl would receive the same bowl “loot” – i.e. bowl gifts – paid out of a central pool of funds from the BCS bowls or another source so that each student-athlete was treated the same.
THAT SOUNDS LIKE SOME KINDA SOCIALISM TO ME PAWWLLLLLL. But seriously, that's not going to happen, wishful thinking guy. Anything to slowly eliminate the existence of guys whose sole purpose is to shadily siphon money from minor bowl games while wearing a blazer and doing literally nothing, I guess. There would be the issue of who gets to play at home, I suppose, but compared to the current setup it can't really get much worse or more nonsensical. With that said, as stupid and shamtastic as the current system is, I am a fan of more football as opposed to less (as you should be), so upping the threshold for bowl eligibility to 7 wins is a net negative. I would like the option of being able to watch two 6-6 teams play a game of negligible stakes, thank you very much.

Maxwell Club GETS IT: Brady Hoke won this award and that's cool, but I only link to this to point out Maxwell Club executive director Mark Wolpert's tremendous diction:
"Coach Hoke has engineered a tremendous turnaround in the Michigan football program in just one year and it was obvious that his team improved each week," said Maxwell Club executive director Mark Wolpert in a release. "
Honorary MICHIGAN MAN status bestowed upon your person, Mr. Wolpert. Side effects may include: irritability, tendency to overreact in response to minor events, a desire to sit when others are in an emotionally excited state, and Bob Seger.

Scouting Indiana: BHGP painfully relives Sunday's game in Bloomington. The Hoosiers dropped 103 on the Hawkeyes, which is more than the Los Angeles Lakers can say that they've scored on most teams thus far this season. Zeller went 11/12 en route to scoring 26 points, which is pretty ridiculous. BHGP cite's the inability to adequately defend the pick and roll as one of many reasons for Iowa's Gerg-ian defensive performance. These defensive concerns will remain valid when the Hoosiers come to Crisler. Indiana definitely won't score 100+ on Michigan in Ann Arbor, but the matchups are far from favorable. Michigan will not be able to key on Zeller like they did against Sullinger

Michigan's perimeter defenders (Burke, Stu, THJ, etc.) cannot allow themselves to get split on the pick and roll with regularity or Michigan will have open 3s and dunks rained down on them something fierce. Likewise, Morgan will be in the unenviable position of having to hedge and make it back down low to defend against the Ent playing basketball that is Cody Zeller. Good luck!

More? Trey comes in at #3 on a freshman of the year watch list behind the Kentucky guys. Brian Phillips on Nadal-Djokovic; as usual, he is definitely worth the read, particularly in light of the excellence of that final match. So, this is a thing. Justin Turner lands at Hawaii.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Michigan-Ohio: The Song Remains The Same

Michigan 49, Ohio 64

Michigan's defensive gameplan (HT: Parks and Meth)

Well, that pretty much went exactly as expected. It would be nice if the program was at a point where we could beat teams without having essentially every single thing in a game go our way, but we are not there yet. Next year's infusion of talent might be the beginning of the entertainment of those sorts of expectations, but for now we're still the same team, fundamentally, that we were last year. We are a team with very little athleticism, play-making ability (outside of Burke and occasionally THJ), size, and depth, not to mention that our supposed shooters are often about as accurate as Joe Bauserman. Of course, it's not all bad. We have won a few games so far doing other things well, but putting the Buckeyes and Wolverines on the same floor at this point is a reminder of how far we have to go. 

I said it would be a "key on the big guy and hope the perimeter guys miss" type of game, and it was. Actually, the gameplan pretty much worked...well, the first shot defense did. No game plan can account for an opponent simply being able to go up and over defenders en route to offensive board after board. Lenzelle Smith in particular had a big game, grabbing 12 rebounds--8 of them of the offensive variety--taking advantage of the extra attention given to Sullinger. Michigan obviously needed to rotate better to account for this, but there's a reason why having to double somebody a majority of the time is not exactly ideal. However, Michigan held the Buckeyes well under their season average. Sullinger had a relatively unimpressive outing (13 points, 5 rebounds) by his standards, and Michigan wasn't ultimately beaten from the outside, as the Buckeyes were ice cold from 3 (3/15). Michigan got out-rebounded 37-22; this, paired with 4 FTA to Ohio's 18, makes it very difficult to win a game. Michigan did well to hold the big 3 of Sullinger, Thomas and Buford to 13, 12, and 12 points respectively, but Lenzelle Smith scoring 17 was essentially the death knell for Michigan's chances. 

All things considered, Michigan's defensive gameplan generally worked out alright minus the things that careful planning and risk-reward analyses can't account for, such as a glaring general athleticism gap. You would think that holding Ohio to 64 would have given the Wolverines a chance, but Michigan put up 49, a season low (58 @UVA being the previous low). Michigan will just have to ride this thing out before the cavalry known as the recruiting class of 2012 rides in, but the personnel we've got is just not conducive to beating beating elite teams, let alone elite teams on the road. It's ridiculous how much this team leans on Trey to handle the ball; I truly feel bad for him. The shots aren't falling as much as he'd like (although he was actually not bad this game when he wasn't busy getting hounded by Craft), but it's pretty clear that playing ALL THE MINUTES isn't exactly helping in that respect. 

There's not too much more to say. Michigan faced a much better team on the road, got dominated on the boards and from the free throw line, and kept it reasonably close for a decent portion of the game. This is more than a lot of visitors to VCA this season can say; both Duke and Indiana lost by a greater margin than Michigan. People don't win there that often for a reason. Also, as anemic and flailingly ineffective as Michigan's offense was/often is, you have to tip your hat to the Buckeye defensive pressure. Craft belongs to the prestigious "white guy that everybody hates club", along with Chris Kramer, JJ Redick, and club president Zack Novak, but people dislike him for a reason. He's pretty good, as Trey's five turnovers would indicate. 

On the bright side, the next time we see the Buckeyes it'll be at the friendly confines of the Crisler Center. Despite people like Jeff Goodman complaining about fans complaining about officiating in college basketball, complaints are legitimate, as they have been since time immemorial. Just because "this is the way things are" doesn't mean people don't have legitimate gripes. With that said, Michigan will (hopefully) have the zebras on their side the next time around. Assuming that Michigan doesn't shoot like they have their eyes closed and don't get killed on the glass, that is a winnable game. With that said, as much as it hurts to lose to the Buckeyes, this game didn't really changed the trajectory of Michigan's hopes and expectations for this season. However, Wednesday's game against the Hoosiers looms large. 

Player Bullets, Also Known As "Uh, Did Anybody Play Well?": 
  • Burke--Remember when Michigan ran Chris Perry 51 times against MSU in 2003? Trey Burke's usage is the basketball equivalent of that, only instead of it happening one time it's happening every single game. He actually had a pretty solid day from the field (13 points, 5/11 overall, 3/6 from 3) despite basically playing the entire game yet again. He had five turnovers but, again, Craft is pretty good. In any case, facing guys like Jackson and Craft is good practice for Burke as he continues to develop as a player. Remember, he's just a freshman
  • Hardaway--A good stat line at least, leading Michigan with 15 points (on 5/12 shooting overall, 2/7 from 3). His play is just so markedly less confident, and when he makes mistakes it always seems like he's stuck between two points of action. To attack or not to attack...that is the question. He kind of reminds me of the NBA players in Space Jam who have had their powers taken from them: "We're fine. It's some psychosomatic deal, or something to do with the moon and the alignment of the planets." 
  • Novak--Buckeye fans want you to know that he sucks. By the way, did you know that they think he sucks? You may not have heard. In all seriousness, not a good day at all. Scoreless on 0/4 shooting (only 1 attempted 3) is not a way to go through life a Big Ten game, son. 
  • Douglass--I gave Stu some deserved praise after the last game so, of course, Evil Stu decided to resurface in Columbus. I think MGoBlue.com should start keeping a stat for instances in which Stu dribbles to the No Man's Land near the baseline just outside of the paint only to step on the line or turn the ball over in some other innovative way. I'm pretty sure this has happened 842 times this year. This is just Basketball 101, but, dribbling down there is exactly where a good man-to-man defense wants to funnel you. If you add to that by leaving your feet to pass then you're pretty much assuring that the possession will end in disaster. In order to continue to be a solid to solid+ player, he needs to stop with the adventurism near the baseline. Otherwise, he went a poor 3/9 from the field, although he did show a nice little move for a layup at one point. I would assume that both he and Zack will be up for the game on Wednesday against Indiana. 
  • Morgan--Morgan was certainly not going to win his matchup with Sullinger, but we needed him to convert more of those opportunities around the basket. I like Morgan so I'm not going to sit here and call a Division-I athlete "soft," but he does need to be a little bit stronger around the basket (the instance where he got the ball taken from him in the post comes to mind). With Zeller coming to town on Wednesday, it doesn't get much easier for him. 
  • McLimans--Made a 3. Got some more minutes due to JMo's foul troubles...still just a guy. 
  • Vogrich--No shot attempts in 6 minutes; did pull in a pair of boards. 
  • Smotrycz--Similar to THJ with respect to the Space Jam analogy. Obviously, Big Ten play is a huge step up from playing the likes of Alabama A&M and those other teams that Evan had success against, but man...the confidence isn't there. I thought hitting that one three in the first half would have bolstered his confidence but he went on to miss his remaining 5 attempts, 3 of which were from beyond the arc. Other than looking generally unconfident, it doesn't seem like he's really even having fun, which would definitely feed into the former; a symptom, if you will. 
  • Christian--Michigan is basically playing 4 on 5 with him on the floor. He did show some nice hustle but completely freaked out when Burke shot him a pass near the basket. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ohio Preview: Points of Interest*

John Beilein looks to point us to victory against Ohio like
noted pointing aficionado Brady Hoke

*What I did there...you see it.

General Outlook 
Michigan comes into this one riding high, tied for first place in the Big Ten. That's right. Michigan is 16-5 (6-2), and one would think that four more wins would make the Wolverines a sure thing. The win at West Lafayette went a long way toward mitigating some anxiety in that respect.

Ohio State, on the other hand, has been a top 5 fixture. The Buckeyes are coming off of three straight drubbings of Indiana, Nebraska, and Penn State by an average margin of 25 points. Their three losses have come at Kansas (minus Sullinger), at Indiana, and at Illinois, the game in which Brandon Paul decided to harvest all the residual MJ talent floating around the Land of Lincoln en route to a truly absurd 43-point effort. In short, they have lost in three pretty tough environments, one without Sullinger and another featuring one of those Daniel Horton-esque performances where every shot goes in, eyes open or closed. However, the Buckeyes have just been vaporizing teams at home, although the only Big Ten teams to visit Columbus thus far have been Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, and Indiana. This is not a great time to be traveling to Columbus, as they are simply firing on all cylinders.

This is probably the one game on the schedule that is objectively beyond our reach. A loss isn't a season-killer by any means, so I look forward to being able to focus on the matchups just to see how much we have or haven't improved, individually and as a team. Considering how the Hoosiers fared (despite recent struggles, they are still a solid squad) at Value City Arena, keeping this game close would be an achievement.

The Offense 
As it it stands, UVA and Wisconsin sit atop the scoring defense rankings; the Buckeyes are not far behind, only relinquishing 56.0 ppg. On the plus side, two straight games against high-pressure teams like Arkansas and Purdue (albeit different styles of pressure) will probably have served as good practice for this game. Trey Burke in particular has his work cut out for him, as he will be checked by Aaron Craft, the definitive defensive pest. Craft is quick and active with his hands, so Trey better be ready to fight off the fatigue and put the free arm out to protect or Craft will steal it. Craft is top 15 in steals, averaging a Madoffian 2.5 per game. Trey has gone up against quick slot ninja-esque types before--namely UVA's Jontel Evans and Purdue's Lewis Jackson--so he should be prepared, although those guys have had some success in locking Burke up to an extent (particularly Evans). I just checked and Craft is listed at 6'2'', which is definitely taller than I imagined. This will be a difficult matchup for Trey; if he comes out looking good then feel free to ramp up the hype machine tenfold.

The Buckeyes have some good size across the boards, but it isn't necessarily overwhelming. Only the 6'11'' Amir Williams off the bench is a true center type, and he's averaging a mere ("a mere"...GET IT) 8 minutes a game. Sophomores Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas are the bigs at 6'9'' and 6'7'', Buford is a big guard at 6'6'' and then you've got Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. at 6'2'' and 6'4'' respectively. Like all good teams, the Buckeyes are near the top of the national ranks in rebounding margin (+7.5), with only the Spartans crashing the boards better in the conference. Second chances will likely be hard to come by.

The Buckeyes are only behind the Spartans and Badgers in 3-point defense percentage, giving up the trey at a 31.5% rate. With Craft likely to be in Burke's face all game long, Michigan might not have a lot of good drive and dish looks and Trey might not get too many good looks himself while on the dribble. This has all the makings of a game in which THJ jacks up a good number of contested threes in response to the consistent Buckeye pressure (I would imagine that Lenzelle Smith Jr. will draw him, a young guy who has upped his minutes from last year by playing defense). Let's hope that is not the case, but Michigan will have to hit more than a few contested looks to have a chance by the end of the game.

The Defense 
The Buckeyes average 78.0 ppg, more than anybody in the conference save Indiana. Sullinger has an array of moves and is simply a bull on the block. Sullinger is shooting a Morgan-esque 59% from the field, and is right behind Zack Novak in eFG% at 61.5% (which seems to be slightly--and hilariously--buoyed up by being 8-17 from 3). When he gets the ball, he scores.

Jordan Morgan might want to eat some serious Cottage Inn between now and
Sunday to make up the 15 or so pounds he's giving up to this man
Deshaun Thomas and William Buford are the other two double digit scorers (15.0 and 15.2 ppg respectively). They are high usage guys, but their percentages aren't anything to write home about, overall or from three. Past them, Craft isn't a big time scorer (8.0 ppg) but they don't really need him to be. Lenzelle Smith is only averaging 6.0 ppg but doesn't seem to be a high usage guy. However, he did drop 28 on the Hoosiers at home, giving me enough reason to be suspicious of him. He only averages about 4 shots a game, but he is shooting 49% from 3 on 37 attempts. Speaking of, he is Ohio's best 3-point shooter by far and is only 4th in attempts. With the Buckeyes shooting the 3 about as poorly as us (34% to our 34.2%), Thaddeus Matta should probably find a way to get Smith to shoot more (actually, SHHH...nobody tell him). Thomas and Buford shoot the 3 at 38% and 35% respectively, and Craft's at 30%. If there is any comfort to be had, it's that the Buckeyes might not kill us when we collapse on Sullinger.

Every time I get the urge to say "hey, let's play a little more zone" (i.e. before the Purdue game), Michigan tries it...and it fails spectacularly. This is unfortunate, as Ohio's 3-point shooting doesn't scare me. Plus, Craft would have a hard time slicing up the zone if his defender is sagging off of him, as should probably be the case. Sadly, Michigan is going to have to survive on grit and grit alone. Luckily, we do have Zack Novak, who heads the glorious Department of GRIT. If there was a way to execute grit transactions, this would be the time for Novak to wire some to Morgan. If JMo can hold his ground and, more importantly, not pick up two quick and early fouls, Michigan has a chance to keep Sullinger reasonably in check. On the plus side, it seems like it's been a while since JMo has picked up two early fouls. Oddly, I have some faith that Morgan can body up on Sullinger.

  • They don't shoot the 3 exceptionally well. Rather, they don't have one guy that could be called a true specialist. 
  • They aren't a great FT shooting team (67.9%, good for 189th in the country). 
  • This is somewhere between a pro and a con, but...while Ohio's offensive rebound percentage is approximately 5% better than ours (good for a difference of 161 spots in the rankings), they are not Michigan State (39.1%, good for 17th). They'll get their offensive boards but we won't get destroyed like we did against MSU. 
  • They're top 10 in overall FG% (49.2%). 
  • Ohio is second nationally in turnover margin, so they value the ball as much as Tommy Rees loves throwing interceptions and Lloyd Carr values leather-bound books. Michigan won't get a lot of help there. TINSTAAFL's basketball cousin TINSTAAFB applies here...There's No Such Thing As A Free Bucket. 
  • Jared Sullinger and Michigan's lack of beef and/or depth. 

This is a classic "key on the big guy and hope the perimeter guys miss their good looks" sort of game. Sullinger will make his post moves and make Morgan look silly here and there, but Buford and Thomas are the players Michigan needs to hope have off nights.

Who/What To Watch
  • Trey vs. Craft on both ends of the floor. If Trey can consistently handle the pressure and can prevent Craft from zooming past him on the defensive end (like Lewis Jackson was able to do) then we have a shot. 
  • Jordan Morgan vs. early fouls. 
  • Whether or not THJ can pick up the play-creating slack with Burke being checked by Craft. He had four turnovers at Purdue, but I'll take it if he keeps thinking ATTACK first. 
Meaningless Prediction 
I hope I'm not setting myself up for disappointment, but I think Michigan has a pretty good chance to keep it closer than any of the other Big Ten teams that have paid the Buckeyes a visit thus far (that's not saying much, but still). If Michigan can avoid having anybody fall victim to the "2 fouls and proceed to eat bench" thing then we won't get blown out before reaching halftime. If THJ and Morgan have strong performances like they did in WL, there's a chance. I'm saying there's a chance. Craft will get into Burke and I'm sure we won't get any calls, so it basically comes down to whether or not Michigan's shooters can hit with hands in their faces. It's pretty reductive, but beating Ohio at home is difficult enough, even with everybody playing well. On the road, well...it's a tall order.

Michigan will keep it sort of close for a while, but with Stu's erratic shooting, Smotrycz's plummeting shooting percentage and/or lack of confidence since the beginning of Big Ten play, and THJ's still debatable dedication to attacking the rim, it's difficult seeing us being in a real position to win in the final couple of minutes. Michigan 63, Ohio 76. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Michigan-Purdue: Learning To Fly

Michigan 66, Purdue 64

There were 3.8 seconds left, and Evan Smotrycz was on the line after Michigan capably whipped the ball around berserker Boilermaker defenders trying to foul. A defender stood between him and an open Zack Novak, but he somewhat awkwardly held on to it. Purdue had no timeouts, and even if Smotrycz missed both, their chances of victory were minimal...and yet, it wasn't over. There are those that will be quick to say that it's not over until the clock reads all zeroes, as if there is some yet un-mined nuance of wisdom in the statement. Most fans will find this person annoying; that is decidedly not the case for Michigan fans. Evan Turner. The Wisconsin game. I don't even have to say any more and you know what I'm talking about. End of game scenarios are inextricably linked with fear; College Basketball rings the Pavlovian bell and Michigan fans are conditioned to cringe. 

The door was slightly ajar, and it pushed open slightly when Smotrycz got fouled. He made the first free throw, calmly and without difficulty, pushing the door back so that it was very nearly shut. He missed the second. I braced for the worst.

When the final heave harmlessly careened off of the backboard, I breathed a sigh of relief. You could say it was the Universe's way of meting out a makeup call.

Sadly, putting this picture in a post does
not magically make this football season.
(HT: Mike DeSimone)
I continue to wear my 2007-08 Michigan basketball shirt in order to give me the opportunity to look at it during games and realize how far we've really come. The last time Michigan had left West Lafayette victorious came a month and a half after John Navarre and Chris Perry led Michigan to a bowl victory against Rex Grossman and Ron Zook's Florida Gators. It was a long, long time ago. Purdue might be down, but don't let that convince you that this win was anything but incredibly meaningful for this team and this program. The fact that Purdue's final desperation heave didn't fall is, in a way, revealing. Maybe this is the cosmos's way of letting us have start to have nice things.

Michigan not only went on the road and won at an extremely difficult place to get a win, they weathered the storm of a 17-3 Purdue run that extinguished Michigan's 10-point lead and then some. It would have been easy to stop there, to say it's not our day and that winning on the road in this conference is just an added bonus, the extra scoop of ice cream that a disinterested employee doesn't bother charging you for.

At the under 8 minutes TV timeout, Michigan was down 47-51. In the remaining minutes, Jordan Morgan, Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, and Stu Douglass all scored, and Zack Novak contributed the final brilliant assist. This was a team effort. Also, for a team that seems to rise and fall with Jordan Morgan's production in a correlative fashion, it is only fitting that the winning basket was one of his patented thunder dunks.

A Big Ten road win and a 16th win (when Michigan had 19 pre-Big Ten Tournament wins all of last season)? It's a start.

Player Bullets, Also Known As "Welcome Back Tim":

  • Burke--It's hard to complain too much after a cathartic win like that, but the freshman has been having a hard time from the field, going 3/10 (0/2 from 3) with two of those makes being layups. Trey had some trouble containing Lewis Jackson, which is a little disappointing after his performance against Jordan Taylor but is also understandable...Jackson is unbelievably quick (he could probably be a slot ninja type in an RR offense). Trey also had one of his most glaring "freshman moments" to date, when Michigan had the ball with under a minute to go, up 1, with the opportunity to run some clock out. It all worked out in the end, but you certainly would've liked to see the offense run for a little bit before having Trey go into play-making mode. 
  • Hardaway--First, the bad...THJ had some significant issues on the defensive end. Early in the game, I remember him getting blown by with ease, only to get bailed out by Burke, who was in position to take the charge. Not long after that, THJ was lackadaisical in closing out on an open 3-point shooter (this is not the only instance of this). As much as people complained about aspects of his offensive game, his defense has been equally worthy of criticism. With his size and overall athleticism, he could be an above average defensive player if he wanted to. With that said...man it's nice to see THJ fill it up again. A solid 8/15 from the field (2/6 from 3) and a diverse execution of his offensive repertoire equals a happy me. Hopefully this was the adrenaline jolt he needed to get his game back on track for good. 
  • Douglass--Stu has secretly been a really good player for us (minus his outside shooting, which has been either really bad or killer)...it wasn't even a secret this game. Here's the line: 12 points (5/8 overall, 2/3 from 3), 5 boards 3 assists, 2 steals, and only 1 turnover. That is a very good game, and Stu has quietly been a mini-revelation since Smotrycz's benching. 
  • Novak--Had a sort of quiet game on the offensive end, but he did only shot the ball four times, going 2/4 overall (1/1 from 3). On the other hand, contributed 8 gritty boards, as usual. He also pitched in 3 assists, the most crucial being the final one during which he created the play on the bounce to find an open ready-to-dunk Morgan on the block. That's not a play that City of Gritville's best and only resident could make a year ago. 
  • Morgan--When Morgan is on, this team is so much more fun to watch. I would argue that when Morgan's play/statistical contribution (yes, again, some of his points are due to just being wide open) is the biggest indicator of Michigan's success on a given day. If I didn't know what the score was, and you told me that Morgan had gone 5/7 from the field for 12 points, I would guess with confidence that we had won. By the way, this is the second time that someone has grabbed him by the arm like that (the first being the incident during the Northwestern game)...hey, tiny Big Ten guards. Stop that. 
  • Vogrich--Only five minutes...made his one field goal attempt (and it wasn't even a 3). 
  • Smotrycz--A very solid performance from the bench, going 3/5 from the field and 1/2 from 3, good for 10 points. Throw in the only one turnover and I'll take that from him every time. I don't think he's close to starting again yet, but this was a good first step toward that end. 
  • Akunne--Resurfaced in this one only to get hurt at some point during his 2 minutes of play. Hopefully it's not too serious; he's obviously not a big piece, but Michigan can't really afford that many injuries, even to low-usage depth guys. 
  • Brundidge--One minute. Looked awkward the one time he had the ball. It's hard to really say anything about him when he plays so few minutes. Hopefully Michigan will be on the winning side of a blowout one of these days so we can get a better look at him.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Purdue Preview: So It Begins

General Outlook

Michigan enters the murderous portion of the schedule, and, despite a win over Izzo and the Spartans, confidence is not exactly to be found in spades. Michigan has lost two of its last 3, one an embarrassing loss at Iowa, the other at Arkansas. The latter doesn't bother me as much, but the fact that Michigan was losing by double digits for most of the game is more than a little worrisome as a matter of general competitiveness.

It doesn't get easier, as Michigan heads to West Lafayette tonight to face a Purdue team that has had their own share of struggles this season. Purdue sits at 14-6 (4-3), a game behind Michigan in the standings. Replacing outgoing stars JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore has been a difficult task, especially as 12th year senior Robbie Hummel continues to attempt to regain the game he had pre-injury. The Boilermakers' losses have come to: Alabama, @Xavier (a game in which they were up big and blew big time), a scuffling Butler team, @PSU, Wisconsin, and the recent drubbing @MSU.

As their record indicates, they have been very hit or miss throughout the Big Ten slate thus far, part of which is attributable to the fact that they have already played 4 away games compared to Michigan's 2. This Purdue team is definitely a notch or two below the Purdue squads of the last few years, but this is a team that has played us tough (Beilein is 1-5 against the Boilermakers) and we are not exactly indisputably better by any means.

The Offense 
Going from Arkansas' press to Purdue's more traditional man-to-man is akin to a college football team playing Oregon one game and Wisconsin the next. Personally, I've always preferred and admired Purdue's brand of defense. It is in-your-face and TOUGH and GRITTY and all the other things that a Midwestern team should be if we're letting stereotypes rule the day. Oh, what's that? Purdue's defense might not be so gritty you say?

Since you hypothetical question-answered there, Purdue's normally tenacious defense has taken a bit of a step back. Purdue boasted the #31 scoring defense in the country last season (second best in the conference), giving up a mere 61.9 ppg. This season, the Boilermakers are sitting at 81st, giving up 63.0 ppg (5th best in the conference). It seems like a small change, but the drop off passes the eye test as well. It's difficult to explain the dropoff with complete certainty, but there's no doubt that the loss of Johnson's shot-blocking presence and Moore's ability to rack up steals has contributed to the declawing of an ordinarily stout Painter defense.

As far as defensive rebounding goes, the Boilers are about a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team (34.2 rpg, good for 6th in the conference). Michigan has about a 40 spot lead on Purdue in rebounding margin as well (2.1 and .6 respectively).

Purdue is about as good as Michigan when it comes to defending the three (36.0% compared to Michigan's 36.2%), which is to say "not very good." Michigan should have their open looks: can they hit them? This is the question of our time, one that can be asked before every game.

In short, Purdue is at best average in almost every defensive category. They give up the three about as often as Michigan does, they're not a great rebounding team, and they're not a shot-blocking threat post-Johnson...despite all this, they're giving up 63.0 ppg (good for 80th nationally). That's not bad, and I don't think that Michigan really has the depth or the desire to try to push the tempo to give them problems by trying to score before they're set. With Michigan's dedication the 3, the lack of a shot-blocker doesn't mean too much...that is, unless THJ, you know, decides to SEARCH AND DESTROY.

The Defense
As mentioned, 6'10'' JaJuan Johnson is currently plying his trade in the NBA with the Boston Old Guys. That is very good news indeed, as there's no doubt he would've have torn us up yet again. His stat line from the beating last season in Crisler: 22 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks. Jordan Morgan, you may rest at ease. Even more importantly, Purdue has not replaced JJ's production whatsoever. Purdue's top 7 scorers are all guards if you count DJ Byrd, who is listed as a 6'5'' guard/forward. Like Arkansas, this is another heavily guard-dependent team, which isn't necessarily unusual for a college basketball team, but still. Michigan doesn't have to worry about getting rebounded over or bullied in this one like they usually do.

Positives for the Celtics: is not 90. Positives for us: is not currently a Boilermaker. 

Like Michigan, Purdue doesn't really shoot the 3 exceptionally well (35.5% as a team). Only senior Ryne Smith eclipses the 40% barrier, shooting at a very impressive 43%. Hey, Michigan. If you forget what the scouting reports are re: Purdue's 3-point shooters, remember that their specialist is the guy who spells his first name "Ryne." Otherwise, Robbie Hummel is the only other Boilermaker to have over 100 attempts from 3, and he shoots 35%. However, every time I've turned a Purdue game on of late, it seems like he's missing 3s in horrendous fashion (i.e. airballin' it). Hummel has gotten progressively worse from 3 since his stellar freshman season back when Lloyd Carr was still coaching football (I could have said "1962" or something for a cheap HURR joke, but saying "when Lloyd Carr was coaching football makes it sound like it was equally long ago, right?).

The thing Purdue does have going for it is that they value the ball, sitting at 11th in the nation in assist to turnover ratio. This is unsurprising given that Hummel, Kelsey Barlow, Lewis Jackson, and Ryne Smith are all upperclassmen. For the most part, Michigan will have to D up the old-fashioned way, as not many cheap turnovers will likely come their way. Past Hummel and Lewis Jackson, Purdue has a pretty big dropoff in offensive capability. Additionally, Jackson seems to be nursing some lingering injuries, and despite being the team's second leading scorer, is somewhat of an X-factor per his own coach's words.

Luckily, Purdue doesn't really expose any of Michigan's biggest flaws (lack of size, 3-point defense, depth). Despite being 4th in the conference in possessions per 40 (66.3 per game, good for a hilarious 209th nationally), that is of course like being one of the fastest turtles in a turtle race. I wouldn't mind seeing Michigan throw in some zone a little more than usual in this game.

Who/What To Watch

  • Please please please MAKE THREES. Please. This is more a plea than a suggestion of what to watch out for. 
  • Burke on Jackson at the defensive end; we'll need another shutdown effort here. 
  • Burke and Morgan on the pick and roll. 

Meaningless Prediction
Looking at everything, this seems to be about as winnable of a game as it gets in this upcoming murderer's row of games. Purdue doesn't seem to do a lot of things exceptionally well, and they do already have a Big Ten loss at home (Wisconsin, Jan. 12). Despite this, I picked Michigan to win on the road at Iowa and Arkansas and came away looking like kind of a homer/overly optimistic (in addition to being wrong). Unlike Ross-Ade, Mackey is a very difficult place to play. It is somewhat of a relief to know that a Wisconsin team we handled got a win there, but that win at Crisler is starting to feel like a distant memory. Unlike the last two road games, I think Michigan keeps it close for most of the game, as I don't really see either team having the firepower or overall competence to pull away. Unless THJ or Smotrycz bounce back and have a huge game, I think Michigan drops a close one. Michigan 61, Purdue 66. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Miscellaneous Minutiae, 1/23/2012

If the focus on basketball of late in this here space hasn't given you enough of a hint, it is now in fact the horrible, empty thing known as "the offseason." As such, I will try to have one newsy/links-saturated post a week. Most of the topics will be Michigan-centric, but I do plan on taking about general college football a decent bit as well. Until I think of something less lame, these types of posts will go by the above title, lifted straight from the last section of my football posts

Recruiting. National Signing Day approaches, a time of both excruciating pain and inexplicable glory for unathletic middle aged men across this great land. First, a preface: it is this blog's policy to talk about recruiting as little as possible. Having recently turned an age that would make me a year older than almost all college football athletes--minus the Weeden and Bauserman types--it hit me that the whole business is incredibly strange and definitely somewhat creepy. As far as I'm concerned, the halcyon days of my youth were the best times of my Michigan fandom; I never knew who the players were before they came in, I never knew what accolades or star-rankings they came in with, whether they were good fits for the system, had character/grade issues, and whether or not they think that NIKE Pro Combat jerseys are "sick." RoJo, the Terrelle Pryor sweepstakes, the great safety strikeout of 2010 (Knight, Parker, Dorsey), Bri'onte Dunn, and a plethora of other highly-charged stress-inducing recruiting inflection points have slowly soured me on the whole thing.

However, in this age of hyper-informed fans, it's impossible to completely ignore recruiting lest you have your fandom questioned by other Michigan Men (particularly on the cusp of NSD). My general philosophy is "trust the coaches and whatever happens, happens." It was that way when RR was still around ( and Lloyd too). I have no problem talking about where committed or officially signed/early enrolled players fit into the scheme of the next season and beyond. Even if it's impossible to tell how a player will turn out--particularly in light of the fact they will grow appreciably, mentally and physically--at least this type of talk is limited to the field. All of the aforementioned can henceforth be considered the OFFICIAL POSITION on recruiting.

With that said, the recent decommitment of long-time commit Caleb Stacey leaves a hole in Michigan's class that must be filled by another OL. As a general note, I wish him well (as all Michigan fans should), and any and all other rhetoric (e.g. "he wasn't that good anyway", "he opens up a spot for a more highly-touted recruit", "he wasn't sure if he could get playing time", etc.) is simply wrong. As one of the earliest commitments of the Brady Hoke era, it's obvious that the coaches liked him, and that's good enough for me.

However, Michigan seems to be in the discussion for a number of quality offensive lineman. Josh Garnett is one such option, and he is announcing this Thursday ($), deciding between Michigan and Stanford. This would give us a 5th OL, a position of desperate need, and one in which we can probably take one more if Garnett picks Michigan.

Mo' Money Mo' Coordinators. In Clemson's continuing effort to rain cash on coordinators, the Tigers hired Oklahoma DC Brent Venables after Bob Stoops brought brother Mike in to co-DC with Brent. This is an excellent hire for the Tigers, who now have two well-respected and well-paid coordinators in Venables and OC Chad Morris. OU did have some trouble on defense this year, particularly through the air, but a heavy slice of that blame probably goes to DB coach (and former UGA DC) Willie Martinez.

When a school like Clemson is capable and willing to pay for coordinators like they have, it makes me increasingly happy that Michigan has joined the rest of the college football landscape in this respect. No longer is Michigan paying their coordinators in Big Ten Burrito gift certificates*.

About Last Night. So, I went to bed thinking about a NATIONAL. FOOTBALL. LEAGUE. featuring one Chip Kelly and all of the hilarity that that would entail. As I watched the Giants and 49ers duke it out in a classic gritfest of offensive ineptitude, the concept of Chip Kelly in the NFL was absurd and outright hilarious, albeit incredibly interesting. And, yet, it seemed that it had all been confirmed.

Wisely, Chip checked out of that play overnight, electing to remain in Eugene and continue to operate that Death Star of an offense despite rumors of supposed NCAA violations being the incentive to get out of Dodge (and a canceled Sacramento recruiting trip looking like evidence that his departure was imminent).

As interesting as an NFL game coached by Chip Kelly might have been, we all know how that would have ended. The NFL is not a place for systems, no matter how brilliant. As such, Kelly staying is a win for college football. While I still have my doubts about Oregon actually winning a national championship (I think an Auburn team with a fairly mediocre defense might have been their best chance), at least he will continue to give us exciting football instead of having to watch him fight the derp-laden stodgy reactionism of the NFL for 2 years.

Wolverine Historian. WH with the 1998 Big Ten Tournament championship game...vacated but not forgotten.

On The Road Again. Speaking of basketball, Michigan heads to West Lafayette tomorrow night in what might be the most winnable game of this upcoming 5-game stretch. Read that sentence again. The next two weeks might not be very fun.

On the bright side, the Boilermakers did just get handled by the Spartans this past weekend, and they have looked like a shell of their former selves throughout this entire season. At this point,  I have very little faith in Michigan's ability to have success on the road, but we'll see (I think I'll have a preview at some point tomorrow). Maybe this is the game that THJ finally breaks out for good. FWIW, here's Hammer & Rails with a brief rundown of the performance in East Lansing.

Mentioning East Lansing=another excuse to post this

*Which, if they exist, would be the worst gift/form of payment ever...PANCHERO'S UBER ALLES. 

More? Lefty to Auburn...an interesting hire, not exactly ideal that he's attempting to replace Gus Malzahn. Virginia basketball drops one at home to Virginia Tech; that's 2 losses out of their last 3 for UVA. UMHoops with efficiency margins and a roundup of the last week in the conference. INFINITE RON SWANSON. I'll take "Headlines Connected To College Football That I Thought I'd Never See" for 1,000, Alex. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Michigan-Arkansas: The War of Novak's Aggression

Michigan 64, Arkansas 66
Preface: CBS didn't switch to the game until there was 13:20 or so left in the first half, so I missed the beginning of what metastasized into a 20-point deficit. 

William Tecumseh Sherman and Zack Novak: related?

This was the quintessential college basketball game, one that could have easily passed for an opening round tournament game. If this was played at Crisler, the arena and the weather and a general voodoo that permeates college basketball at large would have come together to prevent the Razorbacks from starting the game on a ridiculous shooting tear far exceeding their ability. And, of course, they wouldn't have been able to ride the waves of pure energy that a home crowd can generate for a team. However, this game was played in Arkansas, and geography is more than half the battle in college basketball, as we all know. 

In the end, this doesn't mean all that much. The nature of the loss makes it particularly hard to stomach (cutting a ridiculous deficit down to 2, the last shot being 99% in, a lost chance to stick it to the SEC, etc.), but it hasn't really changed the outlook for the season; Michigan will make their money throughout the rest of the conference schedule. Although Arkansas looked like the Monstars on this day (I think I remember the Monstars pressing a little bit), their performance to date suggests that they are a bubble team at best. This wasn't a bad loss, but it wouldn't have been a great win insofar as tournament resumes are concerned. It would have been nice to see Michigan travel far away and dispatch an unorthodox team on the road, but it didn't happen. There's nothing to say but "oh well" and move on (/continues to write stuff). 

The story of this game is pretty simple. Arkansas came out en fuego, hitting their first 11 shots. Misses were few and far between even after that prolific run. Michigan's defense wasn't quite airtight, but some of those shots were just insane, video game shots, Arkansas players contorting their bodies like Kobe Bryant to rip an off-balanced three through the net. Arkansas ended the game shooting exactly 50% overall and 45.5% from 3. Their season averages: 43.8% and 34.7%, respectively. "Sometimes when you're on..." 

The rest of the game was simply a struggle against the current of Arkansas's shooting and defensive pressure, an excruciatingly slow chipping away of the lead (I think a Big Ten=slow HURR joke goes here). Michigan was lucky enough to enter the half only down 13, even luckier than they were to only be down 7 at the half against Northwestern. The press wasn't an enormous factor from a turnover perspective, as far as I can remember. In fact, Michigan turned the ball over only ten times, under their season average of 11.3 TOPG*. Other than the frenzied Burke turnover that lead to the Novak FALCON PUNCH of BJ Young**, I can't remember the press really affecting Michigan significantly. With that said, Arkansas did a good job of pressuring in general, and a number of offensive possessions consisted of Burke fighting off on-the-ball pressure and traps, trying to make something happen as everybody else sort of stands around, existing. Michigan's half court sets were in a constant state of frenzied disorganization, as if somebody was adding or taking away an electron from the atomic structure of their offensive game plan. 

At the same time, even if Burke dribbles the ball too much a la Morris...who else would you rather have dribbling the ball on this team? This question would be pretty frightening if we hadn't known about this problem since basically the beginning of the Beilein era. Other than Trey, the only one who can create his own shot on a regular basis is THJ, and he's still reluctant to do so for whatever reason***. Novak and Douglass can do things occasionally, but they're not going out and creating with any regularity, despite my facetious citing in this space of Zack's future AND1 basketball career. Vogrich literally cannot (or is told not to) do anything on the bounce and Smotrycz on the dribble is often a horror show. It's hard to get anything done against a zone or man-to-man in the half court game when most of your team is either too unathletic or unskilled to make something happen on their own. So, every play for Trey is basically this commercial: 

There were innumerable occasions when Vogrich or Smotrycz would hold the ball 40 feet from the basket, waiting for Burke to free himself from a defender, presenting zero threat to do anything with the ball but hold it and wait for Burke to retrieve it and start "the offense." It's getting to the point that I almost feel sorry for Trey while simultaneously being in awe at his ability to play 39 minutes against a pressing team and still have enough energy to frown at the end when the last shot rattled out. This is doubly impressive in light of Appling being gassed after 31 minutes last Tuesday. 

After Novak turned into LeBron playing in Cleveland, Hossa in Detroit, etc., he and Trey tried to will Michigan to victory in spite of the rest of the team's general ineffectiveness. Novak hit a three to silence the ESSSS EEEEE CEEEE crowd--a crowd that has apparently never seen a hard foul before--and cut it to 6, after which Arkansas brought it back to 11 for a stretch. Novak hit another 3, took a charge, and tapped out a ball to extend a possession down the stretch, vengefully torching Arkansas like Sherman did Atlanta. Morgan was outrunning Arkansas's bigs and slamming down precision passes in that way that usually means Michigan is winning/going to win (or that good things are happening in general). Burke was Burke; tireless, a bundle of thankless, humble effort. 

Hunter McSouthern Guy Mickelson managed a layup as the shot clock was just about to run out, bringing the lead to 4, 66-62, after which Burke cut it to 2. Upon fouling during the next possession, an Arkansas player flew across the lane to corral a rebound (right through Smotrycz, as if he wasn't there) on a missed free throw, eventually resulting in a second chance for the Razorbacks. Luckily, Arkansas missed on the front end once again, giving Michigan a chance to win the game on the final possession. 

Coming out of a timeout, the last play was disjointed and seemingly purposeless, but in retrospect...I'm not sure that I would have trusted the ball to anyone's hands but Trey's. The ball went in on a ridiculous step back from well behind the arc and then, on a whim, bounced out, determined to finish this chaotic and nonsensical game of college basketball with a thematically consistent final salvo. That is, consistent insofar as chaos and nonsense can be consistent. 

*FWIW, I thought it was a hard foul and nothing more. There's zero chance that he was actually trying to hurt Young, but I'm sure Jay Bilas will shortly be lobbying for Novak's excommunication from the game of basketball. Also, I have to laugh at the Arkansas fans in attendance...you guys got the flagrant foul. Stop booing (protip: he wants you to boo). 
**On the other hand, Arkansas only had 8, 5 under their season average of 13.4 TOPG. I thought we'd be able to force more.
***Even when he does attack, he hasn't shown the confidence that he seemed to have last year. For instance, THJ's drive near the end of the game (when it was 64-62, about a minute left) ended in a sort of meek flip. 

Player Bullets, Also Known As "Trey Burke And Those Who Are Not Trey Burke":
  • Burke--The box score doesn't really do his performance justice. He continues to not shoot the ball too well (6/19 overall, 1/6 from 3), but he is just a gamer, and I say that in as unironic a manner as possible. Throw in 7 boards, a 6:2 assist to turnover, a steal, and another of his now patented blocks, not to mention his tireless handling of the press and the offense as a whole, and that's a strong performance. He takes a bad shot from time to time, but with other players being about as useful as a box of paper clips, I'll reiterate that I'd rather Trey do it than someone else. 
  • Hardaway--I'm getting to the point where, instead of tinkering with a recalibration of expectations, I'm just throwing all preconceived notions out the window and starting with a blank slate. If anything, it makes watching him play less frustrating. Went 3/8 from the field (1/4 from 3), 2/2 from the line. The song remains the same. 
  • Novak--The Mayor of Gritville traveled away to Fayetteville to remind these Ozarkian folks what the best ville-suffixed city is. He did have one charge, but overall these refs seemed to not know how to call the charge, even more so than usual. Led Michigan with 17 and was simply an assassin from the field (6/9 overall, 5/7 from 3). This team is going to be so much less ragey and intense when he's gone and it will be terrible. 
  • Douglass--A very rough day from the field (2/10 overall, a horrible 1/8 from 3), but he did pitch in 5 assists to 1 TO. Maybe I'm confusing him for Vogrich with this, but did seem to get beat more on the bounce in this one than is normally the case. To his defense, Arkansas is a pretty quick, athletic team. Quite honestly, they might end up being the most purely athletic team Michigan has faced all year when all is said and done. 
  • Morgan--Yes, you could say that his point totals are entirely dependent on others finding him wide open near the basket, but he doesn't score those points if he isn't running the floor hard. A great second half of dunks and layups for Morgan...consistently beat Arkansas bigs down the middle of the floor. That's the type of effort we need from him. He's still somewhat hit or miss around the basket when he has to actually maneuver himself around a defender. I would have liked to have seen him take that jumper instead of hesitating before that 3-second call was made. I remember him making a nice elbow jumper earlier this season, and this one would have been just outside of the paint. Now isn't the time to experiment, I guess, but I think the 10-13 footer is a shot that he can make. 
  • Smotrycz--An absolute ghost. Finished with 4 points on 1/2 from the field in 15 nondescript minutes. Did have a pair of offensive boards, including a tip in right after the Novak flagrant foul sequence. Usage is obviously down since entering the doghouse, but 15 minutes is more than enough time to do something, anything. Although it didn't hurt us in the end, having that Arkansas player come across the lane to rebound a free throw from Smotrycz's block is embarrassing from both a technique and an effort perspective. As they are playing now, Smotrycz and THJ are preventing this team from being a a sure thing re: the tournament. 
  • Vogrich--0/2 from the field, was shook by Young pretty badly on one defensive sequence. Dropped a dime on the Novak three before the end of the first half and showed some nice smarts in driving and dishing to a crashing Smotrycz on another occassion, leading to a pair of free throws. Still a painfully limited player, and despite having flashed great range from 3, is shooting 24% from there. 
  • McLimans--Two minutes...not a factor again. Not really a good sign that's he gotten four minutes combined in the last two games, especially with Horford still being out. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Arkansas Preview: Headin' Down South

General Outlook
In their first step toward the Mordor at the end of this two-week stretch, the Wolverines head down to the Ozarks tomorrow to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks in the annual "which one of these is not like the others" game of the schedule. Although I'm sure UM researchers are busily at work as I speak, a portable photovoltaic cell for the capture of raw energy emitted by Denard Robinson hasn't been invented yet, so it would seem that the Wolverines will have to win this one solely on the back of grit and execution.

The End of the Road

Michigan, of course, is coming off of two divergent performances with respect to energy, fire, grit, general oomph, and whatever other descriptor you may prefer. The Iowa game was a disaster, and the MSU game wasn't necessarily pretty but the effort was clearly there from the very beginning. Arkansas, on the other hand, comes in at a somewhat underwhelming 13-5 (2-2), with losses coming to Houston, @Oklahoma, @UCONN, @Ole Miss, and Tuesday's dismantling at Rupp Arena. Houston is currently 9-9 overall, 1-4 in Conference USA play. The other four aren't terrible losses, particularly UCONN and UK, obviously. With that said, this is an Arkansas team that has played several teams with a pulse and come away victorious only once (against a ranked Mississippi State on January 7th). For what it's worth, the Razorbacks did dispatch a common opponent, Oakland, with relative ease, beating the Golden Grizzlies by 23.

With 12 games left for Arkansas after the Michigan game, splitting those would have Arkansas sitting at 19 wins; would a 20th be enough to push Arkansas off the bubble? I'm not sure, especially since my opinion of SEC basketball is about as high as my opinion of dubstep, "Whitney", and Skip Bayless...which is low indeed. A win against Michigan would be a solid feather in the cap of Arkansas's likely-to-be unimpressive (come March) resume. They will play accordingly, and Michigan players must be ready for a lively arena full of grown adults yelling "Woo Pig Sooie" with very little self-awareness or inhibition.

Mike Anderson, trying to make sure that the people in front of him are in fact chanting "Woo Pig Sooie" (HT: Beth Hall, AP)

The Offense 
This game is particularly dangerous simply for the fact that it forces Michigan to prepare for something different, which, in this case, is of course Mike Anderson's famous "40 minutes of hell" approach. It does no use to approach the press like some approach the spread offense in college football (i.e. as a gimmick). It is what it is, and Anderson has implemented his system to great success at UAB(!) and Missouri before coming to Fayetteville this season. He took the Blazers of UAB to a Sweet Sixteen in 2004, and while many will argue that it's a system that has a distinct ceiling that precludes a program from reaching an elite heights, it can be very effective on a game-to-game basis.

With that said, given top notch point play and general experience, the press is something that can be surgically attacked. Kentucky is, well, Kentucky, but the contest Tuesday night was a glorified layup line. While Anderson has had teams execute his system with a quickness and a piranha-esque tenacity that was truly exciting to watch (as long as your team wasn't involved), it doesn't seem that they're quite there yet. Like a lot of SEC teams, Arkansas seems to have some ATH-A-LETES, but they are conceding 65.5 ppg (good for 139th nationally). Guards range from 6'1'' to 6'5'', which could be an issue given Burke's lack of size; some purposeless dribbling and he's trapped. Boom, turnover and points and let's set up and do it again. Of course, Burke is a freshman despite all visual evidence stating otherwise, and this is a road game (Michigan is 0-3 on the road). Naturally, Arkansas is top 15 in steals per game (9.3 per). If Michigan "values the ball," odds are this is not much of a contest.

My impression is that, while I respect Anderson's style of play, it hasn't quite taken root yet. As such, I think Trey et al should be able to handle the press with relative ease. Spot up opportunities from 3 will be available in abundance; Smotrycz, Douglass, and Novak need to connect on these opportunities at a higher rate than they have been of late.

The Defense 
Defensively, the Wolverines should be able to hold their own. As the saying goes, "teams that press don't like to be pressed." That's not to say that we should press, but Michigan should be able to force some turnovers. I foresee Stu continuing his streak of outright kleptomania, getting 2 or 3 steals in addition to his usually solid on the ball D.

Arkansas does score the ball (76.1 ppg, good for 41st nationally), but in SEC play thus far they have only scored  63, 69, and 63 in their last three contests respectively (they did drop a whopping 98 on Mississippi State). This is a team that clearly thrives on the mistakes of inferior or inexperienced and undisciplined opponents, favoring games featuring a high volume of possessions (in this respect, they are the anti-Wisconsin). In their lone win worth writing home about (Mississippi State), the Razorbacks forced 18 turnovers and took ten more shots than the Bulldogs en route to a ten point victory.

I haven't seen a whole lot of Arkansas (as I'm sure is true for most), but they seem like the typical fast/pressing team that struggles in half court sets. The only double digit scorers are 6'3'' freshman guard BJ Young (14.7 ppg) and the 6'2'' Mardracus Wade (11.1 ppg), and it seems that Young comes off of the bench despite being their leading scorer. Both are shooting over 50% from the field overall, with Young and Wade shooting 42% and 49% from 3, respectively. Arkansas's only other 3-point threat is Marvell Waithe off the bench, who is 6'9'' FWIW (39%)...that should be an interesting matchup for whomever draws him.

Arkansas has a generic medley of 6'8''/6/9'' guys, but none seem like anything special. The Razorbacks' rebounding margin is atrocious, sitting at -0.9, good for 222nd in the country. Michigan might give up some second chances here and there, but it shouldn't be endemic or ultimately fatal.

Arkansas's top 5 scorers are guards; saying this is a guard-dependent team is like saying Avatar is an entirely special effects-dependent film, one that would otherwise be a poorly done retread and seriously un-enjoyable on any level without such effects. That is, you'd be right in saying either of those things. Yes, without the guard play you get a Junior Varsity squad that tried to press one game after nothing else worked. Without the fancy guard play and all those explosions you get FernGully.*

*There, I said it.

Who/What To Watch

  • Michigan's three-point shooting in transition.
  • Burke/Michigan vs. the press in the first 5-10 minutes of the game. 
  • The defensive efforts of Burke, Douglass, and THJ against Arkansas's Young, Nobles, and Wade, etc.
Meaningless Prediction
So, this is mostly based on some perceptions based on the statistical data, and yes, a few preconceived notions, but...I get the feeling that Arkansas is a team that will be good down the road, but they're not there yet. The press can and should be handled, as most good teams are capable of doing. Trey Burke has come a long way since Michigan struggled mightily in Charlottesville against a tough, high pressure defensive (albeit not a pressing team) team. Arkansas seems to have a decent amount of youth on their own roster, and not much in the way of post play or a true big. As long as Michigan doesn't completely wilt under the pressure of the full-court press and at least one person shoots a solid percentage from 3, the Wolverines should be able to escape with a road victory. Also, THJ must attack the basket in the post-press-breakdown chaos; any less than 6-8 FTA and I will be somewhat disappointed. Michigan 74, Arkansas 67. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Michigan-Michigan State: Survival of the Fittest

Michigan 60, Michigan State 59

On the heels of a faith-shaking performance in Iowa City over the weekend, there couldn't have been a better opponent to have come into Ann Arbor than this one. Another uninspired performance at home against a rival squad and it would have officially been time to invest in real estate near some hills, to which we would have to run. Somewhat lost in the shuffle is the fact that the Spartans came in with a shiny #9 ranking despite a recent loss at Northwestern; this wasn't Izzo's best or most talented team, but they are contenders once again. The Darwinist order of the Big Ten states that if you don't hold serve at home, you're as good as dead, resigned to the dustbin of history (also known as "receiving an invitation to the NIT"). 

Luckily, to continue the evolutionary/natural selection theme, the Wolverines shed the brittle shell they wore in Iowa City in favor of a much grittier, tougher one at home, a shell that, for one, included a non-starting Evan Smotrycz as part of its makeup (perhaps one of the major culprits in the decidedly un-gritty performance at Iowa). 

The first half was eerily reminiscent of the first half of the Wisconsin game. The Wolverines led the entire half, with the Spartans surviving by using their elongated necks to reach the choicest of produce size to pull in board after board on the offensive end. The Spartans scored 20 of their 29 first half points in the paint, largely a product of corraling 25% of their misses. The Spartans, particularly Wood, were not connecting from outside whatsoever, allowing the Wolverines to pull into the half with a 7-point lead. 

However, it didn't come without some difficulty, as MSU rattled off a 9-0 run late in the half before Stu executed the old-fashioned 4-point play and THJ converted on a pair of free throws. Minus the Spartans' poor shooting, it was a fairly foreseeable half. Michigan came out with energy and knocked down some shots, only to give up some second chance buckets to Green, Nix, et al. Being a Big Ten home game, the Spartans naturally attempted zero free throws in the entire first half (not that I remember any fouls that should've been called). Burke and Appling took turns zipping up and down the court, flashing some serious ESSS EEEE CEEEE speed in the process. Sidebar: this match-up is only going to get better with these two floor generals running the show (assuming, you know, nobody goes pro and whatnot). 

The second half continued to be the Trey Burke show, as the rest of the team seemed to shut it down for a stretch that attempted to squeeze the life out of Michigan's hopes for a victory. The offense bogged down for extended periods of time, leading to a few frenzied possessions extending late into the shot clock only to result in a Burke drive into trouble down low near the baseline.* Michigan found themselves down 4 (57-53) with about 4 minutes left in the game. THJ had another rough outing overall, but he did score two big buckets late to put Michigan down 1 before Burke pulled down a defensive rebound and pushed it down the court with the alacrity of one Derrick Rose, finding a wide open Stu Douglass near the basket. Michigan produced a final stop of one of the most gut-wrenchingly long possessions ever. The ball clanged off the glass and the rim, effectively squashing the memories of Kalin Lucas's late game winner that haunted me just several seconds earlier. Three in a row; GAME BLOUSES. 


Click for one of the greatest things ever (HT: swamyblue)

A win's a win, but like I said after the OT win against the Wildcats...we cannot count on Denard to bail us out every time with his emanations of pure cheer and awesome rays. I mean, superstition dictates that he and Roy have to be at every game from here on out, right? 

It was hard-fought and at times even a bit aesthetically displeasing (especially on the offensive end), but, in conference play, all that matters is the end result. Michigan held serve, and beating a quality Spartan squad sure doesn't hurt. For now, Michigan retains its spot at or near the top of the Big Ten food chain. In LOTR terms, this game was the celebration in the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring, full of merriment, drink, and cheer, yet untainted by what was to come. The next five games, on the other hand, represent the perilous trek to Mordor, ending, of course, with a trip to Breslin. So it begins

/end nerdery

*This is one of the few criticisms I have of him thus far; he seems to put himself in bad spots from time to time by dribbling down into the opponents' bigs near the baseline--about halfway between the hoop and the corner, which is essentially No Man's Land against defensively-attentive squads--or attempting the sometimes dicey pass across the baseline to the other corner. This is a minor quibble, and sometimes the offense just collapses like "a flan in a cupboard", to quote Eddie Izzard, necessitating some seemingly ill-advised dribbling. 

Player Bullets, Also Known As "Trey Burke And Those Who Are Not Trey Burke":

  • Burke--The heading for this section has probably never been more apropos than after this performance. Burke's defensive performance against Jordan Taylor was impressive, but the freshman scored a third of the team's points en route to essentially putting the team on his back last night when it counted. He flashed some range that I previously thought only Vogrich had, hitting a trey from the top of the key while standing just in front of the edge of the M at half court. Twenty points on 8/11 shooting (3/6 from 3), including two steals and two blocks (!) on the defensive end, make for arguably the most impressive performance for the young freshman to date. He did get a little dribble-happy around the perimeter at times, but, like I said, I think that was more a product of the offense just not doing anything and the pick and roll being mostly ineffective (from what I remember) after a few instances of success in the first half. If this was hockey, I'd give Trey, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd stars for this one. Rod Beard asked the question during the game, but I think the answer is pretty obvious: Trey Burke is our best player. I've mentioned this before, but Burke often reminds me of a poor man's Derrick Rose, and a poor man's Rose is still far richer than whatever most teams in college basketball are trotting out. 
  • Hardaway--Another rough performance from the field from THJ. The fact that we won in spite of this is encouraging...I have to think that the light will go on eventually. THJ's early struggles seem to weigh on him in a fashion that affects his play for an extended period of time, leading to a feedback loop that pushes him to take tough perimeter shot after shot. When he did attack the rim, good things happened more often than not (4/4 from the FT line). With that said, he did score two clutch buckets in crunch time, and that's what counts when the dust settles. He also didn't seem to be 100% after coming up a little gimpy early in the game, so take that FWIW. 
  • Novak--Another gritty performance for the Mayor of Gritville (population: Zack Novak). Ten points on 4/8 shooting (2/5 from 3), including two very impressive 2s. The first was his classic jump stop move past a defender in what seemed like a hopeless situation, resulting in an easy bunny. The second, a fadeaway near the elbow with the shot clock running out and a man in his face that dropped in without touching the rim. Tremendous. Only one foul in a game such as this is another point against benching him in future in two early foul scenarios. 
  • Douglass--Got the start over Smotrycz and it appeared to be the right decision. Stu is a limited player in a lot of respects, but his experience was an obvious asset, especially considering that he logged 36 minutes compared to Evan's 10. Nine points on 3/6 shooting (1/3 from 3) four boards and yet another steal lead me to believe that he should continue to start as we head into the Stretch of Doom of the schedule. 
  • Morgan--Honestly, given MSU's size, this was not a game that Morgan would likely have had a lot of offensive success. He did look good early on the pick and roll with Burke, which was encouraging. Was fed a couple other times as well, including one instance when he was unable to convert on that little hook shot in the lane that he often makes. Only four points, but it's very good to see him get involved early instead of being mostly invisible until the second half. I'd like to see us continue to get him involved as such. Despite the Spartans dominating the boards, I thought he held his own defensively (he did also contribute a clutch block of Appling on the final possession, an underrated play in that entire sequence). 
  • Vogrich--A pair of boards, as well as an impressive reverse layup that I didn't think he had in him. Bench minutes were hard to come by in this game, which is going to be pretty unsustainable down the stretch if Michigan doesn't want the starters to wear down considerably. Not much of an offensive impact but he continues to grab some boards and generally not do anything stupid with his minutes. Overall, I've been pretty pleased with his play of late. 
  • Smotrycz--It's fitting that somebody should enter the doghouse for a game in which one Lloyd "Doghouse" Carr was sitting right next to the Michigan bench. It's hard to say how permanent this move will be, but given the lackluster performance at Iowa, and Stu's generally positive play last night, I think he should continue to come off of the bench, working his way back up to more regular minutes. He did flash some quick hands, snatching the ball from a Spartan big twice; did turn it over on the first one while bringing it up the floor on the break, as he is wont to do. Again, he needs to learn what he can and can't do; there's no shame in knowing one's limitations. In the game of basketball, knowing what those are, even if it depresses the ol' stat line, gets you minutes and, eventually, out of the doghouse. On the positive side, he did have two nice takes to the basket, one resulting in a 3-point play. When the 3s aren't falling, we need him to do more of this. His handles aren't good enough yet to be taking it out in the open floor or anywhere in the middle of the floor, really, but he has been surprisingly effective off the dribble from the wing. 
  • McLimans--A bit surprised to only see him get 2 minutes, particularly given MSU's size across the board. I guess it's just a product of the game being close, but, as I mentioned in the Iowa recap, I'd like to see him get a few more minutes, especially in light of Horford's continuing absence. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Michigan-Iowa: You Know They Left Me In An Alley, Took My Money and My Guitar Too

Michigan 59, Iowa 75


It seems that predicting things is not my forte...Phil Steele I am not. I assumed that Michigan had progressed to the point that losses like this wouldn't happen, but I look around the conference and see the Spartans dropping one at Welsh-Ryan and the Hoosiers losing at home to a bottom-third of the conference Minnesota squad and feel a little bit better, but, not by much.

This one will be a little bit shorter and less comprehensive than the other recaps because there are only so many ways you can express "That was bad" while not being completely annoying. Also, there was a certain point in the second half when I was paying more attention to the Hawks-Wings game playing on my computer, and that in and of itself says something.

Of course, there is nowhere else to logically start but Beilein's adherence to the "two fouls and it's off to Siberia for you" game theory nugget. As Ace mentioned on Twitter, Burke is averaging 1.8 fouls a game. Sort of like the "would it have really changed things?" question vis-a-vis Jarrett Lee in the MNC game, there's no way of knowing if Burke not sitting out for as long as he did would have resulted in a win or even a competitive second half. With that said, Michigan was down four when he went out and went on to enter the half with a 10-point deficit. It was never really a game at any point in the second half, either. As much time as I've spent fretting about Burke's heavy minutes in the non-conference, seeing a miniscule by comparison "27" next to minutes played on his stat line--paired with 19 points in that short time--is a little bit frustrating. This is the game in which Beilein's propensity to bench on sight when a player accumulates 2 fouls becomes somewhat of a problem. If Michigan is a team with quality depth, then maybe this isn't a problem; alas, they are not that team. This tactical choice is the basketball analogue of punting from the opponent's 35.

Point the second: the offense and Jordan Morgan. I understand that Morgan is not a pure, back to the basket scoring threat, and he likely never will be. The Wolverines will have to wait for Mitch McGary's arrival to have that as an option. While Morgan has his issues with the ball in his hands, there have been too many games--to the point that it is an out and out trend and not just a product of the "flow" of a given game--where Morgan will only have a couple field goal attempts well into the game. The offense needs to get him involved in some way other than hoping he gets some easy put backs. Iowa's Aaron White, who I thought was Iowa's closest thing to a Jordan Morgan type player, scored 12, largely on the back of 10 attempts from the FT line. There's no reason why Morgan can't be involved in that way. I hate resorting to sports cliches, but Morgan is a player that seems to desperately need to see the ball go in before he starts believing in himself. Otherwise, he is generally invisible, partly due to his skill set but also because he just doesn't see the ball unless it is careening off of the rim after an ill-advised three.

Point the third: road games. In the Middle Ages, serfs commonly never traveled outside of a tiny slice of land throughout the course of their entire lives. While this was the case for a number of reasons--one being that feudal lords were kind of like the University of Texas of their time, personified--one was that the outside world was a dangerous, warring place, and venturing out into it was often as imprudent and likely to yield misfortune as a life of continued miserable agricultural servitude would. The aforementioned was a stupid analogy indeed. Hitting the road has been a dicey proposition for Michigan (as is the case for most teams, even really good ones), but we will have to grab a few road wins at some point in order to keep our heads above water.

As I said in the preview, road wins are quality wins no matter the opponent. This was especially true against an Iowa team that has given us problems of late. No game on the schedule is a gimme (except maybe Nebraska?), and Michigan will need to really bring it against the dregs of the conference if they want to avoid the horrible fate of missing out on a tourney bid. I'm not saying that's a likely outcome whatsoever, but I think Michigan's top 15 ranking has lulled us into a sense of deservedness that just doesn't line up with reality. What happens tomorrow night in Crisler will go a long way toward determining what sort of team we'll be watching the rest of the way.

Player Bullets, Also Known As "Trey Burke And Those Who Are Not Trey Burke":
  • Burke--Insert the aforementioned benching rhetoric. Otherwise, scored the ball relatively efficiently given his minutes, scoring 19 and going 5/6 from 2. Three-point shooting continues to be mediocre, as he went 2/7 from beyond the arc. The much-circulated talking point among various personalities proclaiming that Burke>Morris because of the ability to shoot might be losing a tiny bit of traction, although Trey is still shooting 34% as opposed to Darius's 25% last season. Also, only had 3 assists (Michigan had nine total, compared to Iowa's 18). We are not going to win like that. Morris's ability to simply create space via his frame and a sheer force of will is becoming increasingly missed as the offense completely bogs down from time to time. 
  • Hardaway--After a strong performance from outside against Northwestern, THJ reverted to his previous shooting form, going a turrible 0/8 from 3 and 2/13 overall. The gripes continue to be the same re: THJ's game. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if conference-wide scouting reports tell defenders to sag and dare THJ to take the three from now on. A brief 2-minute period in the second half in which THJ made three trips to the line, with a dunk in that span, gave me hope that he was deciding to enter SEARCH AND DESTROY mode. Unfortunately, that did not happen. THJ's affinity for the 3 is akin to a bag of Costco brand cheesy poofs that aren't very good but your hand keeps going in the bag regardless and then 30 minutes later you realize you've eaten the entire bag and approximately 3,000 calories in the process and your fingers are tinged orange no matter what cleaning agents you use to eliminate it and OH HOW DID THIS ALL HAPPEN SO FAST. 
  • Novak--Ace mentioned on Twitter that there was a play where Zack seemed to be "loafing"...the game is a haze and I don't remember the play in question, but, if true, RUN TO THE HILLS. If Zack Novak isn't being gritty at all times then we have no shot. However, an efficient output of fourteen points on 5/10 shooting (4/8 from 3) might be the lone bright spot of this game. 
  • Smotrycz--A true clunker of a performance, as if this game was meant to be held up as a hyperbolic example of the infrastructural flaws in Evan's game. Smotrycz's stock has crashed precipitously, not unlike Notre Dame football after Week 2 this season. He has become an "X factor," and not in a good way. Rather, his performances have been either "really bad" or "really good" as opposed to steady with occasional bouts of brilliance. We need him to be the latter. Michigan simply has no chance against anybody with Evan putting up a goose egg and THJ going 0/8 from 3. 
  • Morgan--Frustrating to say the least. As mentioned, he will never be a pure post-up threat, but he will never improve upon his admittedly limited bag of tricks if we don't get him the ball in some form or fashion. 
  • Douglass--I kind of want to stop talking about this game but I guess I might as well just hunker down and finish this post. He went 3/6 from the field (2/3 from 3), which is nice if he can keep it going with a modicum of consistency. This might be the time to give him some retroactive praise that I forgot to give him in the Northwestern recap; he did an excellent job defending Drew Crawford. Crawford had a much tougher time after THJ rotated off of him. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not, but he is definitely our best defender. I just wanted to make sure I said that after looking back and realizing that I was maybe overly harsh on his performance last Wednesday. 
  • Vogrich--Zero points, 1 attempted three. Did grab three boards in his continuing quest to be a sneakily effective rebounder. 
  • McLimans--Am I irrational in saying that I'd like to see him get a few more minutes? Not that he's an overwhelming force on either end of the floor, but, he is tall. HE'S TALL, GUYS. When Smotrycz and Morgan comprise the entirety of your team's relevant bigs, you're kind of in trouble. The sky is blue, water is wet, and so on.