Friday, March 23, 2018

Michigan 99, Texas A&M 72: Thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening

When Michigan raced out to a 9-4 lead, things seemed different — but it was still early.

When that lead ballooned to 27-10, the corners of mouths lifted slowly, buoyed by cautious optimism.

When the Wolverines led 52-28 at the half — oh yeah, that's a paddlin'.

There are almost too many great moments to call out from this game — above all else, the sheer ferocity with which it happened was remarkable.

For a team that is supposedly not a vintage sharpshooting, defense-somewhat-optional Beilein outfit, this one has now on several occasions brandished a palette of ominous hues to paint grandiose pictures of woe and despair. These images were splashed onto canvases left behind at Maryland and Penn State, in New York City, and, now, in Los Angeles, as tokens of great feats, like a contemporary basketball Bayeux tapestry.

One shot falls, then another, then the other team loses its mind in an apocalyptic din, Michigan defenders swatting and swarming and racing. Another shot falls, then another, and in the cruelest zero-sum game, air is duly siphoned from opponents' lungs and deposited into Michigan's own — a physiological transfer of metaphysical wealth.

ESPN shot chart says it all. Michigan picked apart the zone, rained in threes and TAMU failed to respond from beyond the arc.

The opponent is quickly left gasping for air. West Virginia has its press; Michigan has its ability to execute (and now, get in your shirt on defense, whether in transition or the half court). Seven different Wolverines hit a three in the first half; it's not just one guy. 

From the outset, Michigan had no intention on purveying any such air. When you've got a monopoly, it's a brutal supply-demand market for a buyer. The rest of the way, Texas A&M had to give everything it had, living every moment on a knife's edge — comebacks are tiring and costly. That's why they're so remarkable when they happen; so many can chip away and get close, even pulling ahead for a time (for example, Kentucky led Kansas State by one point after trailing for a long time). 

Comebacks are costly, which is in part why so many can look so promising before ultimately dissipating.

The Aggies, however, never had a chance. 

Their version of a comeback journey saw them cut the deficit to 18 points, but that was with just over six minutes remaining. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman hit a triple on the ensuing possession, and Charles Matthews, the best iteration of Charles Matthews (8-for-11, 18 points, 5 rebounds), added a jumper to push the lead back up to 23. 

Did Jordan Poole's buzzer-beating shot against Houston create a break in space and time, granting the Wolverines supernatural powers of precision, speed and strength in the process? Probably not, but there has to be some explanation for how the Wolverines were able to look like a bottom-of-the-barrel offense for two games only to then put up 1.41 points per possession tonight at the Staples Center. 

On defense, Zavier Simpson tallied six steals, two more than the entire Aggies team. Calling Simpson a defensive pest doesn't do him justice; he is a walking harbinger of doom. A&M freshman guard TJ Starks, who will probably be a pretty good player when all is said and done (and was thrust into a much bigger role than he was probably ready for this year) struggled to the tune of 2-for-11 shooting and as many turnovers as points (5). 

It's hard to play when you can't breathe, when mistakes mount up faster than successes and a mulligan is only an option on the golf course when the season is over. 


Had Michigan lost against Houston, there's no doubt it would have been a disappointment. Michigan had surged to a conference tournament title and a No. 3 seed — by definition, anything less than a Sweet 16 would have been disappointment. Such is the way of expectations, which rise and fall with performance. 

Even so, it would have been a disappointment that could have been overcome. Michigan had a great season and with the next class of recruits, the future is exceedingly bright. 

But Poole's miracle shot stopped all of that talk, as he buried one at the buzzer before juking Michigan teammates like Denard Robinson on his fumbled-snap touchdown against Western Michigan. 

It's on to the Elite 8, where the Wolverines will face yet another team fresh off of an upset in Florida State. Michigan will be expected to win, and justifiably so. 

If this tournament has proven anything, though, it's that expectations can be shattered in the span of a 40-minute game. But if this Michigan shows up again Saturday night, it's hard to see this team not making it to San Antonio. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Enter the horizon

We watch sports for a lot of reasons.

Some people do it because it's passed down like a family heirloom. Others watch it to see tremendous feats of athleticism well beyond the realm of the average person — a LeBron James chase-down block, for example, a one-handed catch by Odell Beckham Jr.,  an effortless Lionel Messi jaunt through a pack of hapless defenders stuck in quicksand. Some people watch to pass the time or fill it, like any other hobby, with Super Tuesday representing the arrival of a new set of pages to fill one's scrapbook with minutiae of all sorts.

When it comes to Michigan basketball these days, I watch for one big reason: what comes at the end is usually unrecognizably different than it was at the beginning.

I write this as I look back 11 years, to my freshman year in Ann Arbor, as the Lloyd Carr era came to an end at Michigan Stadium and the John Beilein era began next door at what was then called Crisler Arena. Excited to watch college sports of any kind, I made use of my student season tickets that 2007-08 season, watching a Michigan team short on talent limp to a 10-22 record — including a season-ending 51-34 loss against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals — before punching a ticket to the Big Dance the very next year.

Sports programs don't always work that way. In that sense, Michigan basketball fans have been very lucky for the past decade.

Michigan started this season with promise, but an ugly loss against LSU in November took a bit of wind out of its sails. In that game, Zavier Simpson played just 10 minutes, tallying two assists, two turnovers, four fouls and goose eggs across the rest of his stat line.

You could say things have changed just a little bit since then.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

It'll end or it won't

The season came to an end Monday, not with a bang or a self-propelling jolt but a sad, timid whimper.

I watched the game from the U.K., and the figurative distance between myself and the game eventually matched my literal distance from it — that is, a feeling of increasing detachment built with each second-half mistake.

As the mistakes snowballed — no need to recount them here, nor is it really necessary to talk about the game itself much at all — it became obvious that something had broken. Whether it was the cosmic good will brought to South Carolina via #FryinNanni or something else, Michigan's will withered like an unwatered plant.

At first, I was irritated. The Wolverines blew a big lead and a game they were about five yards away from sealing for good before a Michigan fumble gave the Gamecocks, who trailed 19-3 at that point, new life.

The game ended, and I wasn't mad, really, but annoyed. First, at the result itself. Then, at the fact that I, like many other Michigan fans, considered the bowl game a slam dunk — South Carolina wasn't very good, after all. Unfortunately, they still aren't very good; Michigan was just bad, too.

While my expectations for this season weren't very high — I figured 8-4 or 9-3, and that was assuming Wilton Speight played the whole year — but concluding on such a note is undeniably disappointing.

With that said, life is about nuance, even if nuance is being increasingly whittled out of existence. The sky isn't falling, but 2018 doesn't necessarily offer the prospect of a significantly improved Michigan team, either.

Many, many words could be devoted to a Big Picture assessment of where the Michigan football program is at, but I don't think too many are required to get at the heart of the thing. There are two camps — those expecting Alabama/OSU results right away and all the time versus those who don't. There is no doubt that you could argue Michigan should want better results given Harbaugh's salary (and Michigan's resources, in general), but it's funny how quickly we forget where Michigan was not too long ago.

As a student from 2007-2011, I had a four-year ticket to the beginning of Michigan's descent, when it broke through the floor of mediocrity on its way to a state of being simply bad. I was there for Appalachian State, for Toledo, for every frustrating loss against supposedly lower-level conference foes (not to mention against the upper echelon of the conference).

Things were bad. Jim Harbaugh took a 5-7 team and won 10 games with it the following year, and quite nearly took Michigan to the playoffs in Year 2. Sure, an 8-4 regular-season mark in Year 3 is frustrating, but look at Dabo Swinney's track record (etc. etc.). Things could be much worse than two 10-win seasons and an 8-win year during which just about everything went wrong.

If you weren't expecting a step back this year, that's on you.

It's also on you if you think the bowl game matters in any way (it doesn't, honestly). A 2017 Michigan season that concludes with a bowl win over a not-very-good South Carolina isn't much different than the one that actually happened.

Criticism, however, is justified.

While Michigan's offense was hampered by injuries, offensive line shuffling and inexperience, it would have been nice to see more improvement throughout the year. The power-running game had its stretches, but, overall, Michigan's offensive attack was once again lacking oomph. The coaches should be given credit for a fairly brilliant game plan against Ohio State, especially in light of Michigan's severe limitations, but that sort of schematic advantage was decidedly not with Michigan for most of the year, it seemed.

One would think a wide receiver coach would be a targeted addition. As for the offensive braintrust? Well, it's hard to look at 2017 and not think that some sort of change is needed there. Then again, who knows — maybe an offensive line that couldn't be dubbed "patchwork," a quarterback that can make plays (Patterson?) and more seasoned receivers could make the same guys look smart next season.

As always, every decision has its pros and cons. Just in case you didn't read this sentiment 1,000 times already, but the 2018 offseason will be the most important one for the program in quite some time. Michigan now enters an uncertain void; who knows what will emerge when the Wolverines hit the field in South Bend.

This year has been a busy one for me. From getting married to work to a host of other things, I've had less time for this here blog. I didn't even get to write a recap for every game, which I've enjoyed doing for a while now, whether these things are read or not.

As I've said before, I know the traffic numbers here aren't blowing anyone away, nor is anyone coming here first for Michigan analysis. As such, the venture had better at least be enjoyable to me, or there would be no point.

The exercise of writing is still a joy to me, like watching a Denard Robinson keeper unfold or Don Brown's defense in pursuit, blitzers flashing across the screen like mischievous electrons.

The overall experience of fandom, however, is growing more and more tiresome. The sheer amount of bile from fans, the lack of nuance, the negativity — all with respect to a game played by college kids — is wearying.

I don't care about jokes from rival fanbases — I mean, who cares? That is easily ignored. It's more difficult, however, when it is Michigan fans themselves making the fan experience less pleasant. Sure, the losing doesn't help; at a certain point, though, you've got to just grow up.

Of course, the internet has an overwhelmingly negative role to play in all of this. I have no idea how large-scale fan negativity manifested itself in pre-internet days, and if it was as intense but simply unrevealed. I don't know.

What I do know, though, is a lot of people need to seriously think about what this game means to them, and why it means that, and how those answers inform their reactions to the results on the field. It's a futile hope, I think, but that's what needs to happen.

In 2018, everyone has to be better. Jim Harbaugh, the players ... and you. We all have to be better.