The Bielfeldt shot is more representative of today's game. [Patrick Barron/MGoBlog]
The first two games between Michigan and Illinois this season featured a pair of improbable comeback victories, one by each team.
It looked to be heading in that direction again in the first half of today's Big Ten Tournament matchup; Michigan had an early 12-0 run erased by a subsequent 13-0 charge by the Illini. Even after the Wolverines closed the half with a 23-4 run, carrying a 17-point lead into the break, you'd be excused if you were waiting for the other shoe to drop—Michigan had, after all, blown an 18-point second-half lead against Illinois exactly four weeks ago.
Instead, Michigan pushed the lead higher, and the Illini might as well have absconded for the locker room when Spike Albrecht made his bid for an And1 Mixtape appearance:
Aside from an all-too-familiar scoring drought in the first half, Michigan couldn't have played much better. The team moved the ball beautifully, tallying assists on nine of their 15 first-half buckets. Albrecht had five on the game, playing as Spike does—moving the ball around and hitting a couple deep bombs.
More eye-opening was the all-around effort from Zak Irvin, who posted a 14-6-6 line, working within—and driving—the offense better than ever. Irvin's anticipation on a first-half lob to Aubrey Dawkins, cutting in from the corner, was only the most highlight-worthy sign of his progress. Today made it clear that he's broken through to another level, especially in creating offense off the high screen.
Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman both put their season-long progress on display, as well. Dawkins continued his hot shooting, hitting 9/12 from the field on his way to a team-high 18 points. Rahk hit his lone three-point attempt and had several successful forays to the hoop to net his 15 points, and he also posted a career-high eight rebounds. Max Bielfeldt, starting for the second straight game, became the fourth Wolverine to hit double-figures with ten points.
Whether in zone or man, Michigan proved more than up to the task of shutting down the Illini's three main scoring threats. Malcolm Hill, Rayvonte Rice, and Kendrick Nunn combined to shoot 11/37 from the field; those three accounted for well over half of the team's shot attempts. Secondary scoring was limited to backup forward Leron Black's ten points, but Black also turned the ball over four times—he compounded an obvious first-half charge with a subsequent technical, which Albrecht turned into a five-point trip that extended Michigan's lead to 13.
With the win, Michigan's NIT hopes are now very much alive, though they won't feel secure in locking down a bid unless they upend top-seeded Wisconsin tomorrow at noon. Michigan pushed the Badgers to overtime in their lone regular-season matchup. Given how the Wolverines looked today, they look ready to give the Big Ten's best another fight tomorrow.
Sam Webb reported this morning that senior Michigan offensive lineman Jack Miller will forego his fifth and final year of eligibility. The returning starter at center will stay at the university and focus on his academic pursuits:
Source indicated #Michigan center Jack Miller has opted to forego his fifth year. Just confirmed by athletic department official
— Sam Webb (@SamWebb77) March 12, 2015
Jack Miller is not a transfer case. He is leaving to "focus on studies and pursue business opportunities" per #Michigan SID Dave Ablauf
— Sam Webb (@SamWebb77) March 12, 2015
Miller started 16 games at center over the last two seasons, including all 12 in 2014. Redshirt sophomore Patrick Kugler and redshirt junior Blake Bars will compete to take Miller's spot in the middle of the line. Kugler is the likely favorite given his pedigree and recruiting profile; Graham Glasgow could also be an option if the line shuffles around a bit. As long as one of the centers has a good handle on the offense, Michigan should be no worse for wear. Best of luck to Miller in his future endeavors—it's great to see that he'll be continuing his studies.
#9 Michigan (15-15, 8-10 B1G) vs.
#8 Illinois (19-12, 9-9)
|WHEN||Noon ET, Thursday|
|LINE||Illinois -3 (KenPom)|
PBP: Kevin Kugler
Analyst: Jim Jackson
Right: Nnanna Egwu contests jumper, stares straight into your soul. [Eric Upchurch/MGoBlog]
In Michigan's case, "win or go home" takes on a greater significance tomorrow. Not only do the Wolverines need to beat Illinois to stay alive in the Big Ten Tournament—and keep any NCAA pipe dream* going—but they'll most likely need two wins this weekend just to qualify for the NIT.
It's been a rough week for Michigan's postseason hopes. The NIT guarantees spots for teams that win their conference regular-season title but lose in their conference tournament; after Robert Morris and North Dakota State knocked off St. Francis (NY) and South Dakota State, respectively, last night, seven such automatic bids have been claimed. That's burst several bubbles in the process, potentially including Michigan's: The Bracket Matrix and DRatings both left Michigan out of the NIT field in their latest updates. NYC Buckets has M as a seven-seed clinging to one of the last at-large bids.
Meanwhile, Illinois is on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble; they've got plenty to play for this weekend.
*And a pipe dream it is: KenPom's log5 analysis gives Michigan an 0.2% chance at winning the BTT, and just a 2.9% chance of making it past Illinois and Wisconsin.
Ricky Doyle, who missed the Rutgers game due to illness, will be a "full go" tomorrow, according to John Beilein. Doyle could've given it a go last weekend, but with Michigan cruising to victory that wasn't necessary.
Derrick Walton is doubtful to play.
THE LAST TIME
Michigan took on Illinois at Crisler in the Big Ten opener, a game that feels like it took place decades ago. A torrent of threes from Aubrey Dawkins and a surprise changeup to the 2-3 zone led to a comeback, overtime victory on the day Jim Harbaugh was introduced as head coach.
The return trip to Champaign didn't go quite as well. Michigan surprisingly controlled much of the game... and then allowed a 21-2 run to close the game, including a 14-2 margin in the overtime period. Aubrey Dawkins had a really sick dunk, at least.
THE LINEUP CARD
Projected starters are in bold. Hover over headers for stat explanations; I've switched over to conference-only stats for %Min and %Poss now. The "Should I Be Mad If He Hits A Three" methodology: we're mad if a guy who's not good at shooting somehow hits one. Yes, you're still allowed to be unhappy if a proven shooter is left open. It's a free country.
|G||3||Ahmad Starks||Sr.||5'9, 170||60||22||Not really|
|Middling assist:turnover, decent shooter, not a threat inside the arc.|
|G||25||Kendrick Nunn||So.||6'3, 190||86||22||No|
|Good outside shooter, less efficient inside arc, solid defender.|
|G||24||Rayvonte Rice||Sr.||6'4, 230||40||25||No|
|Stocky, high-usage slasher now hits threes. Solid defensive rebounder.|
|G||21||Malcolm Hill||So.||6'6, 230||85||24||No|
|Cooled off after nearing 50/40/90 status; still a dangerous all-around scorer.|
|C||32||Nnanna Egwu||Sr.||6'11, 250||78||14||Yes|
|Good shot-blocker, offensive rebounder. Had poor year offensively.|
|G||1||Jaylon Tate||So.||6'3, 170||56||14||Very|
|High assist and turnover rates. Almost never shoots. Gets to line a ton.|
|F||12||Leron Black||Fr.||6'7, 220||35||19||Very|
|Very good rebounder. Not a great finisher. Foul-prone.|
|C||22||Maverick Morgan||So.||6'10, 250||22||18||Very|
|Poor finisher, way better on off. glass than defense. Not a big shot-blocker.|
Illinois is looking to play their way into the NCAA Tournament after finishing an even 9-9 in conference play. Faced with a pretty tough slate, they dropped four of their last six after their second meeting with Michigan.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the preview.]
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The Harbaugh era seems considerably less paranoid than the previous regime. Practice reports are coming in from a lot more sources than they used to; no doubt this is partially because excitement sees a lot more people on the sideline. I do hear that they're less concerned about "X looks good, tempo is fast" reports getting out.
Tempo is fast, by the way. Harbaugh has brought a high-rep style to practices in an effort to get everything he can out of every countable hour. It is not exactly Oregon hyper-speed where all coaching is done after, in film. It's a lot closer to that than the Hoke-era practices were. A recruit's parent took in a practice and posted about it to a Facebook group, and his impressions match some others I've been sent:
1. Tempo of practice and the philosophy. Very different from last year. 2 sets of scrimmages per field. A play is being ran an avg of 25 to 35 secs. If they went two groups, they would alternate but each group ran a play every 25secs. So ... Coaches saw 2 plays every 30 secs. Ton of reps. Very different from last year. Coaches are coaching very quick between plays. Emphasis on getting the reps in during practice and correcting mistakes in film. Practice was very similar to how Saban runs his practices.
2. There really is competition at EVERYTHING. I saw several of these "competitions." A couple examples ... QBs did a "fastest release/ball speed" comp. On command, they had to throw a bullet pass 20yds. Malzone looked good. Several races took place today as well but most know about those.
Those were vintage 1990s; these are a lot closer to modern speeds. Michigan is running multiple reps at a time on opposite ends of the field with first and second teams.
(Aside: I can't help but draw a line between Hoke's deliberate practice pace and his program's inability to operate at any other speed.)
Practices have also been extremely long. How one practice can be longer than another when NCAA maximums are mandated for everyone is unclear; possible that Hoke was spending some of his countable hours in other ways? That seems highly improbable, but so do Michigan's results the past couple years.
Harbaugh bein' Harbaugh
When practice was over Harbaugh brought the team around him and awarded the day to the defense. As a reward he told them they had to run while the offense watched because “here, the winners are the ones that earn the opportunity to get better.”
Quarterback Battle Royale
Whether it's the WWE kind or the Quentin-Tarantino-porn that is way better than the Hunger Games, what Michigan has on its hands qualifies as such. Jedd Fisch was carefully neutral during his press conference yesterday, as coaches are. He asserted that everyone was even and getting even reps, as coaches do.
But allow your author to read into things some. Fisch on Malzone:
"He's got a lot going on. But he's handled it unbelievably well. He's unbelievable in terms of his ability to not let things bother him. To be consistent and play the game. If a play doesn't go right, he's right back in there for the next one. A short-term memory is phenomenal for a quarterback."
Wilton is a very large man, he's a big guy (at 6-foot-6). He can see everything. He's a pretty good athlete and he throws the ball well. He doesn't seem to have had a ton of experience.
"Shane has a very strong arm, as everybody knows, he spins it well and he just has to understand that, really, that's not the most important thing. If you have a really strong arm, then you have a really strong arm. That's what you have. Now, it's a matter of 'what can you do with it?' How do you utilize it? His skill set and his arm strength are tremendous and he's very comfortable. It's fun to watch him in the huddle, he has a really good command of what we're asking him to do."
The tweets that captured small sections of the fuller quotes came off more negative towards Morris, highlighting "unbelievable" for Malzone and "throw it at the person" for Morris. It was more neutral than that. Via Maize and Blue News:
Even so, the overall vibe from that presser seemed to confirm reports floating around at Scout, Rivals, and in my inbox: there's considerable debate about who looks better between Malzone and Speight… and there ends the debate. Scout's observers tend to like Malzone. Rivals's like Speight. Malzone is reportedly adjusting to the size of the players in front of him; Speight doesn't have that issue and is a year ahead of Malzone in terms of college prep.
Early days obviously, but it feels like the QB race is two horses with Morris lagging behind. Gentry and maybe Rudock are yet to enter.
Tailback Battle Royale
See above in re: term. Tyrone Wheatley has a lot of options here and is doing a lot of correcting in drills. Will be interesting to see if there's a performance differential there. The latest practice video from the department features Wheatley heavily if you'd like to hear him talk some.
Most of these guys look like they've looked. Johnson's out; Smith may be a hair faster; it's tough to tell if Green's vision problems are any better in this context. (Most people observing practice do so from the sideline, where holes are not always visible.)
There is the new guy, of course. Ty Isaac is "huge" and "could be a linebacker." He injured a finger somewhat badly in one practice but shrugged it off to continue with drills. This undoubtedly earned him some Harbaugh toughness brownie points. (He did sit out some on subsequent days.)
Chase Winovich is at least practicing there…
Rt when you see it pic.twitter.com/1FfBEqacoI
— Chase Winovich (@CCWino58) March 11, 2015
…and while Harbaugh seemed pretty dismissive about supposed position moves earlier this spring, they are looking at him there. When I fretted that this didn't make a lot of sense given the seeming surplus at H-back, Ace reminded me that Harbaugh switched guys around like mad at Stanford. Doug Baldwin played both ways; Owen Marecic played both ways. Harbaugh loves to experiment, and when he finds a Football Player that guy tends to Play A Lot Of Football. Possibly the same dynamic here.
Because man does Michigan need something above and beyond Butt/Bunting/Hill/Shallman/Houma? And Pallante? And apparently Henry Poggi?
Is it possible Winovich is getting a legit look at tailback? I doubt it but it's not like Michigan's not looking for options there.
It seems clear that Michigan has a relatively set front seven with a lot of depth at three-tech and some at linebacker. So they're taking the opportunity to test out anyone who may be an effective manballer.
FWIW, Ian Bunting looks promising but could still use some more weight on his frame if he's going to be a true dual-threat at the TE spot. When asked to catch the ball he looks "terrific," with the kind of wingspan that will remind you of Funchess "plus a couple inches." Hands are reputed to be excellent. Sam cited him as a potential breakout player.
Sione Houma has been held out with an injury, FWIW.
Receiver Battle… somewhat Royale
Drake Harris exists! He is full go in practice after like two straight years of hamstring doom. Reports alternate between impressive play and extreme skinniness. I believe both; this year will likely be a learning/glaring at hamstring owlishly/getting bigger campaign for him. 247:
There's no doubt about one thing: Harris is going to have to gain some weight in the next six months if he wants to see the field this season. However, the early impressions of him are twofold. One, he's finally 100% healthy and is a full-go at wide receiver. Two, he's been very impressive off the edge and has been a favorite target for a couple of the quarterbacks in early drills.
Harris was kind of a big deal before his leg acted up on him, remember. He was a top-50 prospect who Michigan had to fend off Alabama for after a 2,000 yard junior season.
Other reports are so scattered it's tough to draw conclusions from them. There are a lot of receivers, there are a lot of reps, an observer can easily sink into confirmation bias. At various time's I've heard good things about Ways, Chesson, Norfleet, and Bunting. Darboh's been absent so far and Canteen may still be too small to get off jams; I wouldn't read a whole lot into the former since Darboh is a known quantity.
OL Somewhat Settled(?) Royale
There's significant rotation along the offensive line, as you might expect. Other than the returning starters the biggest threats for playing time are Patrick Kugler, David Dawson, and Logan Tuley-Tillman. Miller and Braden are the returning starters under the most threat.
It is impossible to tell anything about these guys yet, as this is the point in the year when they're at the greatest disadvantage. Having eight real options is excellent, at least.
Chris Fox is still injured. You may remember that he came in after suffering a severe knee injury in his senior year of high school, ballooned up into the 350 range, and hasn't been talked about much subsequently. At least early this spring he was still on crutches. We are rapidly approaching the point where a medical scholarship is the most likely outcome.
“Everybody good? Yeah? Great. Who’s kicking us off?”
I’ll kick you off. It’s only been a couple of days but what have you seen out of your quarterbacks so far?
“Uh, well, right now we’re seeing progress. That’s, I think, the first thing we’re looking for is how they’ve picked up what we’ve asked them to do. We’ve seen them now- this is what, practice four? But it’s been 16 hours on the field so we’ve had a lot of repetitions and we’ve been able to do a ton of drill work with them and been able to watch them kind of pick up the system the best they can at this point. I think there’s some really good progress in terms of command at the line of scrimmage. I think there’s good progress in terms of understanding the offense. Now it’s a matter of slowing the game down for them, and that’s what our next step is.”
How do you slow it down?
“I would say that slowing it down comes from knowledge, number one. Number two, it comes from experience, and then three, it comes from some form of comfort level. Right now their knowledge in terms of what we’re asking them to do is still growing and it’s kind of not where we want it to be yet in terms of you’d love to always fast forward the process but right now the process is what it is. In terms of experience they have none in the system and the really don’t have much college football playing experience, but with us they’ve had four days of experience. And finally, as we continue to go through this process and give them opportunities I think we’ll see them continue to develop every day and that will slow the game down for them.”
You mentioned progress. How long of a road do they have to get where you want them to go?
“I think that we’re certainly in a situation where we don’t play for a while, so that’s good. We’ve got 11 more practices, so that’s really good, and then we’ve got a big summer where they can really grind themselves. I’m a huge believer in that philosophy of players coaching players. I think that it’s huge during this time of the summer when we’re not with them that they can really take what we’ve kind of coached them on and then help each other and really continue to develop one another. And then finally we have training camp and we have all of camp to get ready for opening day. So they’ve got some time and we’re going to use all of it, every second we can, to try and help them improve and be comfortable and then be able to go out there and put us in the best possible position to succeed.”
What are the differences you see in the three scholarship guys?
“Well, they certainly do have different skill sets. Wilton is a very large man He’s a big guy and he can see everything. He’s a pretty good athlete. Throws the ball well. He doesn’t seem to have had a ton of experience. I know Shane probably took more reps last year, I would guess, because he was probably the 2. I know he went in one game, two games, whatever and then played the year before also so he’s probably had some more practice reps than Wilt has but Wilt makes a lot of nice throws and is a good sized kid.
“Shane has a very strong arm, which everybody knows. He spins it well. He just has to understand that’s really not the most important thing. If you have a really strong arm you have a really strong arm. That’s what you have. So now it’s a matter of what can you do with it? How do you utilize it? So his skill set, you know, his arm strength is tremendous and he has really good- he’s very comfortable as a quarterback, so that’s fun to watch him in the huddle. He has really good command of what we’re asking him to do and Alex- Alex should be a senior in high school right now.
“I know my senior spring I wasn’t in college, so I know that he’s got a lot going on and he has handled it unbelievably well. He is like- he’s unbelievable in terms of his ability to not let things bother him, to be consistent, and to jump right back in and play the game. If a play doesn’t go right he’s right back in [and] ready for the next one. Short-term memory is phenomenal for a quarterback.”
[After THE JUMP: more honesty]
Ace: Since Michigan just had a low-key Senior Day to send off Max Bielfeldt, this seems like a good time to ask: What's your favorite Senior Day memory? (Any sport may apply.)
Dave Nasternak: Back when I was in school—while Football was just starting its decade+ of beatdowns to OSU and Basketball was...well, it was pre-Beilein (mostly)- the place to be for sports in Ann Arbor was Yost. My Senior Day story(s) come from the Ice Hockey team. Hockey in the CCHA was weird. Not bad, but weird. If you were good enough -and Michigan generally was- you hosted a playoff series at home after the regular season had ended. So, while there was Senior Day, there was also Last Game At Yost Day. In the 06-07 year, TJ Hensick's Senior Day came super early.
|Guest starring Jeff Tambellini. Bork!|
It was February 3rd. It was the back end of a home-and-home against Western. Michigan won 3-1 but...it was relatively uneventful and everyone knew we'd see the seniors for one last series. They somehow managed to play 3 more series of road or neutral ice games before finally coming back to Yost for the CCHA Quarters. After disposing of Western in Game 1 of a best of 3, we knew Game 2 would be it.
It was really bittersweet for me. I was also a senior and while I hoped to get into Grad School at M, I thought it could be my last game at Yost, as well. TJ Hensick might have been my favorite M athlete when I was in school. He burst onto the scene as a freshman, leading the team in points. He would end up leading the Wolverines in scoring 3 of his 4 years, finishing 2nd in his sophomore year.
After his junior season, I'd read that Hensick was close to signing with the Avs, but decided to give it one more go at Yost. While the year didn't end up the way any Wolverine dreamed, Hensick had another phenomenal year. In his Last Game At Yost, Hensick didn't disappoint. He tallied 4 points, 3 of them being goals for his only career hatrick at home (I'm pretty sure). Michigan won very comfortably, 8-3. While Michigan has had a handful of great players since -Porter, Kolarik, Hagelin, Hunwick, now Hyman- there hasn't been another Mighty Mite center (especially with that kind of puck control) since. I taped Hensick's Last Game At Yost (on VHS!!) and later converted it to dvd. I still get a little choked up, watching it.
A season later, Kevin Porter's last series at Yost was also a weekend to remember, including The Day That Yost Changed. My bronze medalist might be Chris Perry's Senior Day, as I made it onto the field as a wide-eyed freshman...but I'll leave those games for someone else.
[Hit the JUMP for Swedish flags, the one that preceded Molly, and some non-hockey we swear]