Monday, February 4, 2013

Sentimental Education

If I can make it there/You know, I'm gonna make it just about anywhere

Youth is an inherent facet of the college game. It is rare to find a team with a starting lineup stocked with upperclassmen; when such teams are to be found, they are typically either a mid-major or not very good. 

It doesn't seem all that long ago that Michigan was busy dominating all comers in Manhattan and declaring themselves kings of Brooklyn for a night. In between passive-aggressive glances and cigarette drags, area hipsters spoke in hushed tones of Spike Albrecht and his underappreciated work "Four Minutes, Goodbye Appalachia." Those were simpler, rawer times, before all this corporatized, uptight Big Ten stuff. 

In a sense, that is what a nonconference schedule is: a formless sea of conflicting interpretations built on an untenable framework of nothing, by and against nobody you've ever heard of, not unlike an indie album. The Big Ten, on the other hand, is an ordered symphony, at times crashing, at times serene, but thematically consistent and often linear in form if not in plot. If not linear, then its general direction is typically clear: forward, like natural selection adapted to the hardwood. 

That's not to say that the former can't be nice; the non-conference schedule surely was just that. Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Michigan's cavalry of steely-eyed freshmen led Michigan to an unbeaten mark and, more importantly, the promise of something beyond what many of us --myself included-- had ever had the fortune of witnessing on the hardwood. 

Michigan has taken trips to Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio State and Indiana thus far (Northwestern too, I guess--#B1GCats!), all problematic places to play, and has come away with decidedly mixed results in a season that has otherwise been historic in every way. I don't mean to dismiss everything else to date, but wins against some of those teams aren't worth writing home about vis-a-vis any sort of Big Picture, which may not even exist in the world of college basketball in terms of results. In the span of 40 minutes in March, the Big Picture can become just another mundane piece in the colossal jigsaw puzzle that is your average college basketball season. 

Although I have realized over the past year or two that the losses don't really hit me like they used to, there was still a lingering bitterness Sunday. Perhaps it was the lofty No. 1 ranking, perhaps it was the opportunity to grab Michigan's biggest regular season win in some time, perhaps it was the chance to do so against a superb Indiana team, in that hall of mirrors in Bloomington no less, where every corner reveals a distorted and bizarre view of the very self you thought you knew before entering. 

It should be noted that the season promises to be a great one, and that the end is not near. Michigan will win many more games, and I think it is safe to assume that at least a few of those games will take place in some probably sparsely attended venues in March. 

Other than Michigan's occasional tendency to devolve into an NBA-style heroball game (which, to be honest, I'm not necessarily against despite its inefficiency), perhaps it was the mortality of two of Michigan's youth-belying freshmen, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas. Oddly, Mitch "CRUNK" McGary, he of the frenetic game and spontaneous shrug-inducing bursts of "Did I do that?" strength, has been the most consistent of the three insofar as his particular game is concerned. 

Again, this shouldn't be construed as me sounding the alarm, pushing the panic button, or whatever such phrase you may prefer. Rather, it's part of an overall narrative that is obvious but was somewhat buried by Michigan's pristine start. 

Like the divine right kings of old, it's hard to conceptualize your fallibility when you're strolling down Atlantic Avenue with a crown on your head and asphalt covered in rose petals in your wake. 

It's even harder to imagine when placed in the context of Michigan basketball as a whole. The moment has finally come, the resurgence, the return, and how could it be but linear and unstinting? Unfortunately, that is not and will not be the order of things, for college basketball, like football, subsists on chaos, pointed statistical variances and home crowds seemingly unleashed from the bowels of Hell. 

Robinson III, he of the No. 1 ORtg in the Big Ten, looked like just another athlete on Saturday. Of course, it's not exactly hard to understand why. Indiana is very good, Assembly Hall is a place so fearsome that you can momentarily forget your own name amid the din and, most importantly, GRIII is just a freshman. The high-flying 360 dunks would seem to defy the laws of space and time, but one cannot outjump youth. 

Similarly, Nik Stauskas (NJAS), he of the Big Ten's No. 6 ORtg, is even more prone to bouts of freshmanitis, given his perimeter-oriented game. After all, the rims do get smaller on the road, and I won't wait for scientific inquiry to prove this fact. On Saturday, our favorite Mississaugan went just 3/10 from the field and 1/5 from beyond the arc. That will happen. 

Even Trey Burke, the heart and soul through which this team draws its every breath, is a mere true sophomore. For all his brilliance, we would do well to remember that he is still very much learning what he can and cannot do, what he should and shouldn't do. 

With trips to Michigan State and Wisconsin still on the docket --in addition to home dates against Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana-- there is still room within the amorphous bubble that is college basketball to explore. College basketball is like writing; you don't always get it right, and it is often glaringly so when that is the case. 

On the bright side, it can be a self-correcting mechanism in this way. Unlike seasons gone by, it isn't as if Michigan failed at OSU and IU and didn't have the means to answer back, or, pre-Beilein, didn't know how to. In both games, Michigan rallied back and even had the chance to win despite stretches of frazzled play. Now, Michigan has the pieces to beat anyone, but the challengers are numerous and the divine right that seemed a mandate within the boundaries of the five boroughs has become far from unassailable, if it ever was that to begin with. 

Ohio State. Wisconsin. Michigan State. On a practical level, this upcoming stretch will help to determine Michigan's tournament seeding (Big Ten and Big Dance) and the level of assistance it might need to bring home another regular season conference title, preferably unshared. 

Thematically, there is much more at stake, for Michigan's freshmen and non-freshmen. The next three games will begin to reveal just how far-reaching this sentimental education can be, for the players and fans alike. 

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