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.