that's unfortunate, but at least the interest is there on both sides
Yesterday, I posted the eight teams you should root for the most in this year’s Sweet 16. With games starting tonight, here’s the next eight. As a reminder, the top eight teams you should root for, in order, are Wichita State, Oklahoma, Arizona, Gonzaga, North Carolina State, Utah, Xavier, and Notre Dame.
Caution: hot takes.
9. North Carolina
“I have horrible taste in blazers blah blah blah”
I really don’t know what to say about this North Carolina team. I don’t like it, I don’t dislike it; I don’t think they’ve been particularly impressive, but on the other hand, they haven’t exactly been underwhelming either. As a team, they can’t shoot worth a lick, but the Heels feature a seemingly endless army of tall, variably athletic guys with overlapping skill sets. Recruiting guru approval only carried Carolina so far – there’s ridiculous Thad Matta-like consternation over the state of the program in recent years. Marcus Paige, the Heels’ go-to guy and only reliable shooter, hasn’t fulfilled All-American promise, and the rest of the team is still very young.
It’s perfectly fair to say that UNC acquitted themselves well this year despite failing to meet some of the loftiest annual expectations of any program in the country. Being among college basketball loyalty has its pluses and minuses: UNC has the facilities, financial resources, and recruiting cachet to remain forever stocked with talent – though this group seems starkly lacking in that there’s not a surefire NBA player in the whole bunch – but there’s the looming expectation that they have to remain extremely competitive in the ACC and must contend for Final Fours and National Championships.
Carolina finished 24-11 and fifth in the league, and although they managed a surprise run to the ACC Tournament final (where they lost to Notre Dame), they weren’t in the hunt for the regular season conference crown and were swept by their hated rival Duke, who has the future lottery picks and number one seed that Carolina envies. It’s tough.
Still, it’s not easy to feel bad for them. They’re still a four-seed and their front line of bouncy junior center Brice Johnson, burly sophomore power forward Kennedy Meeks (who is battling a knee injury), and lanky freshman swingman Justin Jackson will provide an interesting matchup against Wisconsin, though I think the Badgers have an advantage in each individual matchup. UNC isn’t a realistic Final Four contender – they’d need to beat Wisconsin and Arizona, a tall task for a teams that are far more well-rounded than UNC is.
Whatever. They’re nine.
The Monstars Kentucky
Karl-Anthony Towns is a national treasure and my goodness that young man can play some basketball.
[30 for 30 voice]
What if I told you, that in college basketball’s greatest bastion, in an era of increasing selfishness and commercialization, there was a group of young men who put aside their egos and banded together to play basketball The Right Way, with tenacious defense, egalitarian offense, and a desire to win, first and foremost, without any thought of personal gain.
That’s Kentucky. I’m not sure if they’re better than the Anthony Davis – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Cats back in 2012 (who received the top overall seed and romped to a national title), but this iteration of Cal’s Wildcats are four games away from the first undefeated season in almost 40 years. They have future NBA stars – Karl-Anthony Towns, in addition to being a funny and kinda weird dude, should be the top overall pick in my opinion, and junior (junior!) center Willie Cauley-Stein projects to be a plus-plus defender and rim protector at the next level. On average, they play about 23 minutes per regulation game, because they’re backed up by more freakishly huge, athletic, and imposing big guys.
Because it’s Kentucky – home to college basketball’s answer to Alabama and Florida State’s football fanbases – and because the team is guided by John Calipari, a shameless self-promoter who inspires precious little confidence in he and his program’s ethical legitimacy, for reasons both fair and unfair, people don’t like Kentucky. That’s fine. That’s why I have them way down at #9.
BUT LOOK AT THE PLAYERS. The rotation is just stupidly deep and talented: UK’s two best guards (arguably, but in my opinion) are Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, and they each come off the bench behind the Harrison twins, who were top ten prospects two years ago. Trey Lyles is 6’10 and slightly miscast as a small forward – he does play some power forward – but any offensive speed bumps are rendered inconsequential by Kentucky’s otherworldly defense. This team is insanely fun to watch and if these guys were coached by almost anyone else, they’d be celebrated.
It’s Kentucky and it’s Coach Cal though, so a legitimately fun and possibly historical outfit is side-eyed with suspicion. Instead of focusing on the negatives, let’s focus on the positives: these guys all came in with insane high school accolades and they eventually fit together as a team and fulfill whatever hokey platitudes about teamwork you’d like to throw out there. And they’re so damn good.
That’s my case for bumping up UK from the cellar of these rankings. I’ll be completely honest, the fanbase is spoiled rotten and Cal rubs me the wrong way too (even if I think exploiting the one-and-done loophole is good business and admirable in its own way). If they go undefeated, we’ll have to revisit this, but they’re a buzzsaw and we don’t get to watch teams play at this level in college basketball very often.
This is the second result for “Bo Ryan incredulous” on Google image search.
“But Alex, they’re in the Big Ten too! Conference camaraderie, right?” “You said yourself that this wasn’t a typical Wisconsin team in that they’re actually fun to watch on offense!” “I’d rather these guys win than say, Michigan State.” “I actually don’t mind Wisconsin.”
You know what, straw men? You’re wrong. Despite everything, it’s still Wisconsin – the Trohl Center; Bo Ryan’s ceaseless badgering (hah) of the refs; defense that borders on dirty until one of their generic white dudes sticks his foot under yours on a jump shot and then, you know what, it’s just straight up dirty; it’s Josh Gasser’s bank shot in Crisler, it’s Ben Brust’s heave in Madison, it’s everything that’s regressive and problematic about college hoops! (I actually don’t believe that last part, but I was on a roll).
I’ve never been a huge participant in the Great Conference Wars of college athletics, to be quite honest. I think that the SEC hivemind that stumps for their hated rivals in out-of-conference football games is absurdly warped and stupid. I think that, you know what, even if there’s tangible benefits to a team winning, I just might not like that team. That’s it. Wisconsin’s current team isn’t all that bad – Bronson Koenig has been an awesome surprise, Frank Kaminsky is obviously the dude, and Nigel Hayes is talented and endearing. But this Wisconsin team carries the ghost of all of their predecessors and the less enjoyable things that come with them. More than anything though, I don’t like Wisconsin because they’re good. It’s not really that much more complicated than that.
* * *
I do find myself in a quandary however. After each Badger win, this CBS guy Jon Rothstein tweets, verbatim, “Death. Taxes. Bo Ryan.” While I do enjoy that Bo Ryan is juxtaposed with each of those horrible things, it’s tired and roundly mocked on Twitter after Wisconsin victories. If Rothstein’s right though, what happens if we topple the great undead tax collector? Death and taxes would be vanquished forever!
Now, that sounds good, but let’s pause for a minute. If the unholy triumvirate of death, taxes, and Bo Ryan were to be defeated, we’d have immortality, 100% of our earnings, and no more Wisconsin in the tournament. Immortality sounds great, but it really would probably be the shittiest thing ever; taxes are an unfortunate necessity and our civilization would collapse completely without them. So, yeah, we need Bo Ryan to keep winning. And if Wisconsin manages to hoist the first national championship trophy in a decade-and-a-half for the Big Ten, so help me, I’m gonna stick another needle in my Bucky Badger voodoo doll.
This riff probably didn’t make any sense, and I’m sorry for that. Go Heels.
12. West Virginia
♫ Country Roads, take me home ♫
Since WVU is probably going to play Kentucky’s game and, in the process, try to debase the beauty of the game of basketball as much as they possibly can, I’m not really a fan. Perhaps I’m too aestheticist, but for the love of all that’s good and pure about hoops, I can’t stand West Virginia’s brand of basketball. Play physical defense and dare the ref to give you five fouls; run offense that can most generously be described as “rudimentary” and just chase offensive rebounds; and, really, play the most extreme form of defense possible – the Mountaineers are first nationally in forcing turnovers and worst nationally in allowing free throws. Get a steal or hack the shit out of someone. It’s ugly. It’s not fun. It’s West Virginia hoops! Bob Huggins just told his team to run Beilein’s offense when he got there because he didn’t want to install his own. I’m not a fan of Huggins, but that’s not really here nor there.
And, really, since they’re almost definitely going to lose to Kentucky, it’s not worth our time to discuss them much further.
Life’s not fair.
Firstly, UCLA probably should not have made the tournament in the first place. They were rewarded for testing themselves with a murderer’s row of a schedule, but only tallied one truly great win – over Utah at home. Colorado State and Temple, for example, probably should have gotten in ahead of the Bruins, and that UCLA missed out on playing one of the First Four games in Dayton was a complete joke. Their wins in the tournament don’t validate their inclusion – the committee had to work with the data available at the time and made the incorrect choice.
Beyond that though, UCLA was the beneficiary of the biggest officiating controversy of the tournament thus far. They led SMU comfortably in the 6 / 11 game in the Round of 64 before falling apart in the second half and the Mustangs led the Bruins by seven points with a minute and a half there. In all fairness, SMU completely collapsed down the stretch, but the game winning “three” – screenshotted above – came as a result of an incredibly dubious goaltending call. SMU’s Yanick Moreira went up for the rebound on a ball that was clearly off the mark by about a foot. The Mustangs bungled the subsequent possession and wound up losing by one, 60-59.
UCLA then dispatched 14-seed UAB easily in the Round of 32, setting up a rematch of the infamous “Adam Morrison crying” game with Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen.
They’re the worst team left in the field, per Kenpom, and quite frankly, they shouldn’t be here because of multiple reasons. Sorry, UCLA, but we’re going to hold that against you. Hopefully the Bulldogs exact Morrison’s revenge.
NO. THIS IS WRONG. NO. NOOOOOOOOOOO.
I was on the floor of the Georgia Dome for Michigan’s tragic defeat in the National Championship two years ago so it should really go without saying that I absolutely, unequivocally hate Louisville for that. That block was clean, dammit. The happiness in the picture above inversely correlated with my misery that fateful April night and I probably won’t be able to stop wondering what could have been if a few more possessions had gone our way.
That said, there’s more to hate about Louisville! I mentioned West Virginia’s brutish style above and Louisville is much of the same, except they have the recruiting ability to aspire to be something greater than that. Right now, Louisville might actually surpass the Mountaineers as the ugliest team left in the tournament – their offense is a mess without any spacing and each game of theirs seems to devolve into a 1980’s Big East bar fight. Montrezl Harrell is an exciting player who can dunk about as well as anybody in college basketball, but even he falls in love with terrible mid-range or three-point shots. Chris Jones, the most baffling and frustrating player on the team was kicked off the squad about a month ago.
On top of that, Rick Pitino’s often a grating figure – consider this wholly unnecessary attack towards a college kid in a press conference in response to a wholly reasonable question -- Papa John’s pizza sucks, and Louisville is and forever will be the little brother to Kentucky. Between their style and the championship game two years ago, watching Louisville’s been excruciating on more than one level. The Cards were fortunate to receive a lifeboat from the ACC after the dissolution of the Big East (and a brief purgatorial stay in the American Conference) and, unfortunately, between Pitino and conference relevance, Louisville doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
Between the loss two years ago, Louisville’s brand of bully-ball, and Rick Pitino, it’s easy not to like Louisville.
15. Michigan State
January February IZZO April May June July August September October November December
Chances are, as a Michigan fan, you probably don’t like Michigan State. It’s alright – I don’t either (although I should note that there are plenty of amazing MSU fans that I interact with on Twitter on a regular basis. I know some of y’all are reading this so just know that it’s nothing personal – strictly business). And, to be quite frank, Michigan State’s success is bad for business, as far as Michigan’s concerned.
Predictably, the national media focused on East Lansing and fawned over Tom Izzo like he was the reincarnation of Dr. James Naismith himself – and the worst part is, you can’t really argue. Michigan State has become one of the premier programs in college basketball because of the Spartans’ success in March. It’s hard to admit, but it’s true. And it makes it even easier to resent them and pull hard against them, no matter the opponent.
As for the whole “Big Ten solidarity” thing: again, IT’S BAD FOR MICHIGAN IF MICHIGAN STATE MAKES A FINAL FOUR OR WINS A NATIONAL TITLE. Beilein and Izzo will be locked in some head-to-head recruiting battles over the next few cycles; highly-touted prospects will come down to a choice between Michigan and Michigan State. It’s not good for Michigan if MSU continues their surprise run through this NCAA Tournament, not even close.
And, of course, a lot of things really go without saying, but hey, why not go through one of them anyways. Let’s consider Michigan State’s fabled “Little Sister” chant as, well, somewhat microcosmic, a clever commentary on what happens when the hegemonic gaze is refocused back at the one who gazes… hah no, it’s just a terribly uncreative, reactionary chant that reeks of misogyny and an inferiority complex. “It’s an isolated thing,” you say. Not when the whole student section chants it. Way to go, guys. Hearing that at Crisler after they punked us at our own place made my blood boil. State absolutely hates us and they’re under our skin, definitely, especially considering their recent run of football dominance.
Of course, there are plenty of great Spartan fans out there, and for them, I wish nothing but the best – save for a humbling loss at the hands of my Oklahoma Sooners. And for all the recent sports success in East Lansing, it’s only natural to become anxious – when will something go wrong? Not this year, as State exceeded every expectation and made the Sweet Sixteen… so let’s just hope they won’t go any further.
Duke’s last. It’s a principle thing.
With Michigan State's 2015 spring depth chart up, thought it would be useful to do an early preview of our 8th most important rival. Living in state I see a lot more info about MSU than OSU so it's easier for me to follow. Also doing the research and writeups such as this helps me get a better understanding of the players and strengths/weaknesses so hopefully it is of use to you as well.
Outside of the MSU player legal issues, I will try to write this without much snark although difficult to do. Also let me say that despite being annoying in taking offense to something as small as the wind blowing in from Ann Arbor towards EL, one has to respect the job Mark Dantonio has done in not only building a football program essentially from the ground up post Bobby Williams/John L Smith in an Alvarez way, but changing the mentality and culture from within. Those of us over the age of 30 grew up in an era of LOL Sparty No football, and unfortunately that is now gone. At some point it will return but from this set of eyes not until Dantonio retires and MSU jumps on the always scary coaching carousel.
Overall Look 2015
Like all teams (well maybe aside from OSU and TCU) MSU has some holes to fill in 2015 but in general returns the normal loaded with upperclassmen team, which now has a winning culture, and top notch coaching. The loss of Narduzzi as DC is an obvious question mark but both coaches replacing him in the DC role have been with Dantonio for a decade plus. There will be no surprises here.
On offense, MSU was bolstered by the return of RS SR Connor Cook who stayed in school rather than applying for the NFL draft where most had him mocked 1st-2nd round in a draft lacking pro style QBs. The team returns a veteran and talented OL. High profile losses were at the skill positions, namely WR and RB - specifically Langford and Lippett. However the teams strengths (QB/OL) tend to mitigate those losses - a great OL can bolster decent running backs, and an NFL quality QB can bolster decent WRs. At support skill positions the starting TE looks to be excellent and a fifth year senior returns at fullback. There are some legal troubles facing the offense as presumed starting RB Delton Williams has a gun charge and starter MacGarrett Kings has a second alcohol offense in under a year. The former situation seems more serious as it was a gun charge on a campus that does not allow them so I assume the penalty goes right to the top of campus and not solely in Dantonio's (more lenient) hands. This might be a situation that goes right to the top of the MSU food chain as a campus incident rather than a football player incident; we'll see. I fully expect Kings back - he has not been suspended despite a 2nd alcohol offense in a short period and while he may be suspended in the future for a bit, outside of running a lot of stadium stairs I don't expect much more. "He is a playmaker" after all.
On defense, MSU returns quite possibly the best front 7 in the conference. It is loaded with veterans and like on offense the surprise return of 5th year SR Shilique Calhoun bolstered the ranks. Unlike Cook who shot up draft boards, Calhoun was top 15ish overall preseason 2014 in mock drafts but fell as the season went by. Rather than risk being a 2nd rounder he decided to come back. While DE Marcus Rush is a loss there are a lot of talented players on MSU's D line, and a very experienced group of LBs who mostly dominate against Big 10 offenses (not named OSU). The back 4 are a question mark, similar to 2014 - but with even more questions. In 2013, MSU had the rare pleasure of two NFL 1st round cornerbacks patrolling the back end - along with a future NFL safety in Kurtis Drummond. This led to one of the best defenses in the Midwest in the past 20 years. Last year saw the departure of Dennard, and this year brings the departure of Waynes and Drummond. While there is some talent back there - and Dantonio is an ace DB developer, it's the one area of the team outside of RB with a lot of open questions.
Special teams takes a hit too with the loss of Sadler at punter. Geiger their FG kicker struggled his SO year after a great FR year - he is currently in rehab after offseason surgery so the kicking game has some questions to answer. The return game has probably been the one area MSU has really lagged the past few years in relation to other teams finishing in the top 10. Kings is integral there.
Overall MSU probably takes a step back on the offensive skill positions (WR/RB) - offset by a senior 3 year starting future NFL QB.... and the secondary will be exploited by top end QBs. But being in the Big 10 they face very few top end QBs (or even middle end) and Oregon will either be starting a newbie or rolling out a FCS transfer (a talented one but still). Outside of OSU and PSU not many teams in the Big 10 have a passing threat to unlock MSU's press. Remember this was the conf where Gary Nova was the 3rd best QB last year. If you believe games are won in the trenches, you will have to stretch to bet against another season of big success for MSU - they could have the best combination of lines in the conf up with OSU.
Despite road games at OSU, Nebraska, and UM and a home game v Oregon this is actually quite a favorable schedule, although nowhere near as easy as 2014. (No that wasn't snark). Outside of a road game to Oregon last year there was not much in types of serious challenges on the road for MSU in 2014, outside of a bit of a tricky game in Happy Valley. For a veteran, well coached team it was a very good setup.... OSU, Neb, and UM were at home.
In an interesting quirk of scheduling, Sparty will only leave the state of Michigan once (to NJ) until November. That's got to be something unique in all of college football. They only leave the state 3 times the entire year.
In the non conf, MSU opens with a much improved Western Michigan but again this is Western Michigan. While it could be a tricky game, MSU is bringing in potentially 3 first round draft choices and a BCS level team and WMU is.... well WMU. Good luck P.J. Fleck. While Oregon is tough they do lose a Heisman winner at the helm and are starting from scratch at the most important position. With what looks on paper to be an excellent front 7 for MSU, Oregon's OL will be a key in that game. After that tilt the schedule lightens up considerably. Service academy teams' offenses are usually difficult to prepare for but again, MSU brings a veteran, disciplined, and talented front 7 on D into 2015 - along with a potentially potent offense so this does not look as tricky as it would for "ho hum Power 5 conference team hosting service academy." CMU is CMU - this would be a different story in 2005. But it's 2015.
While MSU has to go on the road in 2015 to Nebraska and Ann Arbor both programs are in a state of transition. We know the story at Michigan - right now the 2 programs have role reversed. For decades upstart and mediocre MSU would wait for the years they hosted the game (since they often really sucked when they visited Ann Arbor) and try to spring a trap on a much more talented squad from UM. Most of the times their mental errors did them in, along with lack of players to compete but 2-3 times a decade it worked. Right now UM is sort of in those shoes - frankly UM has not been competitive with MSU the past 2 years and looking at the rosters the prior 2 campaigns MSU had the more talented team. And still probably does. But "rivalry" and "home game" sprinkled in with some Harbaugh and at minimum MSU should have a much more physical opponent who wont make countless mental errors. I'd expect that MSU will have to at least sweat in 2015 as opposed to the last 2 years.
Meanwhile over in Nebraska, the "Cat man" - for all his ills - did seem to have an offense that gave MSU's defense trouble; at least when a competent QB was running it. But he is gone, replaced by the genial Mr. Riley and also gone are NFL draft picks Gregory and Abdullah. Nebraska was not great last year - they almost lost to a FCS team until Abdullah saved them in the closing seconds, and then proceeded to get undressed nationally in Madison. And it is difficult to think they will be any better in 2015, so it's not as tough as it looks on paper.
Outside of those games, MSU plays the same division opponents UM does + a crossover with Purdue. Outside of PSU I dont see any of these teams even giving MSU much of a game unless MSU has a weird 4-5 turnover game (which is not what MSU does...more on that later). And PSU only if its OL stops its 2013 UM OL impression. You need a competent QB to beat MSU's defense - one who can routinely make intermediate passes to widen out their D and disallow their safeties from cheating on the run all day. If Hackenberg recovers from his PTSD he could do that - but he needs help from the OL. He did seem to play very well in PSU's bowl so we'll see - PSU has a great D coordinator but I believe took some hits to the NFL on D (Hull?) but recruits enough talent that if Hack gets time and their D steps up they can at least present a challenge.
As for the rest of the conference slate, Maryland was destroyed by MSU (and OSU and Wisconsin i.e. any real team) last year and lost its QB and best WR - I expect them to revert to mean. Rutgers lost SuperNova - and even with him lost by 40+ to MSU last year. Indiana will do their normal act - exploit MSU's gambling defense twice in a game for 14 quick pts - then proceed to give up 50+ in the other 57 minutes of the game. Heck Purdue might be the next toughest challenge out of these pretenders - their QB (Appleby) actually was able to complete a lot of intermediate passes vs MSU last year and Purdue put up more pts in that game than UM has in the past 3 years combined. But its still Purdue.
Long story short, if MSU gets by Oregon and UM there stands an unfortunate chance that the late Nov tilt between OSU and MSU (Nov 21) is between two teams with 0 to 1 loss each. MSU could/should be favored in every game this year outside of vs OSU by Vegas.
MSU's offense went through a metamorphis in 2014. While still run based at its core, Cook led the passing game to a more dynamic explosive threat. Scoring offense went from 29.4 ppg (64th in the nation) in 2013 to 43.0 ppg (7th in the nation). That's a hell of an improvement in 1 year. Their pass offense was best in the conference, and rush offense was fifth.
MSU led the nation in Time of Possesion (TOP) at 35:21. For comparison run based offenses Wisconsin and Minnesota were at 33:38 and 31:21 respectively. Some pooh pooh TOP in the modern game because they watch offenses such as Baylor and Oregon score in 90 seconds. That's fun and dandy but keeps your defense on the field a lot. And keeps it hard to maintain a lead even when you score in the 40s - ask Baylor (vs MSU) and TCU (v Baylor). Is it the most important stat in football? No. But combined with a low turnover team it makes it nearly impossible for average to poor teams to beat you - they don't have the ball much and they can't take advantage of short fields. And one thing you notice about MSU of late is they don't drop games to teams they should beat - their only losses the past few years have been OSU, Oregon, and Notre Dame (helped by some strange PI calls and Cook had yet to blossom). [Yes in 2012 they lost games to teams they should not have but that's an outlier season with a poor QB and awful OL]
Speaking of turnover margin - MSU was 4th in the nation at +19. And the clear winner in the conference by a huge margin - next best was +10 for Minnesota and +7 by OSU. All teams you look on paper and say "they don't beat themselves" (except that loss to VTech early for OSU ....when they had turnovers). Sometimes teams have more talent than you but if you protect the ball and create turnover you generally do well. So unlike TOP I find turnover margin to be extremely important. MSU only fumbled 6 times all year despite having the ball 35 minutes a game and running a ton. Cook only threw 9 INTs all year despite not having a great completion % - so he usually either misses everything or makes a completion. But this is a program focus - one that every coach preaches but very few accomplish. This is Tressel ball and Dantonio is doing it.
Let's look at it position by position to see if MSU can keep "doing it".
RS SR Connor Cook returns - a massive boost for MSU. Breaking in a new QB is rarely easy and having a 3 year starter is a rare luxury. Cook has prototypical NFL size, decent mobility, moxie, a very short memory, and is a gamer. He doesnt always look pretty but he gets the job done. His accuracy rate lacks but as noted above - when he misses, he seems to miss everything. I probably have never seen a QB have so many of his passes dropped by DBs in 2 years - so I guess luck helps a bit too. Cook's one issue is his feet - he actually (to me) throws better on the run when his footwork seems to be more consistent. In the pocket he does a lot of Matt Stafford stuff and throws off the back foot leading to passes off the mark. While he lacks pin point accuracy he has a gun for an arm and makes plays on key 3rd downs a lot of the time. He also has the benefit of great pass protect which we'll talk about later. Behind Cook is the much heralded RS SO Damion Terry (who insiders compare to a Russell Wilson style) and RS JR Tyler O'Connor who are competing for #2 But both rarely see the field except in blowouts as another of Cook's attributes - durability shows through. I don't think Cook has misssed more than a few snaps in 2 years since winning the job full time early in 2013.
RB / FB
The underappreciated Jeremy Langford departs as does his primary backup Nick Hill. The 3rd back, 6'1 232 JR Delton Williams (who always impressed me when he ran) looked like the heir apparent to at least start at the beginning of 2015 but his gun charges might be an issue. Or might not. Behind him are a lot of similar sized backs as Dantonio has recruited a lot of Le'veon Bell types - 6'+ 220 lb+... even as underclassmen. RS FR Madre London and SO Gerald Holmes are listed as the co-starters on the depth chart which is of course now an open competition. Both bring similar size - beat writers seem to indicate Madre London especially has a lot of potential. In the fall, MSU's prize offensive recruit comes in the form of #6 rated composite RB Larry Scott out of Ohio. This was a guy Urban was recruiting til the last minute but Scott stayed loyal to MSU. While Dantonio doesnt play a lot of true freshman, usually 2-3 make the grade and Scott surely will be one of them to play in 2015. Expect a 3 headed competition, most likely between Scott, London, and Williams if/when he returns.
Whichever RB wins the job, 5th year SR 6'0 250 lb Trevor Pendleton will be paving the way ahead of him. While he is more of a blocker he occassionally is an outlet for Cook (as UM fans will remember) and can bust out a big play. Behind Pendleton is a guy I have never heard of - JR David Fennell. What is notable about him is he is 300 lbs. So it would appear they converted a lineman like we did with Brady Pallante.
WR / TE
MSU takes a significant loss with Tony Lippett and his 65 receptions and 1200 yards. Lippett was a decent player earlier in his career but much like Gallon took a huge leap late in his career. The other loss was Keith Mumphrey was who more workmanlike with 26 catches. However, 3 of MSU's top 5 WRs return with SR Aaron Burbridge, SR MacGarrett Kings, and JR RJ Shelton. It is interesting to note that none of these 3 are redshirts - a rarity in any position group on the MSU roster. Unlike Delton Williams, Kings seems like a sure thing to be playing this fall - mostly due to an excellent lawyer who (unlike Glasgow) was able to get Kings probabation period reduced. Hence when Kings decided it was a good idea to resist arrest and kick a police vehicle he was off of probabation (for his "super drunk" charge) for 2 months. If his lawyer had not successful halved his probabtion period we'd be talking about a much serious loss for MSU football - instead after a lot of running stadium steps and perhaps a short suspension during some period of the offseason expect Kings to be running around the field for MSU. After all "he is a playmaker".
Kings is far and away the best yards after catch man for MSU. Burbridge is a solid player if not quite living up to his HS billing as the top player in Michigan. Shelton is a slot guy who runs a lot of MSU's jet sweeps - which they run a ton of. That's a pretty good trio. After that the depth chart runs 6'4 JR Monty Madaris, 6'2 SR AJ Troup, and 5'11 RS SR Deanthony Arnett. While the first two have not done much in MSU uniform, you may remember Arnett for being a guy from Michigan who committed to TN then decided to come back home to be closer to his ill father. In his 2 years since he has barely seen the football field, in fact redshirting one year. Of these 3 the most buzz seems to be about Madaris. But we're talking the 4th or 5th WR at that point. So while the playmaking skills of Lippett will be gone, having a RS SR 3 yr starter at QB helps to offset this.
So does having an excellent TE which the Spartans do seem to have in JR Josiah Price. At 6'4, 250 he is very much a Jake Butt clone and has excellent hands. I am not sure about his blocking prowess but he wrested away the starting job last year and pulled down 26 catches (Butt had 21 - albeit without the same level of QB play). Price averaged 14+ yards per catch compared to Butt's 10 so is a big play man and I'd expect his role to grow even more as a JR as Cook's safety valve. Behind Price is 6'3 260 JR Jamal Lyles who is more of a blocking TE.
Good teams generally have good line play. Lost in the narrative of MSU's defense the past few years is the 1 area I think MSU has really changed dramatically the past 2 years - offensive line play. In the first half decade of Dantonio's tenure OL play was generally mediocre, with Dantonio constantly bringing in JUCOs to offset lack of internal development. The 2012 season was quite bad with injuries ravaging the line and Bell doing yeoman's work behind a patchwork line. But 2013 and 2014 saw a sharp upgrade. This allowed the QB battle to develop in early 2013 (which Cook eventually took), and a solid run game to happen in both years. As for Cook - many games you don't see a grass stain on his jersey. He was only sacked 11 times all of 2014; fourth fewest in the entire FBS. And until the last 3 games of the season I believe that number was somewhere around 6. Gardner and Hack are very jealous when they see that sort of protection. The run blocking - while not quite as excellent as the pass protection - was also solid with some 3000+ yards. All this while shuffling 8 guys in and out of the line, partly due to injury and partly to prepare for 2015. Again, I think this is the untold story of MSU football.
Looking to 2015, MSU's line looks to be 1 of the 2 best in the conference along with OSU. Both guards (Travis Jackson and Connor Kruse) were lost but with MSU's platoon system at most OL positions, very experienced players (or 1 young buck) are taking their place. In many ways 2015 MSU OL looks a lot like a mid 90s UM OL - a bunch of experienced guys - a few in contention for national awards, offset by 1 young dude who is too good to keep on the bench. Every guy other than the center (who is near 300 lbs) is 310ish+.
LT RS JR Jack Conklin was a "no star" from the class of 2012 (Kalis, Magnuson, Braden, Bars) who has been a revelation. He has been a 2 year starter (RS FR, RS SO) and given up I believe 2 sacks his entire career. He stymied NFL 1st rounders Joey Bosa and Randy Gregory in 2014 - and faces Shilique Calhoun in practice every day. Mel Kiper said he could have left MSU after 3 years and been an early draft pick in this year's draft - but he returned. C RS SR Jack Allen is an All American with 35 starts under his belt. 'Nuff said - we saw in 2010/2011 what having a stud center was like. These 2 guys bookmark Jack's younger brother who had a Mason Cole like season, playing as a true freshman (with a few starts I believe) SO Brian Allen.
The right side of the line had more of a platoon system working last year but brings back a lot of experience. JR Kodi Keiler started and ended the season as the starting RT but there was some platooning going on between him, Donavon Clark, and Kruse. RG is RS SR Donavon Clark who started all 13 games last year, shuffling between RG and RT. The backups are a mix of older and younger players including JUCO JR T Miguel Machado, JR Benny McGowan, and RS SR Brandon Clemons. Not sure how much of a dropoff there is between these guys and the starters as these were not players in 2014's rotation. The front line starting group however should be top notch.
MSU's defense has been it's calling card in the past 5 years. Ironically the early Dantonio teams were known more for offense than defense as the paltry defensive talent could not be hidden. But MSU has a system, recruits to it, and is excellent at teaching and developing on the defensive side of the ball. The past 2 years UM has had 2 weeks to prepare for MSU and MSU 1 week to prepare and MSU looked as if they knew every play UM has ever run. Not cool. Obviously with Narduzzi gone there are some questions but a very experienced defensive staff mostly returns intact aside from him.
MSU has a press quarter scheme that I'd deem "break don't bend". MSU either stymies you nearly completely or you get a big play against them. There are rarely long drives against MSU. Looking through the Big 10 stats last year the one thing that surprises you is how few Spartans are anywhere in the top 50 of tackles in the conference - I believe it was only one (Kurtis Drummond at 72). Compare that to a Mike Hull, Jake Ryan, or Bolden with well over 100. Why is that? Time of possession for offense, creating tons of turnovers and dominance of rush defense. This combo does not lead to a lot of players racking up tackles. Their MLB (Jones) was their 2nd leading tackler with 60 tackles all year - Jake Ryan had double. MSU is either going to get you right off the field (again very few long drives against all year) or give up a huge play - usually in the passing game, with their style. Speaking of turnovers MSU led the conf in defensive creation with 34 ...18 INT, 16 fumbles recovered. (By comparison UM had 10! ugh)
While most say the corners have a ton of responsibility in the scheme, I'd argue the safeties are the most stressed. They are tasked with much more run support and generally 1 plays very close to the line of scrimmage. This does put pressure on the corners of course as they are much more on an island but it's usually the safety breakdowns that lead to big plays vs MSU. The 2014 pass defense took a step back with the loss of 1st round draft pick CB Dennard and S Lewis. But the front 7 (8) was ferocious as normal in run defense - they were once again #1 in all of FBS in rush defense. They have been top 10 the past 4 years. If you cannot open up MSU's defense with a competent accurate mid range throwing QB you pretty much can chalk up a loss since you won't run on them without any pass threat on the outside. And the Big 10 lacks these type of QBs. This defense would get exposed in a conference like the Pac 12 where a guy like Kevin Hogan is the 9th ranked QB (he'd be #4 in last year's Big 10) but it works wonders in the Big 10. Oregon didnt run much at all on MSU yet still scored over 40. Baylor didnt even try to run and threw for 600ish yards. OSU (and Purdue of all teams) were the 2 teams in 2014 that were relatively balanced vs MSU - OSU pure talent and speed, Purdue had a QB who was forcing the safeties to go wide using the Oregon playbook, which thus opened up lanes inside for the running game. Everyone else was pretty impotent trying to do things against MSU even with their weaknesses in the secondary.
2015 looks a lot like MSU's 2014 defense - although I believe their front 7 will be better and their back 4 worse. Which again will cause issues vs competent QBs ...of which MSU won't see many of in the Big 10. Their front 7 should feature 6 upperclassmen including 5 RS SRs starting. And the other guy is Malik McDowell. That's damn good. 3 of the 4 DL should be 1st or 2nd day draft picks IMO.
Much like the return of RS SR helped the offense, so does the return of RS SR Shilique Calhoun at DE. He was projected top 10-15ish preseason but while having a good season displayed some warts in terms of size/strength/speed (which the NFL uses for projections) that pushed him down the mock drafts a bit. While still a borderline 1st/2nd rounder he decided to return. Calhoun is an excellent college player with 8.5 sacks and 12.5 TFL (tackles for loss) in 2014 - teams focused on him quite a bit more after his breakout 2013. Calhoun's return alleviated MSU from losing both DEs. The other DE was the much underappreciated Marcus Rush who probably was the least recognized "very good" player in the Big 10. A four year starter who is ridiculously assignment sound Rush had almost the same statistics as Calhoun with 1 less tackle, 0.5 less sacks and 2 less TFL. His tweener size is the main thing preventing him from IMO being a mid level NFL prospect - his loss is not to be understated.
The depth chart shows RS SR (and former 5 star talent) Lawrence Thomas taking over the DE spot at 300 lbs. Most thought it would be Malik McDowell flashing out from the DT to DE this year but the depth chart shows Thomas instead - I would not read that in stone as I could see those 2 flip flopping a lot. Thomas career took time to take off - at one point he was a LB, then a FB, then a DT, now a DE. But the last 3-4 games of 2014 I thought he was one of the best defensive players on the unit. It will be interesting to see how he fares at DE and how long that lasts - he seemed to be making a lot of great players on the interior late in the year.
As for backups, "the next Calhoun" is RS SO Demetrious Cooper. If you believe the MSU beat writers and practice reports this guy rips the heads off women and children in practice and doesnt apologize. He was supposed to be ahead of where Calhoun was at similar points in their careers. But he has not really seen the field too much, stuck behind Calhoun. I actually thought they might flip him to the other DE so that both would be starters this year but on the depth chart he remains as a backup to Calhoun. Behind Thomas we have RS JR Evan Thomas who has not done much and two RS FR who are typical MSU recruits - big rangy athletes converted from other positions in HS who they develop in house after a redshirt year - Montez Sweat and Robert Bowers. This was part of a 2014 defensive line recruiting class that might have been among the top 2-3 in the nation.
With Lawrence Thomas starting out on end, the depth chart has SO Malik McDowell moving into the starting DT role. Michigan fans will be extremely familiar with him. He is the only "young guy" slated to start in MSU's front 7. Next to him is RS SR Joel Heath who returns to his starting role from 2014. While it is difficult to "judge" DTs as a common fan McDowell (while a bit of a hot head with some penalties) seemed to play quite well, especially as a true freshman in a very demanding part of the field. He had 4.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks but again at this position your impact is not so much stats. Based on MSU's run defense and the amount of playing time he received from a staff that doesnt play freshman much - he looked as good as the hype. He played a bit more than Mone did for UM.
Behind McDowell we have RS SR Damon Knox who played a lot when healthy last year. Behind Heath are a beavy of young DTs from a loaded 2014 class. The headline is RS FR Craig Evans who looks built like a Mack truck. This was a Wisconsin commit who aparently could not make the grade at Wisconsin so MSU swooped in at the last minute with their "more friendly" admissions requirement and gave Coach Gary Andersen the snake oil treatment. With losses like that you could see why Andersen got frustrated. Outside of Evans, RS FR David Beedle and RS FR Enoch Smith Jr will also push for time. Combine those 3 with Malik McDowell and I'd argue this was the best DT haul in the country in 2014. As long as 1-2 guys outside of McDowell develop well, MSU should be set for a few years here.
MSU has a bit of a unique LB structure with 2 traditional LBs at one OLB spot and the middle, and then their 3rd (weakside) is more of a hybrid safety/LB guy ("STAR") generally in the 210-220 range. A guy like UM's James Ross III is generally who plays there. Or if Dymonte Thomas played for MSU he'd be a perfect STAR considering his coverage struggles vs fleet WRs and HS LB instincts. The one loss off this unit was MLB Taiwan Jones who was a converted OLB trying to fill in for Max Bullough for 1 year. He did fine especially in TFL but his impact was not the same as Bullough. He will be replaced by yet another Bullough - JR Riley Bullough....or SO Jon Reschke. I'd expect a platoon of sorts as MSU is high on both these guys. You may remember Bullough as the starting RB for MSU early in 2013 when their offense was LOL, before Langford came out of nowhere. He is another player that started to really come on late in 2014. Reschke has been hit with injuries for much of his early career.
The other 2 LB spots are manned by returning starters in RS SR Ed Davis, and RS SR Darien Harris. You may notice I am typing RS SR a lot in these first 3 categories of defense. If you only watch UM v MSU games you might think Ed Davis is the best LB in the country. He is not - but he is pretty darn good. In his 58 tackles, he had 12.5 TFL and 7 sacks (with 90% of them coming vs UM every year). Darien Harris has a different responsibility set in the MSU D so won't wow you with stats per se.
Behind this group is a bunch of young guys that we have not really seen on the field - well other than Chris Frey pulling off his helmet and acting a fool before getting ejected last year as a freshman. Frey, Jalyn Powell and Shane Jones are a trio of SOs who look to be the next wave - with their inexperience one could argue a LB injury to MSU would potentially lead to a step down in production.
The secondary is the one area of the MSU defense where youth shall prevail. All American S Kurtis Drummond (who struggled a bit at times last year) graduates while RS SR R.J. Williamson returns. Williamson was benched at times last year in favor of (sigh) true freshman Montae Nicholson. (Editor's note - UM "missing out" on Nicholson bothers me much more than McDowell as he apparently wanted to be a Wolverine and for some reason no one can figure out Hoke & Co dropped pursuit. So instead he was looking at Northwestern before MSU came in to take him. So we don't want this calibar of guy for a team who has not had top end safety play outside of a walk on in years, and whose S depth chart last year read as Jarrod Wilson + pray. Just friggin boggling). Anyhow, Nicholson - 6'2, 216 lbs with Peppers type speed is starting at MSU next year instead of UM. Cuz yeah. In fact the MSU starting S pair is a lot like UM's right now - a very talented SO and a solid but not great SR. Difference being Nicholson played all last year while Peppers does not have much game experience. The other backup S last year was highly rated HS player Demetrious Cox - who on the MSU depth chart has been flipped out to CB.
The current backups at S are JR Mark Meyers and RS FR Matt Morrissey. I don't believe Meyers played much, if at all last year. However, Dantonio went out and got an experienced JUCO transfer in Taylor Martinez's (YTTM) brother Drake Martinez who is a S. If the Big 10 approves him not sitting out a year (which MSU is petitioning to happen) I'd expect him to be the primary backup at S. Dantonio has stated things are progressing "well" on that front this week so I'd expect Martinez to be playing in the fall and immediately fix their lack of depth here. JUCOs must be nice.
The departure of Trae Waynes is the biggest loss on MSU's defense. The above mentioned JR Demetrious Cox looks to have been moved from S to CB at the boundary. JR Darian Hicks - who started most of last year - is competing with RS FR Vayante Copeland at the other corner. Hicks struggled mid season and after the OSU game (I believe) he was benched in favor of Tony Lippett playing 2 ways (Lippett was a corner in his early MSU days). Not sure how much Hicks played after that but the coaches seem to think he needs to become more physical - obviously cornerback is a spot you need confidence. So this is the beauty (and pain) of college football; after having the best pair of corners in the country in 2013 MSU has a relatively untested group just 2 years later. That said - again - Saban says Dantonio is the premier developer of DBs in college football and recent results bear it out. Dennard and Waynes were both borderline 2/3 star athletes on nonbody's radar - who are a pair of 1st round draft picks. Maize colored glassed fans will say "luck" but that's like saying Burke, Nik, Caris are luck for Beilein. The question is how quickly those type of guys can be replaced and how good the next guys are - even with good coaching everyone has a different ceiling and MSU hit 2 back to back home runs. One expects a dropoff for this year at least in the CB area. The question is how many Big 10 QBs can exploit these young guys with the ferocious front 7 and the general inability of Big 10 QBs not at OSU or Indiana to throw good passes over 12 yards.
Even though Michigan’s basketball season has come to its sad end, college basketball is still at a fever pitch – after the 48 games last weekend, sixteen teams are left with Final Four (and possibly National Championship) aspirations. I’m here to sort out which teams you should be rooting for; of course, it’s a free country and you’re perfectly at liberty to root for whoever you want. There’s no set criteria here, and I’ll try to avoid personal biases as much as possible for the most part. The list came together quite quickly, and without further ado, here it is:
1. Wichita State
Fred VanVleet is a badass. Is that a Dutch name, Freddy? If so, you’re joining the pantheon of West Michigan Hoops idols alongside Kaman, Korver, and – sigh – Neitzel.
Wichita State tops the list for several reasons:
They eliminated Tom Crean and Indiana.
Their win over Kansas was one of the better early round games in recent memory, if only for the storyline: due to scheduling disputes, the teams hadn’t played each other since the early nineties, despite Wichita State’s emergence into a legitimately great program in recent years. The committee faced a lot of criticism for some dubious selections and seedings this year, but KU – WSU in the 2 / 7 game was a gift from the basketball gods.
And they gave Kansas that work. Wichita State looked like they were clearly better than the Jayhawks and watching the Shockers go to work behind Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, their normal stars, and Tekele Cotton, typically a defense-first pest on the wing. After trailing 24-16 early in the game, Wichita State outscored Kansas by 21 points.
Demerits come because of the relative lack of trash talk after the game by Wichita State players. I guess they’re better men than me because I would be woofing about how Kansas was right in being afraid to play us.
I still feel like the Shockers’ draw last season was patently unfair.
Looking ahead past Notre Dame, there’s the potential for an absolutely outstanding Elite Eight game between Kentucky and Wichita State: the Wildcats ended WSU’s undefeated year last season and even though WSU is worse and UK is better, it would still be a good contest – Wichita State’s backcourt is probably better than Kentucky’s and the Shockers are seventh nationally in Kenpom, perfectly within range of the Cats. An upset there would be one for the ages.
Even with all of those legitimate points in their favor, Wichita State is just a very fun team to watch for some basic reasons: very good point guard play, unselfish ball movement, stingy defense, and that unmistakable underdog je ne sais quoi.
Buddy, my favorite non-Michigan college hoops player, after hitting the game-winner against Kansas in the season finale.
I’ll be up front in admitting my Sooner love here – my grandfather graduated from OU with the help of the GI Bill, he’s a diehard fan who had football and basketball tickets for decades, and I grew up with Oklahoma as a clear but definite #2 behind Michigan. BOOMER!
But seriously, check the schedule and Oklahoma plays… Michigan State. As expected, the media follow-up to MSU’s upset win over Virginia has fixated on the “Tom Izzo is a March God” phenomenon, and frankly, who wouldn’t like to see that nipped in the bud as soon as possible? For that reason and that reason alone, you should all be joining in and rooting for Oklahoma – it’s them, or it’s State.
Beyond that though, OU is an objectively likable team. Fast-talking Bahamian swingman Buddy Hield was named Big XII player of the year as a junior and even though he’s a serial whiner, his game is enough to redeem him and then some. For some reason, I fixate on a possible parallel between he and an idealized Zak Irvin; Hield’s usage was at levels Zak’s will never reach, but watch the way they play and let me know if I’m just imagining this or not. Flanking Hield is Houston transfer Tashawn Thomas, and for those of you that appreciate a bruising, classic four man, Thomas is your guy. He’s a load on the low block and helps anchor the Sooner defense alongside Ryan Spangler (who looks like a stereotypical Oklahoman).
There are other dudes: Jordan Woodard, a tiny, audacious and fearless point guard with a frustrating propensity for turnovers; Isaiah Cousins, a chucker who’s hitting 45% of his threes as the two guard; Frank Booker, who hit some big shots in a win over Dayton; and backup big man Khadeem Lattin, the grandson of the starting center on Texas Western’s trailblazing national title team (Khadeem lists Glory Road as his favorite movie on OU’s official site because of course). Lon Kruger is a Beileinesque head coach in that he’s been a successful nomad and seems like a fairly decent dude, as far as I know.
If nothing else, root hard for the Sooners against Michigan State, but I’m hopeful that you’ll stick around if they advance. OU is a frustrating team – at their best, they look like a reasonably-priced knockoff Kentucky (though with a more fun, guard-oriented offense); at their worst, it looks like it’s the first time they played together. Come for the Spartan haterade, stay for the roller coaster.
FUTURE PISTON STANLEY JOHNSON. PLEASE. GIVE US STANLEY.
Yes, Michigan got stomped by these guys. No, I can’t really hold it against them.
Arizona is the trendy pick as Kentucky’s best foil, especially after Villanova crashed and burned and Wisconsin struggled to overwhelm a pesky Oregon squad. Look at the frontcourt and you’ll see why: veteran seven-footer Kaleb “Zeus” Tarczewski mans the paint and protects the rim and he’s joined by two versatile – not to mention big and athletic – power forwards, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. One-and-done freshman big Aaron Gordon was replaced by one-and-done freshman wing Stanley Johnson, who’s currently second-place in Kenpom’s NPOY algorithm and is an absolute joy to watch. He did dunk all over Michigan a few times, but hopefully he’ll be putting on the Piston red, white, and blue for the next decade or so.
Like the teams above, the Wildcats make the list because of Basketball Reasons as well as situational circumstances. They have just enough shooting – thanks Gabe York! – to augment their elite frontcourt; they have a scrappy floor general who just plays the game the right way, bringing his hard-hat and lunch pail to the court every day (I sense a lot of Aaron Craft white guy platitudes for T.J. McConnell from the national media). They’re one of the few tolerable blue-bloods (or the next tier down, depending on your perspective) and if you’re a fan of good basketball, you’ll like Pomeroy’s second-rated team. Oh, and they wound up knocking out Ohio State and making D’Angelo Russell’s college finale a miserable game.
Plenty of teams can beat Kentucky – hello home OT win over Ole Miss minus their star player in that overtime, or a road OT win over Texas A&M, who didn’t make the tournament – even though most almost certainly wouldn’t. If you don’t like Kentucky, Arizona is the team to circle: they may very well be the Cats’ equals more or less. And if they lose to UK in the Final Four, at least they’ll have given Kentucky the toughest test possible before the coronation.
I know plenty of you hate Wisconsin and they’re on track to face the Badgers in the Elite Eight. So there’s that too.
[After the jump, 4 through 8]
It's about that time of the year guys!
Also today I decided I am going to come out with my own line of balsamic vinegars. However, I need your help with the name of my company. I've outlined some options below. If you could give me your favorite or any suggestions that would be just terrific. Also, In honor of Jim Harbaugh and the scourge of Harbaughs that have been visiting "Ann Harbaur" my first batch will be called "Baughsalmic Vinegar #4".
Company Name Options:
1. Mean Joe's Balsamic
2. Joe's Koality Balsamic
3. Rhonda Who? Balsamics
4. Hairy Balsamics
5. Taste my Balsamic
6. Joe's Sweet and Salty Balsamic
as always . . . DISCUSS!
Patrick Barron / MGoBlog
These will be my general thoughts from the Big Ten Tournament. I’ll delve into the season at-large some other time.
It was apparent for some time that Michigan would be locked into the 8 / 9 game in the Big Ten Tournament, meaning that we knew for weeks that any theoretical BTT run would have to go through a rested Wisconsin team in the Friday noon slot. Unfortunately, the most suboptimal path to the conference semifinal came to fruition: beat Illinois and then beat Wisconsin. Ken Pomeroy’s numbers gave us about a 2% chance of doing that.
For that reason, the Big Ten Tournament was not a disappointment – not by any means. Michigan destroyed Illinois and its feeble NCAA Tournament hopes before acquitting themselves well in a loss against Bo Ryan’s Big Bad Badgers. 1-1 wasn’t enough to get Michigan into the NIT – which was a mild disappointment, if only because we want to see more of this Michigan team. Seriously: after Beilein’s last underachieving squad – the mightily frustrating 2009-2010 Manny / Deshawn team – didn’t get an invite to the NIT, it felt like a mercy kill of sorts. Now, we just wish we could continue to see this team develop and gel.
The Illinois game was a huge reason for this. Exactly a month after squandering a late seven point lead in Champaign to get blown out in overtime, Michigan was awarded a rematch with the Illini and, well, the Wolverines beat their asses. Illinois erased a 14-2 run from Michigan to open the game and eventually took a 19-17 lead, but Michigan went on an extended 27-4 run into the second half to run the Illini right out of the United Center. To be fair, Illinois played a ghastly game, replete with bonehead turnovers and impressively errant shooting, but Michigan played objectively its best game of the season Thursday in Chicago.
Some player bullets from that game:
Aubrey Dawkins tallied an efficient 18 points and was Kenpom’s player of the game; over the Northwestern, Rutgers, and Illinois games near the end of the season, Dawkins combined for 70 points. 70! Even though his shot wasn’t as lethal as it had been against the Illini, he shot 6-7 from inside the arc, including this Glenn Robinsonesque alley-oop from
Zak Irvin, who is truly not-just-a-shooter anymore. He wasn’t all that effective from the field against Illinois, but he tallied a career-high six assists and was an excellent distributor throughout. It wasn’t just a great game passing the ball from a former offensive black hole, it was just a great game passing the ball, period. His shot’s still not right but Zak’s emergence in the pick-and-roll as a complete player was one of Michigan’s biggest storylines moving forward down the stretch.
Spike “Nash” Albrecht, who now is and should be considered legitimately good, hit two big threes and had this wonderful assist to a cutting Dawkins. It was probably Michigan’s best highlight of the year, an artifact of Michigan’s beautiful, high-flying offense from the past few seasons.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was awesome as well – it was the first game where he and Dawkins combined to play well. Mo put up a line of 15-8-2 and that doesn’t seem like it tells the whole story; he drove the ball with reckless abandon and finished pretty well. It’s not often you see a freshman guard routinely barreling into the chest of a long senior shot-blocker (Nnanna Egwu) with such confidence and scoring tough layups.
Max Bielfeldt threw ten points up on the board. Thanks, Max.
Every time Dawkins made a nice basket cut, or Irvin threw a pin-point pass, or Rahkman challenged Illinois at the rim, I had this little tune ringing through my head:
Michigan was finally evolving and showing its true potential after all that time. Dawkins and Rahkman showed what they were capable of in combining for 33 points (which, when you really think about that, speaks volumes to Beilein’s ability to identify talent in the wake of unexpected NBA departures); Irvin was showing off the type of individual brilliance that will work excellently in a complementary role next season; Ricky Doyle didn’t play much against Illinois but looked great at times against Wisconsin; Kam Chatman even did a few nice things; and Spike Albrecht showed – as he did ever since Walton’s injury – that he’s a very useful college player and not just a quirky little stat from a national title game a few years ago.
After the game, I posted something that gained a ton of traction on Twitter: the scholarship offers of Michigan’s starting five in that Illinois game (which combined for 65 points and routed a pretty solid team)
- Albrecht: Appalachian State
- Abdur-Rahkman: George Mason, Bucknell, Harvard
- Zak Irvin: [was a highly-touted recruit, had plenty of good offers]
- Aubrey Dawkins: Dayton, Northeastern, College of Charleston
- Max Bielfeldt: Illinois*, Western Michigan, Ball State
*Should be noted that Bielfeldt’s family donates a crapton of money to Illinois’s AD.
Michigan would have these guys, if not for variably expected early entry or injury: Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson, Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton. Beilein was left with the lineup above and did as reasonably well as anybody could have expected with it.
The Wisconsin game was a seemingly preordained loss, but Michigan made a very good game of it. From neutral observer Kevin Trahan afterwards:
Friday night Michigan lost to Wisconsin 71-60 in Chicago, in a basketball game that will likely never be noted for its historical relevance. Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the country, while Michigan might be able to sneak into the NIT, so this outcome was to be expected.
But this was no cakewalk for Wisconsin like it should have been. Michigan had the lead for much of the first half, and the Wolverines tied the game with five minutes left. Eventually, the Badgers' talent won out, but this game was brought up a situation that I've found myself noticing a lot this year: There was no way in hell Michigan should have been in that game.
Spike led the charge with 10 early points (but finished with just ten); Rahkman and Dawkins took a big step back and only combined for 13 points. Still, Zak Irvin played a phenomenal game and carried the Wolverines – 21 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals against a one-seed is the Zak Irvin we could have only hoped for, even at the beginning of the season before the well-documented sophomore slump. Trahan wrote that Ricky Doyle “out-played Frank Kaminsky for a spell” which seems unfathomable – but correct.
Michigan played Wisconsin even for 35 minutes in Chicago, and though the Badgers’ impressive work on the offensive glass eventually ended the Wolverines’ season, it was still an indicator of positive things to come. This, to me, is the biggest story: over the two games in the Big Ten Tournament, Zak Irvin combined for 35 points, 17 rebounds, 9 assists (to just 4 turnovers) and 4 steals. The light finally came on for him and I’m miffed at the lack of NIT invite, maybe if only because I want to see how much more Zak can do. He faced a ton of criticism this year and, with his performances in Chicago, answered the questions about his game and quieted those asking them.
In addition, Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman showed positive signs of being program cornerstones – a wing and a guard, both capable of becoming solidly above-average Big Ten contributors for multiple seasons. If Dawkins learns to play defense, the sky’s the limit; Rahkman might be forever underrated because of his style – not as many threes, more tough, workmanlike defense. Ricky Doyle was sick for most of the end of the season, but he showed good things against Wisconsin – Michigan’s questions at the center position won’t carry over to next year, I’m thinking.
In the end, this was somewhat of a lost season, but only the true pessimists can’t see some silver linings from the last several games of the season. Michigan’s evolving, slowly but surely, and after some time in the chrysalis, the Wolverines will be back to being Big Ten contenders.
Now that the basketball season that was full of ups and downs is over, we start to gaze toward next season. Prior to this season everyone expected the team to take at least a small step back with the departure of five rotation players, which only got worse with the loss of the two best players on the roster. But as expectations shifted, we were able to see younger players grow and now next season looks as promising as ever. There will be countless season wrap-up articles that talk about growth and potential, which is similar to what I’m going to do here. At first I was going to put together a list of which skill each player should work on for next year, but that seemed too boring and similar to a dozen other posts you will see here and elsewhere.
So I decided to take a different approach to make it a little more interesting. I created the acronym FMPHSWOYT – Former Michigan Player He Should Watch On YouTube. I tried to think of a player from Michigan’s past that would be a good role model for each of the current players to learn from this off-season. That was easy in some cases, not so easy in others. The idea is to point out some potential opportunities for improvement, remember stars of the past, and generate some fun discussion. I welcome any and all input…..especially since there is a surprising lack of YouTube clips easily found for former players that weren’t on the Fab Five or in the last five years.
Caris Levert (assuming he stays)
- FMPHSWOYT: Jalen Rose
- Clips: Fab Five Highlights
- Explanation: I am aiming high right off the bat as Jalen is one of Michigan’s most successful NBA performers in the last 30 years and an icon from the Fab Five. I thought a more recent player like Stauskas would be a good fit, but Nik was more of a ball screen player and Caris is an improviser. That’s what Jalen was as well and he was able to be both a set-up man as much as the alpha-male on the team who took control when needed. Jalen was skinny and able to play any of the wing or guard positions – and he was almost always the guy with the ball in his hands at the end of the shot clock, much like Levert. The point of this comparison isn’t to suggest that Caris can be Jalen – just that he should learn from some of his success on the court since they are similar players.
- Also Considered: Lester Abram, Nik Stauskas
- FMPHSWOYT: Trey Burke
- Clips: 2012-2013 Highlights, 2011-2012 Highlights
- Explanation: Again with the all-time great, but there’s a specific reason. As much as Burke was our best player in ages, he actually struggled at times as a freshman with running the ball screen offense in part due to his size. I think that was what we hoped to see Walton adjust to as a sophomore but he struggled in some of the similar ways that Burke did (height, explosiveness, inconsistent big men, etc.). Watching how Burke adapted and ran a masterful offense as he became a sophomore is what Walton should look at – with realistic expectations obviously being far short of POY results.
- Also Considered: Daniel Horton, Gary Grant, Demetrius Calip
- FMPHSWOYT: Jimmy King
- Clips: Fab Five Highlights
- Explanation: Jimmy’s role for at least his first three years was always to be an athletic defensive player who was always the 3rd or 4th option on offense who had a decent shot and decent ability to take the ball to the hole. Rahk should embrace his role as defensive stopper because it will ensure him minutes while his offense develops. If Levert leaves, Rahk’s role probably should expand even more – but watching King as a younger player can’t hurt since he would attack the rim, play tough D, and be an opportunistic shooter.
- Also Considered: Dion Harris, Stu Douglas
- FMPHSWOYT: Nik Stauskas
- Clips: 2014 Season Highlights
- Explanation: Everyone hoped that Irvin would progress in a similar fashion to Stauskas given their skill at shooting threes as freshmen, but Irvin was always on a longer development cycle given where he started and what was asked of him. As UMHoops showed last week, Irvin started to become a competent ball screen player who developed a pull-up jumper and even attacked the rim more. Next year he should get more help on offense from the development of the big guys and return of Walton (and perhaps Levert) so that Irvin isn’t the focus of the opponent and can exploit some match-ups. Stauskas developed those same skills when he became the man and overcame a loose dribble and increased usage – Irvin has already started showing that he’s doing the same.
- Also Considered: Tim Hardaway Jr.
- FMPHSWOYT: Glen Robinson III
- Clips: UMHoops Scouting Report (5-min mark summarizes things)
- Explanation: Dawkins was difficult to figure out because he had such a unique first year and came from no where. I picked GR3 because Dawkins needs to learn to exploit the back-cut for alley oop dunks and to take advantage of defenses overplaying him on the outside given his good shooting touch. He had his moments this year, but he never developed GR3’s skill for having 3-4 monster back-door plays per game. (Edit: I wrote this originally at the end of the regular season and then he went out with major dunks against Rutgers and Illinois. In fact, if you look at his overall stats since becoming a starter you can almost argue he’s passed GR3’s performance…..but we want MOAR DUNKS!)
- Also Considered: Bernard Robinson Jr.
- FMPHSWOYT: Lavell Blanchard
- Clips: Argentina game (21pts 7reb) (couldn't find any UM highlights)
- Explanation: Blanchard is one of my favorite players of all time and is probably right now trying to figure out how to gain some eligibility to play in a Beilein system. Both of these players are undersized and versatile PFs who came in with a lot of hype. Blanchard had a spectacular career during a down period of the program where he was able to rebound, shoot, pass, and throw in a few post moves. Kam is about the exact same size and would play a similar role. If he can emulate Lavell in any way then he will be a valuable player to this team.
- Also Considered: Jerod Ward, DeShawn Sims
- FMPHSWOYT: (....no clue....)
- Clips: n/a
- Explanation: I’m at a loss for this one. I thought about falling into the typical stereotype trap and picking Dugan Fife since he was a short, white, scrappy point guard who could shoot – but I think it is safe to say that Spike has already exceeded Dugan’s career peak and will never be the same type of defender. That then leaves some of the scoring point guards of years past like Burke, Horton, Grant. I guess maybe Rumeal Robinson will work since I’d love to see Spike nail clutch free throws to win a title of some sort.
- Also Considered: Rumeal Robinson, Michael Talley
- FMPHSWOYT: Zack Novak
- Clips: 2010-2011 Highlights, Dunk Contest
- Explanation: It is hard to say what we should expect from Robinson next year since it wouldn’t surprise me to see him start at the 3 or 4, be a microwave shooter off the bench, or get buried at the bottom of the rotation. I chose Novak because both players are undersized shooters with limited athleticism who could hit corner threes but were asked to do more. Novak used every tool and trick he could to out hustle and out work his opponent while playing the 3 and 4 despite being overmatched athletically throughout his career. If Robinson can emulate some of those tricks and hustle plays into his game then there will always be a place for him in the rotation.
- Also Considered: Zak Irvin, James Voskuil
- FMPHSWOYT: Maceo Baston
- Clips: EuroLeague Highlights (couldn’t find any UM highlights)
- Explanation: I would love to see Wilson be a true stretch PF for Beilein, but at this point I am firmly in the camp that believes he will be a center for the near future. The last few years have proven to us that we need three players in the rotation at the 5 so the role of Bielfeldt will likely fall to Wilson next year. Frankly, I like it because the idea of an athletic guy with long arms and leaping ability is a nice contrast to the earth-bound players we’ve become used to. Picture Wilson in the middle of a 2-3 or 1-3-1 zone…..which is how I come up with Maceo Baston. Maceo was also a skinny 6’9” kid who ideally would have played PF but ended up playing center in college. He started as a guy who blocked shots and dunked, but morphed into a solid offensive player who had a long professional career overseas. I think Wilson should focus this off-season on his defense while leaning on his athleticism for what limited offense he can provide next year. Embrace that role as a freshman – which is what Maceo did his first couple of years.
- Also Considered: Epke Udoh, Courtney Sims, Chris Hunter
- FMPHSWOYT: Graham Brown
- Clips: 2006 Celebration vs MSU (no game action but is always fun to watch)
- Explanation: Maybe this is too “easy” since the two players have the same look and physique. Feel free to use Jordan Morgan here if you’d rather someone more recent. I picked Brown because he so quickly jumped to mind. He was not very athletic, not overly tall, and had limited offensive moves. His early years he was basically asked to clog the lane and grab some boards. But then he became a fan favorite for his work ethic and overall contributions. He was never a star but rounded into a very solid center as his career progressed. Watching him evolve and looking at all the small things and dirty work that he did would serve Doyle well, even though I was shocked at how modest Brown’s career stats were – maybe we can blame Amaker.
- Also Considered: Jordan Morgan, Mitch McGary
- FMPHSWOYT: Josh Asselin
- Clips: Euro Highlights (couldn’t find any UM highlights)
- Explanation: It is no secret that Donnal struggled this year. When he was originally recruited there was talk of him being a stretch-4, not a center. He needs to get more physical and needs to figure out to leverage his shooting ability knowing he isn’t a low-block player. That sounds a lot like Asselin, who also started out very slow in his career. But Josh ended up becoming a very good player who could shoot from outside, learned a couple of post moves, improved his defense, and worked well in a ball-screen offense. Asselin was closer to seven feet than Donnal, but the way he grew into a strong player who had a long Euro career would be a great lesson to learn from.
- Also Considered: Chris Hunter
Next year is going to be a fun ride with as many as 11 viable contributors fighting for playing time.