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.

While Moritz Wagner won most outstanding player honors yesterday, Simpson has often been one of Michigan's most important players. After being stuck to the bench early in the season, Simpson's play jolted ahead via the patented Beilein Leap. The 6-foot guard tallied double-digit point totals in Michigan's last five games and, more importantly, left a trail of destruction in his wake on the defensive end, stymying some of the Big Ten's best guards during Michigan's four-day run to its second straight conference tournament title.

Iowa's Jordan Bohannon? He went 3-for-14 for 11 points and three turnovers.

How about Nebraska's Glynn Watson Jr.? 4-for-12, 10 points.

Even the highly touted Cassius Winston couldn't escape Simpson's defensive grasp. Winston went 3-for-10 and 10 points.

Purdue's Carsen Edwards, too, went just 4-for-16 en route to 12 points.

That's a total of 14-for-49 shooting, good for 29 percent.

Some players talk tough. Some players act tough. Some players just do it.

Filling Derrick Walton's shoes would prove to be a tall task for anyone — to Simpson's credit, I don't think he's tried to do that (and nor should he have).

Despite a three-point stroke akin to a Medieval mortar shot and a free-throw percentage that has boggled the mind — it should be noted he did go a combined 10-for-12 in the Michigan State and Nebraska games — the sophomore Simpson has become a true engine of prosperity for Michigan.

As confounding as his shot can be, his ability to finish at the rim despite typically being the smallest player on the floor is equally confounding. On top of that, his confidence has grown in the pick-and-roll game; on several occasions, I let out exclamations of wonder as Simpson delivered perfect feeds down low for easy buckets.

At one point, rumblings that he might have been a rare Beilein recruiting miss were hard to ignore, that he was a MAC-level point guard who happened to get a Big Ten scholarship.

Like many things with Beilein's Michigan, it's foolish to be too hasty in assessment. One month, a player can't do much of anything. The next month, he's worked his way back to the floor.

And, a couple of months later, he's leading Michigan to another banner, visibly frustrating players like Carsen Edwards and strutting like someone who knew it would be this way all along if only you would have just had some patience. 

The aforementioned leap can even be seen within individual games, too.

Look at Wagner's performance by half in the Michigan State and Purdue games; whatever was said at halftime worked, because each second half saw a different player take the floor.

Then you have the interesting cases of Charles Matthews and Duncan Robinson. Matthews led Michigan with 28 points in that aforementioned LSU game, and seemed poised to be Michigan's second-most effective offensive option. However, as he got scouted, things got tougher for the Kentucky transfer from Chicago. Nonetheless, while Matthews hasn't been the offensive player he was in November, he has settled into his role on the team, providing athleticism and defensive tenacity.

Speaking of defense, Robinson is not a player who has been associated with that side of the floor save for negative connotations ... that is, until this season's conference slate, when an unseen switch flipped and Robinson became not only a reliable post defender, but an outright good one.

As others have noted, Michigan's meteoric rise up the team defensive ratings isn't just smoke and mirrors: it's the result of a team of individuals each maximizing their strengths, deployed to advantageous roles. Like Simpson, there was a point when Robinson seemed to be unplayable, with a combination of poor defense and a three-point shot that was uncharacteristically off the mark.

But, like seemingly all things Michigan basketball these days, recalibration after recalibration yielded upward movement, a steady ascent toward the heavens that, in superficially technical terms is called development, but in even simpler terms is called improvement.

You would probably be lying if you said you saw Michigan's shiny defensive ranking coming this season (let alone any other season under John Beilein). But even after decades in the coaching world, Beilein knew a new emphasis was needed, and so each of the last two offseasons he found talented assistants to improve this thing that had otherwise already been functioning pretty well.

The exhilarating thing about Michigan basketball is that this team is unlike any other Beilein has had at Michigan (and maybe even his whole coaching career). That's not to say that previous teams weren't "tough" — in either the true sense of the word or the meathead's sense — but this team ramped it up a notch or two. Things don't come easy for opponents like they used to against Michigan, even in the net-scorching Burke and Stauskas years.

Even Jon Teske, a relatively anonymous big man seemingly unfit for minutes in the Beilein universe, has become Michigan's own version of the types of rim protectors we've watched terrorize college basketball over the years. That's not to say that Teske is equivalent to those guys just yet, but you can't have watched this season unfold and not be excited for what's to come.

On top of all that, a red-faced Teske "popped off" — as teammate Wagner called it postgame — for 14 points against Purdue on Sunday (after scoring a combined 13 points in six February games), including a monstrous dunk that Purdue center Isaac Haas could do nothing to stop.

When it all comes together, it's a thing to behold.

This isn't the Burke-led title game team, or the Stauskas-led Elite 8 team. It's different, and quirkier, and perhaps, in its own way, even more fun. Sure, these words might hit a different note had Michigan lost Sunday, but I think the general melody would still ring through.

This team has a chance to go far in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, in a single-elimination format, all it takes is one off night for the ride to come to an end.

So, if there's anything positive to be said about the conference's scheduling this season it's that, with a new banner in hand, Michigan fans have another week or so to take it all in and appreciate what this team accomplished.

This iteration of the team will exist only once. Next year, there will be new faces, and the train will once again chug along from its starting point toward an unfurling, bright, blue-skied horizon.

The view is beautiful.

No comments:

Post a Comment