Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Season

The character of a season is a funny thing.

It's a feedback loop; you feel good, then better, then better. You feel bad, then worse, and worse. The season in February, May and July is exactly what you want it to be. The season changes by the day as it rocks in the calm and violent waters of the offseason, with all of us on the same vessel, hoping for a future that is bright.

In January, following the post-bowl malaise or excitement, the next season is an unrecognizable blip, a constellation of stars in the shape of something that you can't recognize until someone points it out to assure you that that is the Big Dipper, yes, yes it is.

In February and March, the squeaking of shoes and pounding of the rock drowns out the urge to stargaze for a time. The urge persists, a residual cosmic microwave background of subtle feeling -- it's an ice cream cone you had once on a hot summer day as a kid or the first time you felt something that wasn't a direct product of adult supervision. You know it's out there, was out there, and for a second, you wonder if those facts are even true. Was the ice cream that cold and that good? Did Denard Robinson burn rubber on fields across the Midwest?

In April come the rains -- or, in Chicago, the snow persist, falling lightly upon all the living and all the college football fans. But spring games pop up all over the landscape like so many rogue flowers burying stakes in the unforgiving terrain of sidewalk cracks, yearning for light and water, as is their biological imperative.

And then it all goes away, melting against the return of the sun, which, in these parts, is a nomad of sorts, coming and going as it pleases. The leaves bask in the glow as the thwack of bats symphonizes the song of summer.

In July, the air takes on the smell of bratwurst and flags fly high on the beaches and front porches of America, whistling against the breeze. It is like entering a hall of mirrors, where everything feels familiar yet unrecognizable. Amid the noise, something incubates.

Then August, and boom. The puzzle is missing pieces, but it begins to take shape. Is it too late to go back? Can we go back, to January, April, July? Is it too late to reject the imposition of reality, instead of enjoying a vague, limitless future?

Pads pop and helmets metamorphize, first pristine and gleaming then scratched and weathered. Somewhere in between, football has begun to happen, in Ann Arbor and Columbus and Tuscaloosa, in South Bend and Norman and Los Angeles and Lincoln, in Tallahassee and Knoxville and Austin and Eugene.

On the doorstep of the future, depth charts are no longer things to be hopeful or despondent about; they just are. What you've done is what you've done, and what you are is what you are.

Banners unfurl and bands boom as teams run onto the field for the first time during August's last hours. Things then fall apart, or they don't. There's no in between.

Then it's over.


The air slips out of the whole thing, slowly, then suddenly. Purgatorial January introduces itself, a new subletter you won't take the time to get to know. The snow packs the ground, layer upon layer, blanketing the past in forgetful white. For a time, we slip into amnesia, forgetting what just happened or, a different sort of amnesia, remembering it in some other light, something other than what it was.

The college football fans sees his breath, then it goes away. His shirt is drenched with the rains, then not. Sweat trickles in summer, then not. Then it is time again, to do it all over.

He doesn't find the character of the season then -- no. That comes much later, if at all.

January through August moves with the same rhythm each year. But from August through the first week of January, college football builds its identity for that year, like a child stepping into the world. You don't know what it means to be 18 when you're 19 -- you certainly don't know it when you're 18.

But, years down the road, when you look back and try to push away the fog, try to remember what made one season different than another, you just may know. I don't know what 2013 meant, or the year before it, or the year before.

And when this old season comes to a close, I don't know what it will mean, either. With time, maybe the meaning of the season will become clear, as our lives speed along and memories stick to seasons like barnacles clinging to a boat in a storm.

Then again, maybe each season is just a season, a collection of games dependent upon luck and weather and physiological frailties. Maybe each batch of results is just an agnostic exclamation of uncertainty; maybe Michigan is back, maybe Michigan is doomed, based on so much carefully curated evidence.

More likely, the character of a season is not a statement, but a feeling, a departure from the rhythmic norm of the offseason months. Disappointed in 2005, surprised in 2011, elated in 1997. It's really very simple, when you think about it.

The season is a feeling, years down the road -- I say that with a certainty I admit I might not have. But, it is my choice to make it, so I do.

And, years down the road into the future -- a horizon with all dimensions and none -- the character of the 2014 season emerge, when that feeling becomes clear.

The season itself is an introduction. You say hello and know its name; its character comes later.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion: An Early Look at 2014-15 Purdue basketball

Hello there, it's been a while. If there's anybody out there, I took a few weeks or so off from the blog world after Michigan's loss to Kentucky, partially from spring malaise but mostly because discerning spring football tea leaves or worse, talking about recruiting, isn't really my thing.

In any case, I've started a little preview/retrospective basketball series over at Maize n Brew, which will run each Wednesday from today until there are no more teams to preview (yes, I will even do Rutgers and Maryland).

I started with the struggling Purdue Boilermakers today, who didn't make the tournament for the second straight season and appear to be in for another rough season, barring several guys really blowing up. Could it be Painter's last season in West Lafayette? The best early guess is yes, but when a team like Nebraska can jump up into the top four of the conference, anything is possible.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Michigan's comeback falls short, Badgers knock off Wolverines in Ann Arbor

No. 15 Michigan 62, No. 21 Wisconsin 75

The Wolverines have taken care of business on the road this season, notching wins in Madison, East Lansing and Columbus; on Sunday, Michigan's season became about defending its home court. 

The No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers rolled into Ann Arbor this afternoon with a three-game winning streak, on the heels of a 1-5 stretch. Wisconsin's defense tightened up after that brutal stretch and, lo and behold, the Badgers got back on the winning track. 

However, winning at home (or on the road against a team like Illinois) is a different animal from winning in Ann Arbor against the team tied for the top spot in the conference standings. 

The Badgers clearly came ready to play, as they jumped out to an early 12-2 lead, paced by a pair of threes from Josh Gasser. The script was a little different this time around; this time, the Badgers were the ones shooting the lights out early in the game. 

Meanwhile, Michigan struggled on the offensive end, with just seven points by the second media timeout. Also, as is Wisconsin's defensive style, the Wolverines didn't have a single three-point attempt to their name by that point in the game. 

Michigan had no answer for Frank Kaminsky on the block and the slashing Sam Dekker, either. The Badgers are by no means a great offensive rebounding team --in fact, Bo Ryan de-emphasizes it in favor of getting back on defense-- but UW had six offensive boards through 11 minutes or so of play. If the Wolverines couldn't find a way to clean up on the glass and toughen up on the block, it appeared as if the Badgers were poised to upset them in Ann Arbor. 

Michigan continued to take the long twos Wisconsin routinely offers, but, unlike the matchup in Madison, the Wolverines couldn't connect. More importantly, the Badgers consistently held Michigan to one-and-done. 

With UW dominating every aspect of the game in the first half, the Wolverines might have been lucky to be down "just" 34-19 at the break. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Badgers cruise in West Lafayette, snap 3-game losing streak

No. 9 Wisconsin 72, Purdue 58

When the Badgers and Boilermakers took the floor at Mackey Arena today, both looked to rebound: literally and figuratively. 

The Badgers, after a program record 16-0 start, dropped their last three games (at Indiana, Michigan and at Minnesota). Meanwhile, Purdue rolled into Evanston with a three-game winning streak Tuesday night only to leave with a loss, an ugly 63-60 double overtime defeat. 

While the Boilermakers were not considered to be Big Ten title contenders, a win against a top 10 Wisconsin team would do wonders for its tournament seed (Big Ten and Big Dance). 

As for Bo Ryan's Badgers, a fourth straight loss would not only certainly knock them out of the top 10, it would, in all likelihood , knock them out of the Big Ten regular season title race. 

Unlike UW's trip to Minneapolis, the Bagders had a good deal more pep in their collective step today in West Lafayette. The Badgers jumped out to a 17-6 lead five minutes into the first half. However, the biggest early development was A.J. Hammons going to the bench with two fouls just a minute and a half into the game. 

A few minutes later, UW's Frank Kaminsky picked up his second as well; the Badgers struggled mightily without Kaminsky on the floor in The Barn, so the Badgers' balance would once again be tested. 

The Badgers led 20-13 halfway through the half, and while it was still early, the Badgers' defense was several shades better than it had been against Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota. Thirteen minutes into the half, Purdue was shooting just 35 percent (7-for-20) from the field. 

To make matters worse for the Boilers, Matt Painter rolled the dice by playing Hammons in spite of his foul situation. It backfired, as Hammons picked up his third foul with 9:51 left in the half. Without Hammons on the floor, Purdue would have to make shots from the outside. Coming into today's game, Purdue ranked just 7th in the Big Ten in three-point percentage during conference play (32.7 percent). 

Defensively, Purdue was up to the challenge, particularly after the Badgers' hot start from the field. The Boilermakers went into the half down 32-29, despite not having Hammons on the floor very much at all (zero first half points). 

No. 10 Iowa rolls in Evanston, handles upset-minded Wildcats

Fouad Egbaria

Northwestern 50, No. 10 Iowa 76

When the Northwestern Wildcats and Iowa Hawkeyes in their current forms meet, the difference in philosophy is stark. The Wildcats, like pre-2013-14 Wisconsin, play tough defense and slow the game down. The Hawkeyes want to run, run, run. 

Don't look now, but after a brutal home loss against DePaul and three straight thumpings at the hands of Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, Chris Collins's Wildcats have won three of their last four, including a competitive 54-40 loss against Michigan State. Size, skill and depth isn't quite there yet for Northwestern, but their identity is very clear, a crucial development for a program under a first-year head coach. 

When the Wildcats went to Iowa City on Jan. 9, they lost 93-67, allowing the Hawkeyes to score a whopping 1.29 points per possession. They'd have to do a little better than that this afternoon in Welsh-Ryan if they planned on coming away with their fourth win in five games, a win that would, amazingly, move them to 4-4 in the Big Ten. 

Paced by a couple of early threes from Drew Crawford, the Wildcats did just enough to muck things up so that Iowa couldn't run away with things from the start. By the 12-minute media timeout the Hawkeyes led 14-10; however, in typical Iowa fashion, seven different Hawkeyes had scored to get those 14. 

The Hawkeyes eventually surged to a 23-15 lead--it seemed as if Northwestern's hopes of staying in the game were evaporating fast. 

The Wildcats weren't done yet. A Drew Crawford and-1 with just over a minute left cut the Iowa lead to 28-24. After a Melsahn Basabe jumper in the paint with a few seconds left in the half, the Wildcats went into the halftime break down 30-24. All things considered, that is a win for an offensively challenged Northwestern squad against an Iowa team with scoring options all over the floor. 

Of course, the Wildcats would have to turn up the defensive intensity even further in the second half if they were going to pull off their biggest upset yet. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion Time: Iowa

Michigan left Madison on Saturday with its first win at the Kohl Center since 1999; naturally, it wasn't hard to picture the Wolverines throwing out a letdown game their next time on the court.

Luckily for John Beilein and Co., that was most definitely not the case against Iowa on Wednesday night in the Crisler Center, where the Wolverines defeated No. 10 Iowa, 75-67. As usual, I recapped it over at Maize n Brew.

Michigan is perfect a third of the way through the Big Ten schedule, one of only two remaining squads without a Big Ten loss. The other? Of course, the Michigan State Spartans, Michigan's opponent this Saturday.

Like many will express throughout the rest of this week, after wins at Wisconsin and against Iowa, Michigan is basically playing with house money this Saturday. With that said, a win in the Breslin Center would push Michigan's post-McGary-injury run from "unexpectedly great" to "transcendent." Hopefully the Wolverines learned a thing or two from the thumping they took there last season.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion Time: Recapping Wisconsin

In spite of my extreme skepticism, Michigan went to Madison on Saturday and won for the first time since 1999. As usual, I threw down some thoughts over at Maize n Brew.

It has been over 48 hours since the game ended, and, quite honestly, I'm still a little shocked. Not necessarily shocked that Michigan won, even though I had thought it an unlikely outcome. I was more surprised by how brutally efficient and downright unfair Michigan was on the offensive end. Watching it unfold live, it was almost too good to be true. Michigan's drought in the second half, when the Badgers made the run, was the only indicator of Michigan's mortality in this game. For the better part of two hours, the Wolverines were unstoppable.

This team doesn't have Trey Burke, but that's okay: they've got Nik Stauskas.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion Time: Wisconsin

file photo

Michigan heads to the Kohl Center tomorrow, a place where they've had no success in recent years. The Wolverines will attempt to break a 12-game losing streak at the Kohl Center against the No. 3 Badgers, who are coming off of their first loss of the season, a high-scoring affair in Bloomington on Tuesday.

As such, I wrote up a little something about Michigan's struggles at the Kohl Center over at Maize n Brew.

Also, my standard Wisconsin game preview is also available for your perusal at MnB.

The game tips off at 6:00 ET and will be televised on ESPN.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Michigan hockey heads to Madison for first two-game series against Badgers since 1981

Fouad Egbaria

The No. 8 Michigan Wolverines (10-4-2) head to Madison tonight to take on the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers (11-6-1) for the first game of a weekend double-header. This weekend marks the beginning of the Big Ten schedule for the Wolverines; if you're still holding onto any CCHA nostalgia, this weekend might be a good time to let it go.

The puck drops at 9 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

After spending time in the top 5, the Wolverines dropped down to No. 8 after losing both games at the Great Lakes Invitational against Western Michigan and Michigan State, two unranked teams. It's a long season and letdowns are bound to happen, but this weekend's series at the Kohl Center will go a long way toward restoring the good feelings Michigan had before the GLI.

On the bright side, Michigan does get Andrew Copp back; he missed the GLI while he represented the United States at the World Junior Championship in Sweden. Copp leads the Wolverines with nine goals this season.

Meanwhile, the Badgers started the season being predicted by most to finish second in the new Big Ten hockey league, ahead of Michigan but behind Minnesota. Unfortunately for Mike Eaves and Co., the season to date hasn't gone as smoothly as expected.

The Badgers kicked off the season with a pair of wins against Northern Michigan but then took a pair of brutal losses in Massachusetts on consecutive nights, losing to BC 9-2 and to BU 7-3.

They then lost three of four games at Miami and Minnesota. However, things have turned up for the Badgers since then. Since the 4-3 loss at Minnesota on Nov. 30, the Badgers have won seven of eight, facing Penn State, Colorado College, Alabama-Huntsville and Alaska-Anchorage. In that span, the Badgers did drop their first home game of the season, a 3-2 loss against Alaska-Anchorage.

Just like on the hardwood, the Badgers are a tough out on the Kohl Center ice, and Michigan will certainly have its hands full. On the injury front, Wisconsin will be without sophomore Nic Kerdiles, who is third on the squad in goals with eight (17 points). Senior F Sean Little is also out. Kerdiles' absence is an unfortunate one, as you'd always like to face a quality opponent when they're at their best.

Senior F Mark Zengerle leads the the team in points (20), but has just two goals to his name. Senior F Michael Mersch leads the squad with 11 goals; senior F Tyler Barnes is second on the team with eight goals.

According to Bucky's 5th Quarter, Joel Rumpel is likely to get the nod in net. Rumpel has started nine games (appeared in 10) and boasts a GAA of 1.93 and a save percentage of .928.

Michigan boasts a 4-1-1 record on the road this season, but this weekend's trip to Wisconsin's capital city will present their toughest test yet.
For more, check out Bucky's 5th Quarter's excellent preview. Also check out this MGoBlue piece on the renewal of the rivalry

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion Time: Nebraska

It wouldn't be a Big Ten road game without some late game drama. The Michigan Wolverines moved to 3-0 tonight in the conference, but not without some struggles. Nebraska drove around Wolverine defenders all game, from the pick and roll or 1-on-1, resulting in one of the most frustratingly poor defensive performances since Michigan's loss to Penn State last season.

But, in the end, Michigan had one more point than Nebraska when the game ended, and that's all that counts when you hit the road in this conference. In any case, my recap of tonight's excitement went up at Maize n Brew a little while ago, as usual.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Spartans survive Buckeye comeback bid, hand OSU first loss of the season

No. 3 Ohio State 68, No. 5 Michigan State 72

While the temperatures in the Midwest continue to plummet, the mercury rose when the undefeated No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes headed to East Lansing tonight. The opening salvos? A thunderous dunk by Ohio State, then answered by two straight Spartan threes. 

Although the Buckeyes came in unbeaten, they had not been tested by an especially strenuous schedule to date; a trip to the Breslin Center would change that the minute the ball went up to open the game. 

Neither squad shot particularly well early, but four Buckeye turnovers helped the Spartans jump out to an 11-5 lead about seven minutes into the game. 

The pace picked up, and the Buckeyes rode a 7-0 run to a 1-point lead. Through about 10 minutes, neither team got much going in the halfcourt game; that is, when either of them took the opportunity to pull up and and run some offense. More often than not, the half progressed at breakneck speed, resulting in stretches of sloppy play. 

However, a 7-0 Spartan run at the end of the opening frame sent OSU into the half down 28-21. The Buckeyes shot just 33.3 percent and turned it over 10 times in the first half. 

OSU's leading scorer, LaQuinton Ross, managed just three first-half points, albeit on only two field goal attempts. The Buckeyes would have to find a way to get him involved in the second half if they were going to avoid the sort of the fate they doled out to Marquette back in November

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wisconsin struggles in first half, pulls past Iowa in second after McCaffery ejection

file photo 

Wisconsin 75, Iowa 71

One more win would give the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers their best start in program history (15-0); however, the visiting No. 22 Iowa Hawkeyes posed UW's toughest test yet.

The Hawkeyes, who many --myself included-- have been predicting big things for these last couple of seasons, seem to have finally hit their stride. The Hawkeyes entered tonight's game with a 12-2 (1-0) record, with an overtime loss to Villanova and a 3-point loss at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames the only black marks on their record to date.

Combine Iowa's desire to push the pace and UW's seemingly newfound ability to do so this season and you had all the makings for an up-tempo, decidedly un-B1G game.

The Hawkeyes gave UW problems early with their size, allowing them to jump out to a 9-3 lead, partially helped out by rebounding four of their first five misses of the night.

The Iowa lead ballooned to 15-4, as Iowa had no answer for Iowa on the boards or in transition. Tell me if you've heard this before, but UW's best chance at winning this one seemed to be slowing things down and winning it halfcourt possession by halfcourt possession.

The Badgers started the game 3-of-16 from the field, with Frank Kaminsky converting all three makes. Somehow, UW trailed by just seven after a frigid start from the field.

Things heated up quickly for the Badgers, who rattled off a 13-4 run to pull within two, powered mostly by two triples from Kaminsky and one from Josh Gasser. With a little dribble penetration, the Badgers started to find some open looks. Even so, the Badgers would have to tighten things up on the defensive end, starting with the defensive boards, where the Hawkeyes absolutely demolished them in the opening 20 minutes for an offensive rebounding percentage of 61 percent.

Then again, a combined start of 0-of-9 from the field from Sam Dekker and Ben Brust couldn't continue either if UW planned on walking out into the Madison chill with a victory.

Michigan moves to 2-0 in the Big Ten, tops Northwestern 74-51

Michigan 74, Northwestern 51

The only questions coming into this afternoon's game against Northwestern revolved around Glenn Robinson III's injury status and the magnitude of Michigan's margin of victory against the lowly 7-7 Wildcats. 

On the first point, the Wolverines got a boost when Robinson took the floor as one part of Michigan's starting five. With that question settled, only one remained. 

However, nine minutes into the game, the Wildcats led, 10-9, with the Wolverines having shot just 33 percent and turned it over three times already. 

Northwestern's packed in defense gave Michigan trouble, as the Wolverines couldn't hit their outside shots early in the game. Northwestern's defensive strategy was not unlike that of a World Cup underdog, playing conservatively with one striker and hoping to beat a more talented team 1-0 via one swift counterattack goal. 

Chris Collins's Wildcats did their best to slow the game down, walking the ball up the floor and taking as much out of each 35-second possession as possible. However, Michigan eventually decided it was having none of it, and that's when it started to build up a bit of a lead. 

Michigan went into the half up 31-24, but it felt as if the Wildcats had played Michigan to a tie. Regardless, the story of the first half was Jordan Morgan. The fifth-year big man scored eight points and reeled in five boards while flashing the transition speed that has made him a fan favorite over the years. 

When the two teams stepped onto the floor in the second half, Northwestern would try to keep the game slow, while the Wolverines would once again put the pedal to the metal. Either way, the Wolverines would have play better defense, especially Nik Stauskas. Matched up against NU star Drew Crawford, Crawford scored 13 of NU's 24 first half points. 

Michigan's 1-of-8 mark from beyond the arc also conspired to keep the game close; the Wolverines would have to connect more frequently than that in the second half if they planned on pulling away before the game's final minutes. 

The two teams traded 5-0 runs to start the second frame; clearly, the Wildcats did not plan on going away without a fight. 

Fortunately for the Wolverines, Northwestern's offensive attack could most generously be deemed "punchless." Sanjay Lumpkin missed a layup that would have cut Michigan's lead to four; after that, Michigan slowly pulled away. 

Michigan's offense was far from a well-oiled machine, but its defense did get a little better, as Crawford had zero second half points by the 8-minute media timeout. 

A pair of monstrous transition dunks from Robinson later, and Michigan found itself up by 16 with under eight minutes to play. 

The lead continued to balloon, as the Wildcats simply did not have enough to make a serious push. Northwestern might be a tough team to play in two or three years, but, for now, a last place finish in the conference appears to be a certainty. 

With the 74-51 win, Michigan moves to 10-4 (2-0) on the season. Nik Stauskas led the way with 18 points, while Jordan Morgan played Crazy Eights (8 points, 8 rebounds). 

Michigan heads to Lincoln on Thursday, where they'll face the 8-6 (0-2) Nebraska Cornhuskers. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion Time: Kansas State, Minnesota

It's been a little quiet here of late, but now that Big Ten basketball is underway that should hopefully be changing. In any case, if you missed my last football recap of the season, I wrote about Saturday's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl over at Maize n Brew.

In sunnier news, my recap of tonight's basketball game against Minnesota at The Barn went up at Maize n Brew a little while ago; you can read that here.

If you told me that Michigan would win a Big Ten game on the road without Mitch McGary, without Glenn Robinson III for most of the second half and with Zak Irvin leading the way in scoring, well, I would not have believed you. But, that is exactly what happened. The fearless freshman scored 15 points for Michigan tonight, all from beyond the arc (5-for-8 from three).

A big performance from Jon Horford (14 points, 9 rebounds) paced Michigan in the frontcourt. The Wolverines did not show up on the defensive glass --Minnesota rebounded 46.8 percent of its misses-- but that was by no means Horford's fault.

Michigan will have to do a better job on the glass the rest of the way, but, for tonight, a win is a win. The most important numbers of all are the following: 1-0, Michigan's Big Ten record.