“The player development is the main thing I like (about Michigan),” Williams said. “You can see that they develop their players. They get them in the gym and they work them hard. And their hard work pays off.”
It's was sunny and lovely out yesterday in Michigan. Sunday night's storm swept the humidity aside and deposited rain where it belongs: on my lawn. So why did it feel like that sun was a little darker, that sky a little hazier, this July a little less nice than the June that preceded it? Oh, right.
— Maryland Athletics (@umterps) June 30, 2014
It's official: our moms are forcing us to play with Scott Malkinson.
Why is this happening again? Well they're joining for the money: both schools have had relatively bad athletic departments who over-leveraged themselves in the big sport facility and coaching arms races, Rutgers less so than Maryland, but then Rutgers was about to wind up trapped in the sinking ship of the Big East/American. Maryland has massive debt from its building projects and the ACC ain't gonna pay them, so they were ready to whore themselves out to whichever conference came along, even if it meant an end to their relationship with Duke.
(No, Penn State fans don't care about either as rivals.)
The real question is why in the heck we'd want them. It's cable TV. Starting with the Big Ten, the big conferences have been getting in on the great scam of cable bundling. Cable providers have monopolies in their markets, and are second only to the military-industrial complex in political spending, all so they can force subscribers into all-or-nothing tiers of hundreds of channels to get one they want (and try to charge people extra to not get their internet slowed).
|Big Ten's Expansion Plan: rip off the cable companies after they rip off America. [Image credit: HuffPo]|
This works out very well for the cable giants but leaves them a particular vulnerability to any network with a sports license. Fiercely loyal college football fans will scream at their cable providers if they can't watch the game, and advertisers lust after sports because they're the last of the DVR-proof live events, so cable providers pay out the nose for the network with the game. Then they place that network on a relatively accessible tier that everybody in that market must pay for, and raise prices accordingly.
In this way, if there are just enough A&M fans in Dallas, every cable subscriber in Dallas will pay an extra $5/month to the SEC and its partner (ESPN). If there are just enough Missouri fans in St. Louis, if there just enough Maryland fans in D.C. metro area, if there are just enough Rutgers fans in New York City, etc. The Big Ten schools are gambling on there being enough Rutgers fans to scam $5/month from everyone in New York. So far they've already got New Jersey and Maryland.
The gamble for the schools is they think they'll sell out the stadiums no matter who's visiting, so who gives a damn if it's Maryland visiting instead of Wisconsin. The fans aren't going to see a dime of the Comcast deal (at least not at Michigan—most schools are a little less adversarial to their fans) and just have to decide to put up with the new faces, or not.
In the list of downsides, there are worse things that can happen than having Wisconsin disappear forever, or the invention of more derived, ugly trophies. So long as it ends with Ohio State and MSU is in there, it's a Michigan season, while any Notre Dame or Minnesota you can sprinkle in is appreciated. To put the loss in context I thought I'd look through Michigan's history with the conference with respect to the frequency we've faced various conference rivals.
A History of Western/Big Ten Conference Scheduling
Early years (1892-1906): Prior to the invention of the conference, Michigan already played some of its future rivals. They played Chicago twice in 1893 (both on the road), and even after joining the conference Michigan had an extra (non-conference) game against Chicago's med students.
|Hey, just 'cause we left you guys aren't supposed to be rivals. [Chicago vs. Minnesota in 1916.]|
There were seven teams in the original 1896 conference—Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Chicago—with Indiana and Iowa joining in 1899. Teams customarily only played games in October and November, and Michigan played anywhere from two to five conference opponents a year. The 1906 team (the last before leaving the conference for a time) played just one conference game (Illinois) among five games plus an alumni exhibition.
If there was any pattern to this, it's that Michigan and Chicago would play every year except 1899 and 1906. There were a few stretches of other rivals lasting not more than four years. The newcomers (Indiana 1900-'03, Iowa 1900-'02) apparently were guaranteed some starter games with Michigan. Wisconsin (1899, 1902-'05) was the next-most regular. Northwestern and Michigan only played twice before M left. Once we did, we played Minnesota twice but nobody else.
[after the jump, we lose Chicago, gain worse]
Starting With The Good...
It'll take, at most, four plays for you to yell "DO WANT."
2015 TN ILB Joshua McMillon visited Michigan back in April, and it apparently made quite the impression on him. McMillon told GBW's Josh Newkirk that the Wolverines "stand very high on the charts" in large part because of their focus on academics ($):
“They separate themselves from everybody else because they set their [academics] standards so high,” McMillon said. “So they actually expect their student-athletes to actually be students first instead of athlete-student. I love that about them. They make sure they get their work. They base their schedule around their major instead of around their athletics. Even though they are on athletic scholarship, they make sure they get an education.”
McMillon is planning a return trip to Ann Arbor with both his parents in tow—only his father was able to accompany him on the previous visit—and he spoke very highly about his rapport with the coaches, especially Greg Mattison (who, surprise!, busted out the Ray Lewis comparison). U-M is firmly in McMillon's top five as he nears an August decision, and they could very well be on top already while waiting for the all-important Mom Stamp of Approval. They've already got one from McMillon's dad, per 247's Steve Lorenz ($).
It's been a while since we've heard a major update on NY TE/DE Tyrone Wheatley Jr., and after Chris Clark's commitment there was concern it'd negatively affect Michigan's chances to land the son of the great U-M running back. Not so, says the younger Wheatley himself, per Sam Webb ($):
Many observers wonder if Clark’s presence in the Wolverines’ recruiting class will adversely affect their standing in Wheatley’s eyes.
“No,” he replied swiftly. “I actually know Clark. I’ve been talking to him for a while. He actually contacted me a while back. We’ve just been talking about the recruiting process and different schools. He had a lot of big schools as well.”
Wheatley named Michigan to his top five alongside Alabama, USC, UCLA, and Miami (YTM), and he plans to take official visits to all five schools.
The Wolverines are poised to make the top five for another top target, five-star CA WDE Keisean Lucier-South, per Tim Sullivan ($):
"Right now, I don't know who'll be in the top five yet, I'm still figuring it out. [UCLA and Michigan] probably," he admitted with a chuckle. "I think they're going to be in there. I know the coaches, they're good to me, and they're always talking to me, so they're probably going to be in that list. All the other schools are still talking to me too, so it's going to be really hard to see what my top five is going to be."
KLS will see Ann Arbor for the first time when he takes an official visit for the Penn State game, which should be a huge recruiting event.
Three-star FL WR/TE Auden Tate, whose ranking belies an excellent offer sheet, checks in at 6'4", 200 pounds and Michigan is recruiting him as a big wideout in the Devin Funchess mold. U-M's pitch that Tate could eventually replace Funchess looks to be working—he's planning a visit for this month's BBQ at the Big House, and Michigan is also in line to receive one of his officials despite an upcoming planned decision, per Scout's Amy Campbell ($):
Tate hopes to have his decision wrapped up in the next month, but he plans to take several officials this fall too.
“Florida State and Michigan will be official visits, I don’t know about the other three yet,” he said.
Florida State—the presumed team to beat—and Clemson should be the biggest competition here. Florida is also a factor.
...And Moving On To The Less Good
Three Midwest prospects who at one point or another have been top Michigan targets will their respective decisions tomorrow, and the outlook isn't good for U-M.
MN DL Jashon Cornell and OH LB Justin Hilliard are holding press conferences at the same time tomorrow morning (10 am ET), and it looks like Ohio State will be the ultimate destination for both of them. Michigan stopped pursuing Cornell recently after he bulked up to interior lineman size—U-M isn't taking a DT in this class—but Hilliard was their top target at outside linebacker, a position they've recruited heavily for 2015.
Michigan has a slightly better shot at landing IL WR Miles Boykin, but not by much—Notre Dame is the prohibitive favorite to get the commitment when Boykin announces on Twitter at an undetermined time tomorrow.
If a Hello post goes up tomorrow, it'll be written from scratch.
2015 Top247 Updated
247 updated their 2015 rankings, and they featured rises from Darrin Kirkland and Alex Malzone. Kirkland slotted just inside the top 200 after impressing on the camp trail:
Darrin Kirkland Jr. – Michigan is getting a good one in Kirkland. Checking in at No. 199 overall, Kirkland was arguably the top linebacker in attendance at the Ohio Nike Camp and he’ll be looking to raise his stock even more at The Opening.
While Malzone didn't quite get his fourth star on 247, he improved his standing and closed the gap between his ranking and that of Ohio State QB commit Joe Burrow:
Heading into the Elite 11 in Columbus, Michigan commit Alex Malzone was rated as 3-star with an 86 grade. Ohio State commit Joe Burrow was a four-star with a grade of 90. After watching them workout side by side at the event, we’ve moved the two to the same grade of 88. Burrow has more physical and athletic upside and we like we he does with his feet on film but after watching him throw in person for the first time, he’s still got some work to do in his consistency as a passer. Malzone on the other hand is a little bit undersized but has outstanding feet in the pocket and a really live arm. He doesn’t have the ceiling of Burrow but he’s the more college ready player right now.
That boosted Malzone's score enough to be a four-star, ranked #300 overall and #10 among pro-style quarterbacks, on the 247 Composite.
Michigan's other commits in the Top247:
- Garrett Taylor is the team's highest-ranked commit at #77 overall (#10 CB), up two spots from when he committed.
- 247 remains the least bullish on Chris Clark, also moving him up two spots to #189 (#5 TE).
- Grant Newsome held steady at #192 overall (#23 OT).
Sam Webb's latest at the Detroit News is a feature on 2016 Eastern Christian Academy OLB Dele' Harding, whose high opinion of U-M in the wake his recent offer hasn't changed. Harding's father said Dele' was "elated" upon receiving the offer, and Dele' himself said the presence of his two former high school teammates will be a factor when he considers U-M:
Said Harding: “I would probably say (Canteen and Watson being at Michigan) helps just for the simple fact that they are my coolest teammates and talk to me almost every day. So I would say it would probably be a plus.”
Harding has tentative plans to make a decision after his upcoming junior season. USC seems to be the main competition among schools that have offered, though Harding noted that he's not nearly as familiar with the new Trojan coaching staff as he was with the Kiffin regime. While it's still early, U-M looks to be in very good position for him.
Michigan offered 2016 TX S Brandon Jones, the top-ranked safety in the class, last Thursday, per Jones himself. As you'd expect, Jones has a very impressive offer sheet, and so far all 13 picks on the 247 Crystal Ball have him heading to Texas A&M.
After a recent visit and Michigan offer, four-star PA RB Miles Sanders has Michigan in his top three, per Sam Webb ($):
Miles Sanders: “Right now I have Penn State first and Michigan and Michigan State tied.”
Sanders has a Michigan connection, as he attends the same high school (Woodland Hills in Pittsburgh) that produced Steve Breaston and Ryan Mundy, both of whom have talked to Sanders while stopping by their old school.
Michigan is one of six schools standing out for behemoth four-star guard Richard Merritt, per 247's Ross Martin:
"I don't have any favorites right now, " the 6-foot-5, 345-pound Washington D.C. product said. "but the schools that are standing out are Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State, West Virginia, and Virginia Tech."
Offensive lineman highlights aren't always the most interesting watch, but you're gonna want to click play on the reel embedded above. Merritt is ranked as the #53 overall player and #2 guard in the early composite rankings.
Four-star NC RB Robert Washington told GBW's Josh Newkirk that Fred Jackson informed him an offer should come within the next week ($).
This has nothing to do with Michigan, in all likelihood, but it must be posted here. 2017 FL WR Emmanuel Greene already holds offers from Clemson and Miami, and this video gives you a pretty good idea why:
If this was the And1 tour, Greene would've just chucked the ball out of bounds after the third juke, and the entire camp would've ended at that moment. Life should be more like the And1 tour.
RIP, Bobby Womack. The man who provided the Michigan Replay theme, and eventually our podcast's, has died.
The whole thing is here; Womack was far more famous for doing a bunch of other things, but around here he's my ringtone. May the program once again live up to the awesomeness of the horns.
NHL draft stuff. Incoming F Dylan Larkin may have even gone a little higher than expected when he was drafted by (possibly) YOUR Detroit Red Wings at 15th overall. That's good for Michigan, as Detroit is generally patient with their prospects—so patient that it drives their fans nuts—and the friendship between Red and Mike Babcock should prevent Larkin from departing until he's good and ready.
The only other Michigan player to get drafted was Zach Nagelvoort, who went to the Oilers in the middle rounds. Quite a rise for him to go from "guy who had to leave his NAHL team to get playing time" to draft pick.
With the rest of Michigan's class kind of a patchwork of overagers, it's not a huge surprise that the rest of the guys got passed over. Dexter Dancs had a shot, but no one else was even first-time eligible IIRC.
Michigan could have a big 2015, with three incoming players under consideration for first-round picks. Kyle Connor was the second-leading scorer in the USHL; U17 D Zach Werenski is good enough that Michigan is trying to bring him in right now; NTDP defenseman Nick Boka was one of the first invites to that program in his year. Chris Dilks has all three on his "A" list of guys he's seen who have a shot at the first round.
With Cooper Marody and Brendan Warren also coming off good years, Michigan should have five current and future players called around this time next year.
That explains that. I'm pretty sure we are all already aware that the reason Michigan backed off of top 100 MN RB Jeff Jones was questions about his eligibility, but if there were any questions about those questions they should no longer be in question:
The highest-rated recruit to commit to Minnesota during the Internet recruiting era has reportedly failed to register an ACT score high enough for enrollment this fall, according to a report from the Star Tribune.
Running back Jeff Jones needed to improve his ACT score in order to offset a rough year academically as a sophomore at Minneapolis Washburn; the NCAA determines eligibility through a process that combines report card grade-point averages as well as standardized test scores. As the Star Tribune's Joe Christensen previously reported, Jones improved his ACT score with an April test, but needed to do so again on June 14.
He's trying some late hijinks with online classes and such that Michigan's admissions would almost certainly reject, so… yeah. Michigan accurately projected that he had very little chance of suiting up this fall.
O'Bannon's over. The trial is over after three weeks, and despite the presence of Mary Sue Coleman and Dave Brandon on the NCAA's witness list neither appeared. No doubt whatever testimony they had would have been redundant with various other president/AD types who took the stand to explain that the NCAA was good and college was good, but I was looking forward to this Claudia Wilken person giving Brandon the stink-eye for assertions that, to be fair, would have been no less ridiculous than a bunch of things we already heard.
To me, nothing sums up the NCAA's argument better than Mark Emmert responding to a question about his 1.6 million dollar salary:
Emmert: "My salary is set by the executive committee who hires compensation experts that establish benchmarks."
— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) June 19, 2014
You can justify anything if you hire a consultant to do so, and will try to if you are the kind of person who can thrive in an organization as orthogonal to reality as the NCAA. I have no doubt the parade of ludicrously-compensated suits the NCAA paraded in front of the court genuinely believes themselves to be agents for good in a corrupt world. You cannot get a man to understand something his job prohibits him from understanding, after all.
I have real problems with the executive class of the NCAA acting like they're running a hedge fund in everything they do and then expecting us to believe the things that come out of their mouths, and eagerly await whatever comeuppance the legal system can contrive. It won't be enough, but whatever.
Speaking of that. Delany is "driven" to have the Big Ten Basketball championship in MSG despite the fact that it is booked during championship week.
Greatest comment ever. Great satire can be mistaken for genuine sentiment… and I think this comment left on an O'Bannon wrap-up post on CBS is satire.
ONLY one man can save colleges.. save sports and save the country
and that man is NICK SABAN
jealous sports nuts as host of sports talk in knoxville... saying that nick saban hated women and is a bully
usually GREED MONSTER guys after they get rich and popular dumps their wives for a younger
and more pretty woman.. NOT saban still married to the same one since 21 ... and not only rich and popular but also good looking for women...... THAT is proof that saban is not what these insane jealous;nuts try to make him out to be..
the best thing for america is to make saban the dictator of the country just like he has done with bama football and the same great success for the country will come .... all people ,must obey saban for all peoples success... just like all bama players obeys and they get the greatest success
saban as dictator sets up the best system and places everyone himself in the right position... like he does with football
lets hear it...... HIP HIP HOORAY....... HIP HIP HOORAY .NICK SABAN FOR DICTATOR of AMERICA!
But I'm not entirely sure.
Hello. The USA is playing a knockout-round game in the World Cup today, so nothing is going to knock off my shine. But I should mention that Rutgers and Maryland are now officially part of the Big Ten. The Big Ten has celebrated this by taking pictures of their mascots in Washington DC. That is all.
Etc.: Stop reading about my early opinion of Tate Forcier and read my early opinion on Nik Stauskas.
|Saint Clairsville, OH – 6'3", 230|
|Scout||4*, #179 overall
#8 ILB, #9 OH
|Rivals||4*, #211 overall
#14 ILB, #7 OH
|ESPN||4*, #129 overall
#7 ILB, #2 OH
|24/7||4*, #198 overall
#7 ILB, #9 OH
|Other Suitors||Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State, 'Bama, MSU, Stanford, Wisconsin|
|Previously On MGoBlog||Ace gets a big ol' I See What You Did There for his Hello post.|
|Notes||Twitter. Enrolled early. Participated in UA game.|
Hudl also has stuff from the first half of his senior year.
Michael Ferns is the recruit most likely to be known by random people who watch Good Morning America or read the kind of sports blog that's mostly pictures of taut young ladies. The former know Ferns because he did a very nice thing.
…Ferns took a sweep 52 yards down the left sideline and had nothing in the way of him and a touchdown.
But he slowed down as he approached the end zone and walked out of bounds at the 1-yard line. …
Two days earlier, freshman Logan Thompson’s father, Paul, died from a sudden stroke. Once McLean learned that Logan would indeed suit up for Friday’s game against Edison, McLean began to formulate a plan to help his freshman wide receiver “honor his father.”
Secretly, McLean instructed Ferns and the other skill players, if given the chance, to stop short on a touchdown so they could get Logan in. … McLean simplified the isolation play call with three words: “Just follow Ferns.”
“Mike and the line opened up a huge hole for Logan and he ran it right in,” McLean said.
The latter group of people knows Ferns because he's a baller, as Ferns posted Mississippi State's best effort to his Instagram account.
He did not appear to be swayed.
He was not even moved when Mississippi State asserted that they had a truckload of swag in Stark-Vegas.
Before he was twice-viral, Ferns was a big-time prospect playing at a small high school near the Ohio-West Virginia border who was picking up offers super early. Notre Dame issued him his second before he'd finished his sophomore year of high school, with Stanford, OSU, PSU, and Michigan following suit within a few weeks. After a round of visits, Ferns was down to Michigan, ND, and Penn State. He pulled the trigger in early August, with almost 20 months to go before signing day.
This early recruitment has taken off in the last few years, but the difference with Ferns is that teams were eager to have him on campus and have him commit—these days an "offer" often deserves scare quotes. Ferns was a sure thing, though:
“He showed up at 6-3, 220,” Saint Clairsville coach Brett McLean said today of Ferns, who is up to 235 pounds. “He played junior high football for us as a quarterback in the seventh and eighth grade. We knew we had a special player.”
He'll gradually add 10-15 pounds over the course of his career, but he's about as physically ready as you can be as a freshman, and he has been for years.
As a result, Ferns was placed in everyone's top 100 early before dropping about a hundred spots most places. (ESPN, as per usual, moves people less.) Because of the early commitment, small school, and inopportunely timed injuries, there's surprisingly little scouting out there for a consensus top-200 guy. But here goes anyway.
Ferns gets described as a "throwback" a lot, and while any highly-touted white linebacker is going to get hit with that term Ferns earned it. He played through the state playoffs his junior year severely compromised by injury. Bucknuts' Mark Porter:
“He is a throwback type. He is very physical. Obviously, everyone watched him play hurt in the playoffs and play through the pain and show off his toughness there. I think he could be an All-Big Ten linebacker up at Michigan.”
Mike Farrell of Rivals didn't quite invoke "throwback" but offered a slightly backhanded compliment in that vein:
"He is the stereotypical Big Ten linebacker," Farrell said. "He is explosive to the football and takes great angles. He is hard-nosed and physically impressive. He is exactly what you expect when you think of a major prospect from this area at that position."
It was when Ferns struggled through the early part of the Rivals Five-Star challenge before withdrawing with a leg injury that Rivals dropped him, stating the backhanded part of the above quote directly:
…at his best when he is playing downhill and stuffing the run. Camp/7-on-7 settings do not showcase that element of the game, but they give a good sense of how a player moves in space and plays coverage. Those are the aspects of Ferns' game he needs to work on. He had trouble changing direction and turning to run with backs and tight ends down the field.
They also mentioned that flaw after an earlier Rivals camp that got Ferns his invite to their fancycamp, saying he was "stiff" in one on ones and such.
While both of those evals came in situations where only one set of eyes was there, there are echoes of that criticism a couple other places. ESPN mentions that he is "not real fluid opening his hips" as he attempts to get depth; they do credit him for being instinctive and "athletic enough to get to his spot" in zone. Allen Trieu puts in a mention that he "needs to work on coverage" in a brief scouting report.
That is the main—seemingly only—drawback. Everyone else praises his "great size and good closing speed," or things along those lines. Trieu's report mentions his track career and loves everything except the coverage:
…ready for the college game. As a track kid, he has the straight line speed to run down ball carriers and is great when he’s coming forward… he’s a great blitzer and run defender.
“He is a guy who gets into his drops quickly. He can survey what’s going on in front of him quickly. He can get to the ball quickly. He is a great athlete and a lot of top schools were recruiting him as a tight end. … He brings great size to the linebacker position.”
Tall, well built with great bulk and solid functional strength. Possesses good range and straight-line speed to go sideline-to-sideline.
Is at his best filling downhill inside the tackles. Plays smart, reads keys and sees plays develop leading to very few false steps. Quick to get off the mark and fit his inside run gaps. Generates good short-area power. Plays square with adequate leverage and is difficult to turn out of the hole at his size. …appears much more effective pursuing downhill than laterally.
He has the mass to stop runners dead in their tracks, but is also athletic enough to make plays on the edge of the line. He has good hands and is very knowledgeable between the lines. … not the type of player to chase running backs down outside the box. … classic run-stuffer more so than a spread-capable linebacker at this stage in his development."
… baller. Balls out with truckloads of swag. When balling out, balls further, reaching new frontiers of balling. Skee Lo was thinking of this guy. …Swagtruck baller. Six-hundred star recruit.
Thanks, Mississippi State.
So… Ferns is a guy who goes and hits people hard if they don't run away from him.
Ferns enrolled in January. Alarmingly, a hamstring injury slowed his progress. Count up the "injury" mentions in this article and… yeah. Two is probably a coincidence. Four is getting a bit alarming.
As a result of the hamstring, Ferns was held out much of the spring and did not seem particularly close to breaking into the two deep what with Michigan returning five players with meaningful experience.
Given that depth chart it would make sense to redshirt Ferns. Michigan has Ryan, Gedeon, Morgan, Bolden, and probably Mike McCray in front of him at the MLB and WLB spots. Linebackers tend to play on special teams, though. He's a strong candidate for Argh Why U No Redshirt of the year.
Etc.: Graduated high school in three years. Had a 4.0 at one point. The Pattern: yup.
Why Desmond Morgan? Ferns is a high-IQ thumper that limits YAC and played all over the field as a high school player at a small school. This fits closely with Morgan, who was actually the QB for his high school team. Both are at their best reading and going hard in restricted spaces.
Ferns is much higher ranked but Morgan has clearly outperformed his recruiting rankings in college; while no one will confuse Morgan with a coverage specialist he has generally gotten to the right spot at the right time for Michigan. He's adequate or maybe a little bit better there.
A potential area where this comparison falls down: a lot of people say Ferns is an excellent blitzer and has some of that vertical explosion Jake Ryan does.
Guru Reliability: Medium. Near-consensus on the rankings but injury held him out or slowed him down at some critical points where he could have confirmed his early offer flood and top-100 rankings. Played for a small school against iffy competition.
Variance: Medium. Advanced physically (thus the early offers), little positional projection, high IQ. On the other hand, low level of competition and he has had a lot of injuries, to the point where he may actually be injury-prone instead of just unlucky.
Ceiling: High-minus. Seems to lack the bit of athleticism necessary to warrant a "high"—like Morgan may top out as a B+ player. Does have that A- upside if he can blitz.
General Excitement Level: Moderate-plus. I'm a little down on Ferns relative to his rankings because he can't seem to stay healthy. If that recedes there's a good chance he contributes.
Projection: Doesn't redshirt, causing my mandibles to clack angrily every time I look at a depth chart by class for the next four years. Sees special teams time almost exclusively.
In year two, backs up either Gedeon or Bolden at MLB; will take a run at a starting spot vacated by Bolden in year three, and then has another shot a year after. Pretty much exclusively an MLB/WLB prospect, with MLB more likely since it somewhat limits exposure to coverage issues.
|WHAT||USA vs Belgium|
|LINE||Si Se Puede|
WIN OR DIE. Image via a "spritegirl".
THE THEM: IT CAME FROM GERMINAL BEERSCHOT
Belgium is ludicrously talented for a nation with about the same population as Michigan, especially since this is not a country like Holland that has a rich history in the game. The Flyin' Waffles haven't so much as made either the World Cup or the European Championships since 2002. This has not stopped them from growing a generation of talent that has seen them rocket up the FIFA rankings and the bookies' odds. Pre-tourney, Belgium was fifth-favorites.
This is because the team is full of club-level stars. If you took each World Cup team and sold them on the transfer market right now, only Brazil would cost more.
Part of that is because Belgium is so danged young. The other part is because they are good.
This hasn't really shown in the group stages. The Waffles haven't scored before the 70th minute of any of their games despite fielding an all-star team in a group that was kindling waiting for a match.
There are two main reasons for this. One is the absence of striker Christian Benteke, who was injured just before the World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, his replacement, is a big name himself, but for whatever reason the team seems to lack je ne sais quoi when he's the main guy. The second is Belgium's lack of outside backs. Without overlapping runs from them, teams have been free to double up on Belgium's talented wingers.
There hasn't been a whole lot to learn about Belgium in two of their three games. They faced an Algeria team that was parking the bus virtually the whole time, and in the group finale against South Korea they played a heavily rotated lineup against what may have been the worst team in Brazil.
The Russia match is the closest thing to what will transpire against the US. Russia had half the possession and matched the Belgians in shots, finally ceding a goal in the 88th minute as the defenders on Eden Hazard faltered.
And then there was the friendly about a year ago in which Belgium thrashed the USA backline to a 4-2 win. The US started a back four of Beasley-Goodson-Gonzalez-Cameron in that one and Christian Benteke, who is out of this World Cup, was around to harrass the USA… but if they play anything like they did in that friendly it's going to be ugly.
GOALIE: Thibaut Courtois has spent the last three years as Atletico Madrid's goalie, during which time Madrid's stingy defense saw them win La Liga, shockingly. He's a strength.
Kompany and Vermalen (background) are doubtful, apparently
DEFENSE: Health issues abound. Anthony Vanden Borre, the Zangeif-lookin' mofo you may have noticed menacing his way around the field against South Korea, is out with an injury. While he was not a likely starter he may have been called on as a substitute if Belgium found themselves trailing; as a natural outside back he offers more going forward than their other options there.
That's because the rest of those options are center-backs. Like Germany, Belgium have entered this tournament determined to play a back four entirely consisting of naturally central players. In Belgium's case it's because they have a pile of excellent CBs and no fullbacks.
The first-choice central defenders are supposed to be Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermalen, but both of them are nursing injuries. Kompany has a groin issue, Vermalen a hamstring problem. Kompany missed the South Korea game, for whatever that means. It does sound like he's having issues that might make him a risk his coach may not want to take:
"Now we wait for the reaction, the training and the development day by day, but you saw the last game too – he tried hard in the last training session and had to stop after half an hour"
If one of those guys can't go, expect 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten to get a start. Van Buyten has played all of Belgium's games so far; at 6'6" he is obviously a force in the air, but he may be susceptible to getting outrun. He is a backup at Bayern Munich who's gotten about a dozen appearances per year for the last three. If both are out Zenit's Nicolas Lombaerts is likely to draw in. He's is a downgrade but only because Kompany has a claim to be the world's best central defender. He actually scored against the USA in 2011, but that USA lineup had Howard and Dempsey and no one else who will play tomorrow.
As previously mentioned, the outside backs are a bit of a weak point. Toby Alderwereld is the right back; he's a backup center back for Atletico Madrid. The left back could be Vermalen but is more likely to be Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen had an up and down group stage, giving up the penalty that put Algeria up and scoring the lone goal against South Korea.
These guys aren't hoofers or anything…
these are talented technical footballers who impress at centre-back because of their ability to bring the ball out of defence, so they certainly aren’t useless clodhoppers. Amazingly, Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertonghan had almost identical footballing educations, raised at Germinal Beerschot before moving across the border to Ajax, where they were encouraged to play proactively in a high defensive line, and bring the ball out of defence intelligently.
…but while they can help the team get it out of the back, overlapping is not in the cards. Against Russia they barely approached the final third.
Belgium outside backs versus Russia
Belgian outside backs did get a bit more forward in the other games. If the US gets trapped in their own end with 30% of the possession or just flat sucks, fullbacks popping up on offense will be a symptom, not a cause.
MIDFIELD: Belgium is likely to field Alex Witsel in their version of the Beckerman role. Insert the usual "except he's paid a bucket of money by a major Euro club" here. In this case it's oil-gorged Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg. Witsel as described by Zonal Marking:
The primary holder is Axel Witsel, a strong, reliable and commanding midfielder that doesn’t advance into attack, but can move up the pitch to shut down opponents and leave space between the lines – as mentioned, the centre-backs deal with anyone in that zone.
The primary attacking midfielder will be Kevin De Bruyne, who shredded the US with through balls in that friendly and has easily been Belgium's most dangerous offensive player aside when allowed to play in the center of the field behind the striker. (He was anonymous as a right sided midfielder for about 60 minutes against Algeria, then became a huge threat as soon as substitutions shoved him into the middle.)
The third midfielder is in question. Marouane Fellaini made a major impact in the Algeria game as an out-and-out striker looking to pound things in with his head. He also scored a thundering header against the US a year ago. He was deployed against Russia in Belgium's most important group game, so it seems like he'd be the obvious pick. But then there's a calf injury that forced him off the field early yesterday. That would open the door for Mousa Dembele, except he's suffering from basically the same injury. The Ghana witch doctor may be on our side now.
Anyway, pick between these gentlemen:
They’re very different options – Fellaini is a physical destroyer who lacks guile on the ball, and Dembele is a peculiar, converted forward who is excellent at dribbling forward and evading challenges, but offers surprisingly little end product, preferring to keep his passing simple.
Fellaini's ability to hit things hard with his head gives him the edge, health being equal.
De Bruyne (left) and Lukaku (right) haven't been able to hook up so far
FORWARD: Belgium's been looking for something more impressive than what 21-year-old Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku's been able to offer so far, but they don't have great options. Kevin Mirallas is not a physical presence at 5'10" and Divock Origi is promising but just 19.
The wingers will be problems. Dries Mertens has consistently gotten into dangerous areas coming in from the right.
Mertens vs Russia
The area just inside the box towards the end line that Mertens got to repeatedly is assist central.
Premier League assist density, last three years
Mertens could not find the final ball against Russia, or his strikers weren't in a spot to run on to it. Mertens may just be a guy who isn't too good at making goals right now.
Even so the US will be playing with fire if they allow anything similar—Russia finally got bit when Eden Hazard, the left winger, got into that spot on the other side of the box and set up Origi for an easy slam home. Hazard is the most expensive and highest-regarded of any of Belgium's players—he was just named Chelsea's player of the year at the ripe old age of 23—but he hasn't had much impact with the national team. He's scored just six times in 47 caps and for much of the tournament he's been anonymous. That's where Belgium's lack of full-backs really shows. Defenses can overplay him and take him away. Expect the same from the US, with a defensive mid shaded to him.
Facing down another 4-3-3 with super dangerous wingers and question marks at outside back, expect a reprise of the Portugal game plan: a 4-5-1 with defensive responsibility on the flanks and Johnson bombing forward in an effort to exploit the lack of defense provided by the 4-3-3.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Beasley and Besler are locks if healthy; Johnson is going to start. There is a faint chance that he gets moved up into the midfield, allowing Yedlin or Chandler to start. Faint, though.
While Gonzalez had his best game for the US in a long time against Germany, Cameron is likely to return to the lineup. He provides more ability with the ball at his feet and the USA is going to need more possession than they did against Germany in a game they actually have to win. Also, his mobility will be a major asset against Hazard.
The US has a little bit of a luxury here, as they can afford to give their outside backs cover since Belgium won't be overlapping much. Job one for the US outside backs and midfielders is to keep Belgium's wingers out of the danger zone. If they cross, they cross. The US has decided to live and die with crosses by jamming the middle, and with Fellaini in question all the more reason to double down.
time for meep meep?
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Yedlin
Beckerman, Jones, Bradley are locks. Jones has been the USA's player of the tournament so far. This is the game Bradley's touch returns, I promise. Beckerman is going to be absolutely critical as he strives to prevent De Bruyne from playing Belgians in on Howard's goal. If he can quiet the Belgian #10 as the US reaches the quarters hell have cemented an unlikely place in USMNT lore.
The wing spots are in doubt. Davis was invisible and lifted early. Zusi's touch has been off and his service poor aside from the winner against Ghana; Bedoya seems like he's about ready to fall over and expire on the regular. Given what we've seen so far, Bedoya makes sense. He's the only guy who's given you two-way play on the left this tourney, and he's relatively fresh.
Aaand… this could be a spot where Klinsmann does something wacky like start Yedlin. It's easy to see Yedlin zooming past the Belgians' left back, whoever it is, into the assist zone he got to for the second against Portugal. Yedlin's speed will also help the US cover on Hazard. Meanwhile any individual defensive issues he has are not likely to come into play.
Zusi is of course a possibility.
What about Jozy? There have been reports he's doing some running, and Klinsmann has said he's "very optimistic" again:
‘‘We are very optimistic,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.’’
"A part" is one thing. A start that might go 120 minutes with a still-lingering muscle injury is unlikely.
SUBS: If the US finds itself down they'll have to go for it, so expect some sort of midfielder-for-striker swap with Beckerman the most likely to go out since he offers the least going forward. This is a recording.
In a tie game pushing towards extra-time, the US might lift one of the wingers for Wondolowski, and then if things get very deep Dempsey will probably be cashed out, allowing Johannsson to enter.
If the US is fortunate enough to be protecting a lead, bringing in Gonzalez will make sense. Fellaini is truly terrifying in the air, and Belgium's response to Algeria suggests they will go 4-4-2 with Fellaini up front if they need to. Whether that's a straight swap for Cameron or something else I don't know, but whatever it is it should not be Gonzalez as some sort of ostrich defensive mid.
Algerian Djamel Haimoudi has drawn the game. He did the most recent African Cup of Nations final and a Confed Cup semi; so far in this tournament he's done the Costa Rica-England and Holland-Australia games.
The latter featured a pretty ridiculous PK call for Australia when a Holland defender's arm hit a cross that came from about two feet away and seemed an obvious case of ball-to-hand. On the other hand, Haumoudi has a number of opportunities to bite on dives in the box and passed.
I'd mention cards but at this point it's clear that the refs have been instructed to be very lenient with yellows. That's no doubt an attempt to keep suspensions down since yellows now clear after the quarters instead of the group stage.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
Good goddamn Bradley. This is not the Michael Bradley I know. The above is. Bradley's history with the US when allowed to forward is one of constant activity, through balls that come off, and late runs into the box that are a danger few outfits are adequately prepared for.
He hasn't exactly been terrible in this tournament, but he has not provided the attacking edge he has for the last four years. It's probably just bad luck and bad form at the wrong time, but it's unlikely the US wins this game without Bradley having a hand in a USA goal.
Fitness will be tested… again. The US got an extra day of rest compared to Germany, but unfortunately they are going up against a team that rested a bunch of guys in their final group match.
However, the tests will go both ways. Belgium has a number of guys in various states of injury. If Kompany or Vermalen or Fellaini play there's a chance that one of them has to use up a substitution early, and as the US learned four years ago you really do not want to have to use early substitutes in a game that can go 120 minutes.
Keep the ball, have the ball, keep and have the ball. The US has gotten boxed in by two of its three opponents so far, and while the situations they found themselves in (up a goal thirty seconds in and soon without Jozy; playing Germany needing to not lose by lots) lent themselves to that kind of cagey play, now it's win or die time.
This means keeping the dang ball and playing Belgium like an equal. The good news is that Belgium is not particularly good at pressing. Algeria and South Korea abandoned any idea of possession pre-game, but a not particularly technical Russian side had exactly as much of the game as Belgium did, with relatively few Aimless Upfield Punts.
Center backs and goalie unsuccessful passes, Russia vs Belgium
The Shin Guardian's take on Belgium's panini game:
Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.
The first pass or two out of the back will be crucial, especially without Jozy. Bradley should be dropping deep to provide an outlet on the regular.
Fullback offense. The US fullbacks didn't have much impact on the Germany game aside from a couple of slaloming Beasley runs on which Run DMB seemed a decade younger, but this was largely because the US couldn't hold the ball long enough for them to get upfield. Once the US clears Belgium's pressure, the best offense they'll have is their speedy wing backs against the Belgium flanks.
WIN THE GAME. #winthegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
While Michigan didn't quite end up getting their entire starting five from the 2013 national title game into the first round, last night's NBA Draft proved a major success for the program. Here's an overview of what went down last night; next week, I'll take a closer look at how each U-M draftee fits in with his new team.
Nik Stauskas, #8 Overall, Sacramento Kings
Nik Stauskas went off the board at #8 to Sacramento, becoming the highest Wolverine selection since Dallas picked Robert Traylor (RIP) sixth in 1998 before trading him to Milwaukee. Stauskas, resplendent in a suit that probably cost more than my car, immediately celebrated with a perfectly executed three-goggle handshake with his dad. (His subsequent handshake with John Beilein wasn't quite so flawless.)
Afterward, Stauskas was asked about Michigan by someone who clearly never went to Michigan, because Zingerman's is way too expensive for students and the Art Fair takes place when almost nobody is on campus. He handled it well:
Q. Nik, Michigan is a very good school academically, great campus like Zingerman's, the art festival in Ann Arbor. Was it an easy decision? There must be a tough decision to say, I want to leave early, because it is a great school. Was there part of you that said, I should get my degree here and then go to the NBA?
NIK STAUSKAS: I definitely thought about it, but the biggest thing for me after this season was I felt like I was ready. I thought I had improved enough throughout the year, and I had made a lot of strides in my game and made the necessary improvements to make that jump to the next level.
Like I said, this has been a dream of mine my entire life. The fact that I had the opportunity to do it now, I feel like this is the right time. I understand that I could always go back and get my education after, which I fully plan on doing.
It's great to hear that Stauskas plans to finish earning his degree down the road. And yes, Nik, you were ready.
In the end, it turned out Stauskas separated himself quite a bit from the two players believed to be his biggest competition as shooting guards projected to go in the mid-to-late lottery. Kentucky's James Young went to the Celtics at #17, while MSU's Gary Harris surprisingly plunged all the way to #19—he'll end up in Denver after a draft-day trade with Chicago.
Mitch McGary, #21 Overall, Oklahoma City Thunder
One of the most entertaining aspects of draft night is watching Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski announce every pick on Twitter well before the actual picks are announced, sometimes getting so far as three picks ahead of the telecast. Rarely does anyone scoop Wojo; when they do, sometimes it's because they're wrong.
So when John Beilein tweeted this out minutes before Oklahoma City selected Mitch McGary at #21 overall, it'd prove to be the second-greatest thing Beilein did last night (TEASER):
— John Beilein (@JohnBeilein) June 27, 2014
John Beilein is better at your job than you are. There's no shame in this. Just accept it.
Meanwhile, MLive's Brendan Quinn passes along this fantastic quote from OKC GM Sam Presti, generally regarded as one of the best in the business:
"The last thing that is really, really impressive to us, and the reason that we value him even more, is that he's an incredible teammate -- just an incredible teammate," Presti said. "That was on display during the season when he missed a significant amount of time.
"I felt like I was scouting him on the bench while he wasn't playing. The way that he engaged with his teammates, his support was unwavering, his enthusiasm was unwavering. Combine that with his skill-set and and his intangibles, and that's a Thunder player."
If the Thunder don't use a future pick on Andrew Dakich, I'll be sorely disappointed.
Glenn Robinson III, #40 Overall, Minnesota Timberwolves
Wojo cruelly tweeted that Oklahoma City was considering GRIII with their second pick of the first round, which was not to be. In a really deep draft—Wichita State's Cleanthony Early lasted all the way to #34—he dropped to the tenth pick of the second round, but the team that nabbed him valued him much higher than that:
Robinson III 26th or 27th on #Twolves board, per Flip.
— Darren Wolfson (@DarrenWolfson) June 27, 2014
At GRIII's draft party, his mother took a moment to note that this was the plan all along:
When the waiting was finally over, after the Timberwolves had finished the drama, Clay [Robinson's mother], along with Robinson took the podium.
She read a letter he wrote in high school about how he was going to miss school but that he was onto bigger and better things.
That in a couple of years, he would be playing in the NBA.
He called it.
With Robinson's selection, Michigan—as expected—ended with three players taken in the draft, tied with UCLA for the most among any school. However...
Jordan Morgan, Undrafted Free Agent, Minnesota Timberwolves
...that didn't mean Beilein's night was over. The last person remaining in the green room, Michigan's coach waited out every pick in the hope that a team would take a second-round flier on Jordan Morgan:
John Beilein will not leave until all of his players are drafted. pic.twitter.com/dH6WCBK1ba
— Daniel Feldman (@danfeldman31) June 27, 2014
John Beilein is the best. The absolute best.
Morgan didn't get picked, but he'll get a chance to earn a roster spot alongside GRIII, as he told Quinn today that he's joining the Timberwolves as an undrafted free agent. He'll get his shot on Minnesota's Summer League squad; they start play on July 12th, and you can find the whole schedule here. Even if Morgan doesn't get a spot on the Timberwolves, it's a great opportunity for him to audition for other NBA teams and scouts from other leagues.
How About The Pistons?
While Detroit lost their first-round pick (don't ask, or this vein in my head starts doing funny things), they used their second-rounder on Colorado guard Spencer Dinwiddie, considered a potential first-round prospect last year before coming back to school and suffering an ACL injury. How would I grade the pick?