...talks about how UConn hasn't been in contact and how they're out. (HT: UMHoops)
high, and low
Getting stopped was the straw that broke the camel's back. Press release:
University of Michigan head football coach Brady Hoke announced on Tuesday (Jan. 17) that wide receiver Darryl Stonum has been dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules.
"I love Darryl and wish him nothing but the absolute best," Hoke said. "However, there is a responsibility and a higher standard you must be accountable to as a University of Michigan football student-athlete. That does not and will not change. It's unfortunate because I believe he has grown a great deal as a person since the beginning of the season. My hope is that maturing process continues."
Stonum started 25 of 36 career games at U-M, catching 76 passes for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns. He also returned 62 kickoffs for 1,538 yards and holds the single-season kickoff return mark with 39 returns for 1,001 yards in 2009. Stonum redshirted in 2011.
"I appreciate everything the University of Michigan, Dave Brandon and Coach Hoke have done for me," said Stonum. "I look forward to continuing my football career down the road, but more importantly, right now I'm focused on graduating from Michigan this Spring. I understand only I am responsible for my actions. I'm sad about how all of this turned out, but I completely understand. I love this school and my team and will miss them all greatly. But I'll always be a Wolverine. I know I have grown and matured as a person over the last nine months, and I will continue to learn and grow every day. I want to thank everyone for all of their support, and I hope they will support me in the future."
Michigan now has a major hole at outside receiver with the departures of Stonum and Hemingway. Roy Roundtree will start at one spot; the other spot will either be Jeremy Gallon, Jerald Robinson, Jeremy Jackson, or some freshmen. Gallon will be needed for slot duties, so inevitably this puts Robinson and or Jackson on the field for a bunch more snaps. Probably Jackson; since Jackson is very much a possession type that will expose Michigan to the same sorts of athleticism issues that plagued them in the Virginia Tech game.
If Michigan knew this was coming it makes the Arnett situation strange; it was always strange they didn't take Devin Lucien last year; this may open up a spot for OH WR Monty Madaris, who is scheduled to visit next weekend and suddenly has a wide open depth chart to luxuriate in should he want to don a winged helmet. CA WR Jordan Payton committed to Cal at the Army game only to see his recruiter hired at Washington; Hoke has an in-home with him scheduled.
Yesterday, I highlighted one of the main issues with Michigan's offense in recent games: their struggles with the hard hedge against the pick and roll. When the Wolverines—especially Trey Burke—run a high screen, opponents have found success by having the man guarding the screener provide a strong double-team on the ballhandler, limiting his ability to drive to the basket and making passes into the post difficult.
There are several ways to counter the hard hedge, as discussed yesterday in both the post and the comments (thanks to all of you who added your thoughts—I'm not a basketball coach, so any additional knowledge about the game is very valuable). One such counter, brought up yesterday by MGoUser Kilgore Trout, is to get the opponent to commit to the hedge and then immediately cross back over, which should create an opening for a pass to the near-side corner.
Though he didn't execute it perfectly, and the play didn't result in a basket, Tim Hardaway Jr. provides a decent example of how to do this, and you'll be able to see the possibilities it opens. With teams over-committing to the screen, something inevitably must open up, and in this case several holes emerge in the defense. Here's the setup, as Hardaway has just received a pass from Trey Burke:
As you can see, Hardaway has the ball on the left wing, and Jordan Morgan is setting an off-ball screen for Douglass in the middle of the court—Stu will head to the near-side corner and Burke will clear out to the high side on the opposite side of the court so the team maintains proper spacing. Now that the team is properly spread out, Hardaway calls for a screen, and Morgan makes his way over:
Hardaway starts to dribble towards Morgan, but as soon as Melsahn Basabe (#1, guarding Morgan) jumps out to hedge, Hardaway makes a quick crossover dribble back to the near side—this is exactly how you want to counter Basabe's aggressiveness in this instance, especially with Hardaway's man already attempting to fight over the pick:
This opens up several possibilities. If Morgan was ready for the crossover, he could crash hard to the basket, forcing the defender guarding Douglass to slide down and vacate the corner or give up an open dunk (or the defender guarding Novak could do this—either way, a open corner three should be there). Morgan doesn't roll hard, likely because he hadn't fully set the screen when Hardaway made his move, and also because Hardaway will drive to the lane himself. Hardaway's drive accomplishes what Morgan's roll would do—force the near-side defender to commit, leaving Douglass alone in the corner:
Unfortunately, what you see above is where this particular play doesn't work as well as it should. Hardaway picks up his dribble before he gets into the lane, so when he passes to Douglass, the sliding defender still has time to get back out and force Stu to drive. I think if Hardaway takes another dribble, it would create enough separation for Douglass to get an open three, a much-preferable option in Michigan's offense (and especially with Stu, who's much more comfortable as a stand-still shooter than a slasher). As it is, the defender is able to get out on Douglass, and Stu drives and misses a pull-up jumper in the paint. Full video of the play:
As was pointed out yesterday, the biggest problem here isn't the play, but the execution. If Morgan dives hard to the basket, or Hardaway penetrates further into the paint, this play likely results in a bucket. Instead, Douglass is forced to settle for a contested fallaway in the lane when he doesn't have the space to get off an open three. If Michigan can execute this adjustment with a little more precision, however, it should help keep opponents from over-committing to the hedge defensively and allow the Wolverines to run the pick-and-roll more effectively.
A quality Michigan State team is brutalist architecture, all extruded concrete and towering bureaucracy. There is a rebounding tax for every possession. There is a paint tax. There is a three-point tax. There is never, ever a refund and you must get that basket stamped in triplicate.
This has transpired this year. The next section has all the numbers, but rest assured that this is a team that will brutalize you on the boards and pound you on the interior on both ends of the floor. Hope you like Blake McLimans, because Jordan Morgan will have two fouls in the first five minutes.
Anyway. The MSU offense runs through senior point-forward-type-guy Draymond Green and sophomore PG Keith Appling, who is currently in the midst of a Morris-like second-year leap. You probably know about Green: he's a roly-poly shortish post with great range (41% from three) and court vision. He is a monster rebounder, grabbing 25% of opponent misses when he's on the floor and 9% of his team's whiffs.
Appling has been a revelation after a freshman year during which he was mostly a defensive specialist. He's shooting 52% from two, gets to the line, and has an excellent assist rate; while his turnovers are a bit of a problem he adds up to an efficient, high-usage player on the whole.
There is no clear third banana a la Smotrycz. Instead there is a horde of six players averaging at least 45% of MSU's minutes who are not the stars. They are:
- Valpo grad-year transfer Brandon Wood. Kind of sucks for Valpo that they lose the best player in their league before his senior season; Wood is a good three point shooter who is also hitting nearly 60% from within the arc; he has a solid assist rate, low turnovers, and cracks the top 100 in Kenpom O-rating.
- Derrick Nix and Adriean Payne, the two-headed center. Collectively they rebound 12% of MSU misses, which is a lot. Their offense is Morgan-like: high efficiency shots someone else gets them or they generate with offensive rebounds. Straight post-ups are more frequent than they are in the Michigan offense. They are still not frequent.
- Freshman burlywing Branden Dawson, another punishing offensive rebounder with low usage outside of putbacks. He's not Green—he does not shoot 3s and is hitting 59% of his FTs—but he's just a freshman.
- Freshman Travis Trice, a combo guard who is MSU's best three-point shooter but has struggled inside the line.
- Senior gritty gritterson Austin Thornton. Low usage, bad shooting, inexplicably high FT rate.
MSU's steady diet of putbacks evens out usage numbers into a great flat plain after Green, FWIW.
So, yeah. This is a large team that crashes all of the boards and has great eFG numbers on both ends of the floor. Surprise!
THE TEMPO FREE
Kenpom loves MSU almost as much as Wisconsin and for the same reasons: pounding blowouts of bad teams. MSU against low majors has equaled 35, 22, 32, 42, 20, 14, and 35-point wins. That's not quite as dominant but MSU hasn't started the Big Ten slate off 3-3, so people aren't asking Pomeroy annoying questions about them.
Their four factors are so Izzo:
|Effective FG%:||52.7 (48)||43.5 (23)||48.9|
|Turnover %:||20.0 (134)||21.3 (143)||20.8|
|Off. Reb. %:||39.4 (13)||27.0 (16)||32.5|
|FTA/FGA:||39.8 (97)||35.3 (147)||36.6|
Crawl a bit deeper and you get even further down the Izzo hole: a block percentage of 14% places them in the top 30; they are shooting just 27% of their shots from 3. They yield a ton of low-quality long shots because going inside… eh… not the best idea.
State has bounced back from their disappointing season of a year ago, whipping off a 15-game win streak after opening the season with a noncompetitive loss to North Carolina (ON A BOAT) and a five-point loss to Duke that wasn't much more competitive than Michigan's. Then they waded into the usual array of teams starting a one-armed Prussian who died in 1894 at center, and crushed them all.
Amongst the Prussians were two quality teams. MSU whipped FSU at home in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and won by seven at Gonzaga. Those teams are 28th and 29th in the Kenpom rankings, FWIW; Michigan is 35th.
In conference, MSU has home wins over Iowa (by a ton) and Indiana (by 15), road wins against Nebraska and Wisconsin (the latter in OT). Their most recent outing was a seven-point loss to Northwestern that made Michigan fans feel a lot better about the usual debacle that transpires whenever Michigan visits Carver-Hawkeye.
Yeah, that's basically [SCREW YOUR FIRST NAME SPELLING ARGH] Payne.
For the love of God, rebound. Obscured in the Morris get-off-my-flooring last year was the fact that MSU—surprise!—brutalized Michigan on the boards. At Crisler, State rebounded 38% of their misses while allowing M just 12% of theirs. While things were considerably more even in East Lansing, MSU still had a 26%-22% edge.
Now that MSU has repaired the horrendous backcourt situation that turned last year into a struggle, there is no way in the thousand hells Craig James is destined for that Michigan wins the game if they are blown out like the last time these two teams met at Crisler.
The good news for Michigan is they're suddenly a quality defensive rebounding team… as long as Smotrycz is on the floor. About that…
For the love of God, stay out of foul trouble. With Horford out the only backup with any size is Blake McLimans. While he's been serviceable in short bursts lately, his usage is minuscule and Michigan often goes small with Smotrycz at the five when Morgan gets in trouble (or Smotrycz gets in trouble). I can't imagine that's an option against MSU's extruded concrete. The over/under on McLimans minutes in this game is 15. I'm betting on the over.
If Smotrycz is the guy who's out that either puts Novak on Green—actually more plausible than most Novak-PF matchups—or forces McLimans and Morgan on the court simultaneously, whereupon one of them will pick up three fouls in ten seconds. Either of these things seems to be asking for it.
Find a way to generate shots off of something other than the pick and roll. Curl screens for Hardaway, Burke driving to the bucket to dish, Smotrycz shooting over the smaller Green, Morgan… uh… watching other people generate shots… something. Because MSU will hedge just as hard as everyone else has and then it's one-armed backwards three-pointer time.
Tim Hardaway, Jr.: go to the basket. Wot it says on the tin. Also, if you could rebound like a mofo that would be good.
THE SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
State by four.
BONUS heebie-jeebies: this may be the effect of the last couple games overriding reason but, man, I am not confident here. I think the matchups overrule the numbers and Michigan's shooting from the interior will be ugly, which means three-point shooters can be covered with impunity, and… like… the boards. The boards after the inevitable big man foul trouble. /cowers
We all know it matters. Otherwise there wouldn’t be four major recruiting sites, countless team-specific recruiting blogs and grown men tweeting and facebooking 17 year old high school males, and breathlessly refreshing message boards for the next 14 days.
The question I want to answer is how much does it matter, and where do the numbers play out the most? How much of team success can be predicted based on recruiting profile of the present roster (not the JUCO-stuffed 38 member SEC class that the majority never shows)? Do recruiting services do a better job of predicting offense or defense? Which is more likely to win you conference and national championships, the 5 star running back or the 5 star linebacker?
I have created a complimentary recruiting database that links into my PBP database. For a source I picked Rivals because I wanted to keep it relatively straightforward and they have a full 10-year history online. I only looked at the players who were ranked at their position. Each year that is about 1,000 players and virtually every signee from a major program. Anyone not ranked for their position was omitted. I only have comprehensive rosters for all teams for the last three years, so for that time period I did my best to link the two DBs together. I am sure there are a few that I am missing but I think I got all the Dee Harts linked up with Demetrius Harts and all the other weird things that happen to a recruit's name between recruitment and the official roster.
Each recruit is given an initial value. The value is roughly
[Percentile within position] * [# of stars] ^ 2
So a 5 star #1 at his position recruit is worth about 25 points and a 50th percentile 3 star would be worth 4.5 pts. The initial value is then adjusted based on how long the player has been in the program.
The recruits are then matched up with the final rosters. Players are only counted if they are still on the roster. So any players that have transferred, left school or gone to the NFL are excluded from the totals. The only major gap is transfers. For ones I knew of right away like Cam Newton or Ryan Mallet, they only count at their final school. Most other transfers will only show up at the original school for their time there and then disappear from the grid. Players are then given a “bonus” multiplier based on their experience. Players' initial values are doubled from their first year to their second year and tripled for every year after that.
That’s a lot fewer words than hours put in but in a nutshell, that’s the background for what I will show you below. The magnitude of the points isn’t relevant, all you need to know is the more points the better.
Answer Your Question Already
When you start talking to yourself within an article on mgoblog, there is only one appropriate response, CHART
Lot’s of variation within the numbers but definitely a strong correlation between recruiting points and team PAN [ed: points above normal, the Mathlete's SOS- and situation-adjusted stat]. For all the charts I put up the data will be BCS schools from 2009-2011. Recruits prior to 2009 will be included, but only the actual seasons of play from 2009 on.
There have been some really good seasons from teams with <1,000 pts like Oklahoma St this past season (896). There have also been some mediocre season from teams with 3,000+ points like Texas in 2010 (3,082 pts). But all in all more recruits is better, but we already knew that. So let’s dig a little deeper and see if recruiting rankings mean more for offense or defense and if any position groups are better indicators than others.
Who To Trust, Offense or Defense
Moving to specifics can become a bit more of a challenge. To ease that, I counted every recruit in the position they play, not the position that they are recruited for. They keep the same point total they would at the original position, it just counts in a different bucket. Whether its a WR moving to DB or an ATH finding a home, the points are set based on the initial group ranking, but they are allocated based on the roster position. On to the offense.
The correlation is still there, but it is much weaker for the offense as opposed to the team as a whole. In fact, most of the best offensive seasons were accomplished with relatively average recruiting talent. The ultimate loaded team, 2009 USC, only managed a 3.3 on offense with 10% pts more than any other team I have measured. Teams like the latest incarnations of Michigan and Oregon were able to achieve double digit offensive PAN without elite offensive recruiting classes.
Defensive recruiting is much more correlated with defensive success than offensive. The slope is nearly double and the R-Squared is much greater as well. There are still exceptions like 2009 Florida St who was almost –10 PAN despite over 1,000 defensive recruiting points. There is still success on the lower range but overall there are fewer failures at the top and less success at the bottom of defensive recruiting rankings.
Based on this data, system, player development and finding diamonds in the rough are more prevalent on offense than defense. On defense there is some variation but for the most part you are who you recruit. Unless you hire Greg Robinson and even your Never Forget roster still has 853 points to “earn” a –7 on the season.
The Best Position To Be In
Since the defense as a whole proved to be the most predictive, let’s look there first.
Being a good defense is all about your weakest link and based on that philosophy, you shouldn’t be surprised to see all positions play out relatively equal. None of the position groups is significantly better or worse than another at predicting defensive success.
Offense is where it really gets muddled. O-Line, tight ends and receivers all are moderate correlations between recruiting and offensive success and running backs (as I’ve stated elsewhere) are the most overrated position in football. Quarterback is far and away the highest correlation to offensive success of any position. Even with that QB, is still below all of the defensive positions when it comes to future success on that side of the ball.
How recruiting matches up with success varies greatly by conference. Rather than throw up six more charts, I just put the R^2 values in a table:
Recruiting has virtually no correlation to success over the last three years in the Big East and the PAC 12 but for the other four conferences it's anywhere from a little (Big 12, land of Red River and everyone else) to a lot (the ACC and the SEC).
The Big Ten is in the middle; Ohio St has dominated at the top of both recruiting and success but Michigan’s underachievement and Wisconsin and Nebraska having strong seasons without top tier recruiting classes have thrown in enough variance to disrupt the correlation.
Your 5 Star Takeaway
Recruiting rankings have a huge correlation to future team success, especially on defense. Great teams can come from average talent, but more talent typically means more success. On defense it is virtually impossible to build an elite defense without elite recruits, and its equally true across all defensive positions. On offense dreams of 5 star skill position players are fun, but coaching, player development, system and luck play a much bigger role in future success than they do on defense. With top 20 and higher recruits at nearly every position on defense, Michigan is poised for a very strong future if they can keep the talent around.
This was Brady Hoke's first year at Michigan. Music was awesome because a) I was a sophomore in high school, and b) it was just way better than the music when you were a sophomore in high school. Michigan players wore deep dark navy mesh jerseys that stretched tight over massive shoulder pads and neck rolls, and exposed their abs. Most of the incoming Class of 2012 was born. And in 1995, Lloyd Carr took over for Gary Moeller in a move most everybody thought was temporary.
Had the internet at the time been more than BBSs that you logged into over 14.4 baud modems the general fan meltdown might have been better saved for posterity. A lot of folks thought Bo oughtta step back in; I mean you don't go from Schembechler, to his longtime heir apparent, to the affable defensive backs coach with a penchant for quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson. Some tweed jacket might have said it was like going from Henry (Plantagenet), to Richard, to John.*
* OT rules don't cover comments section, so if any of you want to talk Angevins, it's on!
As an officially interim guy (and not a candidate in the initial coaching search), Lloyd built his staff more like a Luke Fickell than an Urban Meyer: no big-name hires, no extra budget, just mostly everybody from the '92 shakeup moving up. The RB coach (Fred Jackson) became the offensive coordinator. The DL coach (Greg Mattison) became the DC. Longtime linebackers coach (really our recruiting guru before that was a coaching position) Bobby Morrison became OL coach, replacing the departed Les Miles. Oregon State DL coach Brady Hoke, hired only a few months ago by Moeller, whom Mattison knew from Western Michigan and Lloyd knew as the dude who was always hanging around Michigan's summer camps, was given just the DEs. Mattison retained the DTs. Carr's additions were DBs coach Vance Bedford out of Oklahoma State, and former Michigan receiver Erik Campbell, who had been an RBs coach with Ball State and Cuse but was given the receivers.
The cupboard at the time wasn't bare, but there were some key losses. Michigan would have to replace senior QB Todd Collins, starting RB Tyrone Wheatley, All-American CB Ty Law, and 1st round draft pick OT Trezelle Jenkins, as well as heart and soul linebacker Steve Morrison. Also gone was nose guard Tony Henderson, OLBs Trevor Pryce, Matt Dyson, and Kerwin Waldroup, and starting short corner Deon Johnson. Still, we were Michigan fans and expected better than 4-loss seasons.
It started in the Pigskin Classic, which back then was the only game that could be played Week 1, and the only way a team could play 12 regular season games. By some golden poop magic, Scott Dreisbach led Michigan back from down 17-0 to 17-12. That afternoon I was in driver's ed, doing the last training hours I needed to graduate, and we were listening to Brandstatter on the radio; at this point the instructor very kindly had me pull over in a Wendy's because I looked like I had to pee. Then on 4th down with 4 seconds left in the 4th quarter, Dreisbach found Mercury Hayes in the corner of the end-zone.
The rest of that year wasn't so 2011-ish. Dreisbach, a Henne-level recruit, was freshman-y maddening for five games, then he got hurt and a walk-on, Brian Griese, finished the last 9 games. Meanwhile the defense got so banged up that only one guy (Jarrett Irons) managed to start all 13 games (true freshman cornerback Charles Woodson, who earned his first start in Game 2, is the only other guy to start 12). We lost to Northwestern because Northwestern was weirdly doing that to everyone in those days (at the time I didn't feel this). We lost to Michigan State after MSU caught a late 4th down pass out of bounds and a yard shy of the marker, and this was ruled a 1st down. We lost to Penn State after they executed a perfect fake FG late. But Biakabutuka ran for 313 yards to beat No. 2 Ohio State (WH)…
…and it was good. Carr was given the job, and despite all expectations to the contrary just a year earlier, his assistants got to keep theirs. Over time he also won over most of the fans who'd doubted him.
Does this mean we'll have a functional DL? There's a story here that's not part of the Emerson-Quoting Good Guy Makes Good storyline, nor the Omigod-This-New-Cornerback(!) storyline. Behind the new Era of Good Feelings was some particularly good news coming from the defensive side of the ball. Michigan in '95 held opponents to 93.2 rushing yards per game, and 88.1 ypg in a Big Ten at its apex. This was an improvement from 112.3 ypg in 1994, which also happened to lead the Big Ten. Michigan in '95 also led the Big Ten in total defense (314.5 ypg) for the first time since 1990. Points per game dropped from 19.3 (38th) to 12.0 (14th). This was despite losing Law and much of the front seven, and changing formation. Carr in '94 was running something like the 3-4 thing that was in vogue during the late exposed-belly period, and looked more like a 5-2. Missing all those 3-4 OLBs, Mattison switched to something like a 4-3 over that let murderous dudes with names like Steele and Irons and Swett and Sword hunt down ballcarriers.
This plays out a bit in the percentage of Michigan's tackles made by position:
|DBs||King, Sanders, Anderson, Thompson, Winters, Noble, Johnson, Law||39.4%||King, Winters, Ray, Hankins, Thompson, Woodson||37.2%|
Since interior DL is where we're petrified this year, let's look there. Mattison turned William Carr into a double-team-demanding nose guard, freeing Jason Horn to go from All-Conference to All-American. Horn was the first of four All-American interior defensive linemen on that team: Carr in '96, Glen Steele in '97, and (then redshirting) Rob Renes in '99. From there they turned Bowens, and then James Hall into rush WDEs, and Ben Huff and Josh Williams into quiet pluggers on some of the great Michigan defenses. They recruited the next generation of specialty guys: Rumishek (who as All-Conference as a senior), Shawn Lazarus, Eric Wilson, Norman Heuer, and the chef doeuvre of the Hoke school for hard-nosed nobody DTs, Grant Bowman.
The positional tackle rates for the 2001-'02 defense is eerily similar to another of recent memory:
|8||DBs||June, Curry, Drake, Shaw, Marlin, LeSueur, B.Williams, Howard||44.7%||June, Shaw, Drake, Combs, Curry, LeSueur, M.Jackson||42.5%||Kovacs, T.Gordon, Carvin, Floyd, Avery, T-Woolf Countess||46.3%|
Obvious difference between future Jet Victor Hobson and Ryan/Beyer – it seems Demens, RVB and Kovacs split that difference. Maybe the SDE thing is a trend but this doesn't say very much; Dan Rumishek was All Big Ten in 2001, and yet wasn't the guy making tackles. From this however I think I'm starting to get an idea of what a Hoke defensive line is supposed to do. The defense pivots on the SDE and NT, and then everybody collapses toward the ball with the DT handling cutbacks and the WDE a common late arrival.
Mattison left in '96, and Hoke, who took over the whole D-line in '97, departed for Ball State after the 2002 season. By then he'd helped recruit planetoids Gabe Watson, Larry Harrison and Alex Ofili, as was as the too-high Pat Massey, but their generation didn't take over until 2004, when Bowman, Heuer and Stevens graduated and Michigan went with a 3-4 again to give LaMarr Woodley a running start (the only other time in memory before this year that Michigan replaced all three of its interior DL).
Unfortunately I can't provide any better evidence that the return of the 1995 D-Line staff will be enough to make a functional defensive line out of Q-Wash, Campbell, Ash, Brink, and some freshmen. But the track record is real.
1/13/2011 – Michigan 4, Ohio State 0 – 13-8-4, 7-6-4 CCHA Gongshow
1/15/2011 – Michigan 4, Ohio State 1 – 14-8-4, 8-6-4 CCHA Gongshow*
[sitebulletin: I'm going to be in a car driving for most of the day, unfortunately. I thought I would be able to avoid doing this during the posting day but it turns out I have to get back to town earlier than I thought I would. Apologies. Basketball game column can be ably summarized by searching for "temper tantrum" on youtube.]
*[This is not an endorsement of the CCHA's advertiser. But seriously folks, "CCHA Gongshow" is impossible to pass up now that I know they did it to themselves a year after they unsuccessfully attempted to keep their conference from imploding. We have a new leader in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment-memorial most craven naming-rights sellout competition.]
head up. you are feeling totally copacetic, man
I'm not saying that Jon Merrill's suspension was a deviously ingenious experiment designed to turn a large group of people into connoisseurs of the little nuances of defensive play. The only reason I'm not is because I can't think of a motive.
Because even if that connoisseurship is a side effect, it is real. In the second period yesterday, Merrill made a clearing attempt, got it blocked, got bashed by a forechecker, and then whipped a hard pass to Alex Guptill's tape in a situation where 90% of college defensemen start breathing into a paper bag or bawling for their mom. Billy Jaffe, one of the the uncommonly useful color guys for Sunday's game, exclaimed "that's the move!" afterwards, and I was like "YES THAT IS THE MOVE." Later they put up a replay of a pass that never got out of the defensive zone.
The thing that Merrill gives Michigan is breathing room. Sure, he's piling up assists at a PPG pace and whipped a breathtaking breakaway pass to Phil Di Giuseppe on Sunday. These are nice things. They are intermittent, though. What's constant is how a game feels when Merrill's on the ice: calm, spacious, steady. Smooth like Billy Dee Williams with his Colt .45.
Jon Merrill is the Billy Dee Williams of hockey. Forecheck hard and Merrill will take the hit with his head up and make the move. Back off and Merrill is capable of going tape to tape in small windows over long distances. Instantly Michigan switches from reacting to a forecheck to forcing the opponent to react to it.
I'm not an expert on hockey. I came to the game when I was ten and haven't put in the UFRing required to get me to the extremely-informed-amateur level I am with football. In hockey, that feel is all I've got. It's done a 180 since Michigan picked itself up after the Alaska series thanks first to the emergence of the Guptill-Wohlberg-Brown line as a true #1 scoring unit and now Merrill's return turning the second (first?) pairing from a third unit trying to cope into a major strength.
On Sunday, Michigan felt elite for the first time this season. They outshot a 14-4-3 team significantly, dominated time on attack, and hardly gave up an even strength scoring chance, let alone a goal. Moffatt and Treais flashed dirty dangles and walked in on Cal Heeter. Heeter got chased halfway through the game.
It was a throwback to times when Michigan won hockey games without requiring nuanced views as to why this might have happened. (See: last year.) They won because they bruised every inch of two different goalies and, with limited exceptions, spent the whole game in the offensive end doing fun things.
This isn't all Merrill—half of Michigan's 6-0-2 run has come with Merrill observing or playing at the WJC—but with him around it seems more plausible that Michigan's recent run is a sustainable one. The GLI was a near thing. Michigan was dominated by BC but snuck a late goal against the run of play, then played dead in the third; they scraped the MSU game in overtime thanks to a goal with under a minute left.
That felt like finding a shiny penny on the street. This weekend Michigan gave up zero even-strength goals en route to sweeping the #2 team in the country. With Merrill around it's possible they've invested in a mint.
Calm, Easy Breathing Bullets
About that #1 line. Yowza. I can't recall a big guy who's come in with a mid-round NHL draft pedigree who's performed at the level Guptill has. Max Pacioretty was a first-rounder, Aaron Palushaj a second-rounder, and both of those guys were only sort of big. Other mid-round power forward types seem drafted on the principle that they won't shrink even if they don't display any NHL level skills.
Not so Guptill. His goal in the first period Sunday was a pure snipe into the upper right corner of the net from a somewhat awkward angle, and his ability to dump and chase into the corner is actually effective because he's got the speed and board play to set up possession in the opponent's zone. Then the rest of the line cycles.
Meanwhile, Brown has suddenly leapt forward to consistent productivity after a couple years of flashes but not much else. This does not appear to be the line carrying him—remember that he spent big chunks of his first two years with Caporusso or Hagelin as his center. He's making nice passes and the availability of pucks in the area where his size matters gives him the opportunity to sweep in (admittedly soft) goals like he opened the scoring with last year.
Wohlberg remains Wohlberg: good shooter, fast guy, decent stickhandler. His goal Sunday was soft but showed off his assets pretty well. As a whole they seem to have an identity they lacked apart. They drive the net, dump unless it's obvious they shouldn't dump, cycle, and score.
Power play. It technically didn't score since Michigan's second on Friday was deposited a couple seconds after the penalty expired, but the spirit of the law declares it did. They have looked intermittently better since the holiday break gave them an opportunity to rejigger what they were doing. They were good against State in the GLI final, pretty awful against LSSU, and back to threatening against OSU.
Over the weekend they were moving the puck and getting shots on net that were not getting blocked above the faceoff circles. I'll take it. Eventually they'll get some puck luck.
Sinelli. Through the mist of hazy Sparks complaints I can see why Sinelli has taken a regular shift over not only Sparks but Rohrkemper, as he's a decently speedy guy who makes effort plays on the regular.
CCHA Gongshow. The league remains an incredibly tight sack of cats. By points Michigan surged into third with its weekend sweep; on winning percentage they are still fifth behind OSU, WMU, ND, and FSU. Notre Dame is third in winning percentage and sixth on points because they have two games in hand on everyone in front of them.
The 9th place team, Northern, is one game below .500 in conference and would easily make the tournament if the season ended today. It is a weird year.
BONUS: Michigan's goal differential is now the best in the league at +14. They've scored five more goals than their nearest competitor, OSU, and not even the relentlessly excellent defense of… wait for it… Western Michigan can get them past M. They're +13. Yes, I just said excellent defense and Western Michigan in the same sentence. No, I don't know why they held on to Jim Culhane for a decade. FWIW, OSU would still be tops in the league if they hadn't given up two empty-netters on Friday.
Pairwise. This is faintly ridiculous: after we spent most of the first half kissing our tourney streak goodbye, Michigan is now on the cusp of a one seed. They rank 5th. I can't give you the nitty gritty details because my favorite Pairwise site hasn't updated for yesterday's game yet. CHN's has and has Michigan fifth. This is not a fluke based on TUC or COP records that are liable to change with the win: Michigan's RPI is also fifth.
It's also not something liable to persist unless Michigan keeps winning. Michigan's flown up from out of the tourney to nearly a one seed in three weekends. They can drop back down just as fast.
There are still seven-ish CCHA teams in the tourney with MSU, Miami, and Denver tying for 15th. More realistically it would be six.
Have fun storming the castle. This looks less daunting what with the winning and all, but yeesh the final five weekends:
- @ Notre Dame
- @ MSU, MSU @ JLA
- @ BGSU
BGSU is not good; everyone else will be fighting tooth and nail for tourney positioning or a bid, period. ND is the toughest team statistically, FWIW. They have a +5 GD in conference; MSU is +4, Miami +1, and NMU –2. Sack of cats, I tell you.
Anything I can do you can do dumber. It's hard to see in this shot but lord, OSU's jerseys were goofy:
The zillion oversized Buckeye leaves were reminiscent of Ghost of Bo's legendary parody(?) football unis. Clean, simple lines are preferable. Even Michigan's jerseys could use a little cleaning up. OSU's were reminiscent of…
…yeah, you know it.
Official site recap has pictures and whatnot. Michigan Hockey Net describes the game as a "clinic." A few AP photos. Daily article quotes Wohlberg sounding somewhat badly translated from the Japanese:
“You saw after they scored their first goal, it was a big uprising for them. Then when we go out and we score two real quick, it’s a big push for us, and I think it emptied their spirits.”