at least it's not just us?
(Diarist Note: This is the beginning portion of a longer post at the JCB. I figured I would post the Michigan section here. Check out the rest of the post for a spin around the Big 10, in addition to even more Michigan talk. We do something silly, like compare Michigan and Louisville's resumes. It's closer than you think. And: Pick$$!!)
One of the Games Of The Year in the Big 10 takes place tonight. But its not the game you think.
Oh, sure, tonight's Michigan State at Wisconsin game feels like a heavyweight fight. But, for our purposes here of tracking the state of the Bubble, there arent going to be many more games as important in the conference as the game in Evanston tonight between Michigan and Northwestern.
How in the world is a Northwestern home game against an 11-10 team one of the season's critical juncture points? It's the confluence of the Wildcats urgency to earn their historic tournament bid, a soft bubble, a cratering Big 10 Bubble and the fact that Michigan represents one of their tougher challenges the rest of the way. At 3-6 in the Big 10, the Cats need to win twice as many games as they lose the rest of the way to probably be under legit consideration. That might seem like a tall order. But KenPom actually projects just such a finish, with Northwestern getting to the clubhouse at 9-9 in league play, 21-10 overall. Hard to see them left out of the field with those numbers. By giving the Wildcats a 62-percent chance at winning tonight, KenPom makes Michigan their fourth toughest hurdle over their final ten overall games.
This a major swing game for them. They will be favored by Vegas in a lot of those games down the stretch as well, so a big run to get their league record resume worthy is not out of the question. That run becomes harder, if not impossible, without a win tonight. Some feel the Cats need to go 4-0 in their next four to get back into contention. If Northwestern wins, they stop a two game slide, can start gobbling up wins en route to a 20-win campaign and work their way up the Bubble ladder. They have quite a ways to go. With 48 precincts reporting to the Bracket Matrix, and all but a small handful having updated since the weekend, only 5 mock bracketologists put Northwestern in their fields. That not only puts them out of the Final 8 cut from the Matrix but with less votes than Arizona and UTEP. If they lose tonight, you can do the math. They wont be anywhere close to anyone's bracket. They only have one game left--at Wisconsin--that they could win and radically change a lot of people's mind on just what postseason bracket Northwestern deserves. Every game from here on out is a must win for Northwestern's hopes, but there are a few they could afford to lose. This is not one of them. This would be a bad loss.
But not many bad loss candidates come in with the Experts in the Desert calling it a coin flip. Despite the disparate records, placement on the bubble and the home court edge, oddsmakers have made Northwestern just a 2-point favorite tonight. That's a testament to the fact that plenty of folks within in the betting public give Michigan as much of a chance at winning this game than the hometown Cats.
Where does the perception come from? One word: Defense. Michigan has some. Northwestern doesnt. The Wolverines have evolved into one of the best stop units out there. They're 35th in the nation in points allowed and 10th in three-point percentage defense. They also remain one of the top teams in the country at turnover margin. For all the Wolverines' flaws, they do a few things well, notably pushing you into taking treys from beyond your comfort zone and forcing sloppy play. On a points per possession allowed standpoint, Michigan is right up in league play with conference stalwarts MSU and Wisconsin. Their points per possession margin from offense to defense also puts them in the top half of the conference. If only their win/loss record did the same, then maybe Michigan would have some stack on the table tonight as well. As for Northwestern, they couldnt guard a crosswalk. The Wildcats have the most porous defense in the league. They might not allow a ton of points, per se, but they are the worst in the league at points allowed per possession. Michigan would be wise to push up the tempo at times. I think their defense can handle the extra possessions. I dont think Northwestern's can. If Michigan can limit its own turnovers against a 1-3-1 zone defense that they are obviously more than familiar with, then they will control this contest.
The teams find themselves in opposite positions from a year ago. in 2009, Michigan snapped a NCAA drought, but would not have done so had they not been the only team in the Big 10 to sweep Northwestern last season. A year later, its Northwestern that needs the wins to put an end to their own March Madness drought. But, they probably will fall a win or two short if they dont beat Michigan tonight for a season sweep of the Wolverines.
If the game is anything like the last two contests, then buckle in. Michigan won a crazy OT game in Evanston last year that proved to be a big swing game for both sides. Last month in Ann Arbor, Michigan held a big early lead. But Drew Crawford, a freshmen, blew up for 25 points, including 11 in a row in the first half to get the Cats back into the game, and 15 in the second half to push the Cats to victory. Michigan took a late lead, but Northwestern scored the game's final 7 points and Michigan's final two possessions ended in shaky turnovers.
Expect another close game tonight as the Wolverines attempt to avenge a painful defeat from earlier in the season. Close games have been killers for Michigan. In games decided in overtime or by less than 6 points, the Wolverines are just 2-6 overall and 0-4 in Big 10 play this season. That's the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT right there. While Michigan tries to reverse its season long bout of bad luck, they do have some historic numbers on their side tonight. The Wolverines are 10-3 ATS vs Northwestern, 8-1 at Welsh-Ryan Arena and the road team has covered four of five in this series. Something has got to give.
Also, unrelated to this, for those of you that don't know, I recently started a company called, U Recruit, www.recruitforu.com . We will guide kids through the recruiting process, and help them get scholarships. We have about 6 athletes we're helping right now, and are trying to spread the word. Take a look at our site, and pass on the information to anyone you think we could help.
This might sound homerish, but I have been thinking about this for a long time. The NCAA Tournament needs to be expanded. Not to the 96 or 128 that everyone is talking about, but to 72. By expanding the tournament to 72 it will do a couple things, make the 1st round more competitive, give the really small schools (i.e. Vermont, Binghamton, Manhattan etc) a chance at playing more than 1 game, it also will allow more mid majors the opportunity to get in the tournament, and finally it will make sure that the "best 64" make it to that first weekend.
The idea would be to seed the teams 1-18 much they way the seeding is currently done today. Seeds 15-18 in every region would be involved in a play in game held on Tuesday night before the tournament starts. This creates 8 games played at 4 sites, which could be done a couple of ways. The Tournament could reward the 15 seed of each region with homecourt, or they could choose pre-determined neutral sites much like the way it is now with the play-in game. The benefit to rewarding the 15 seed would be atmosphere, excitement and less travel costs for one team, but on the flip side a neutral court keeps the integrity of the tournament in tact. By expanding to 18 in each region and having these lower echelon teams (that usually just get pounded by the 1-2 seeds) play each other it will make the 1st round more competitive. The last 16 teams in the tournament are usually very similar, small schools out of a 1 bid conference that lack talent and size. By making them play each other it will create a survival of the fittest element out of these small schools while allowing them to experience the "win and advance" aspect of the tournament, and I believe the experience would make each of these teams better prepared for that traditional first round game.
By expanding the tournament, you simply move the bottom 16 automatic qualifiers down a couple lines and move more quality teams into the 13-14 seeds. The way the tournament is today, most of the "last teams in" are seeded in the 11-12 seeds. With this expansion you would have the "last teams in" seeded 13-14. This would make the 3-14 and 4-13 games much more competitive, which would create more of the cinderella story that the NCAA so deeply loves. The bottom line is that by expanding the tournament it would ensure that the best 64 are in the tournament through the process of selecting 7 more at large bids to get in the tournament.
Curious to hear what everyones thoughts are on this topic.
This is a retread of a previous diary...
It appears that geographic divisions into N-S or E-W don't really work, at least for Michigan fans, due to the East being too top-heavy and the N-S thing messing up "the game" so this is an alternative that would spice things up in the off season. Though this system is probably better for 14 teams, it's a reasonable option for 12 teams and adding 2 later is easy once the kinks are ironed out.
Conference name: The Really Big 12
The 11 Big Ten teams are grandfathered in and PITT is added.
Each team would have 2 rivalry games every year and these would be ironed out before the inaugural season taking into account historical and geographic factors in deciding who gets who. So, Michigan's rivals would end up being Ohio St and Mich St and since these teams would probably mutually select each other. As a second example, Pitt would get PSU and have little say in who its other rival would be as a new member. Conference rivalries would be reviewed by the league's brass every 4 years and teams who are looking to change this up would have a reasonable chance of getting this done.
A preseason spring-summer draw would determine 2 divisions (Group A and B) each year ala FIFA's way of organizing the world cup except all members are equal regardless of rankings, history, or geography.
--Once Group A and Group B's members are determined, the schedule would be organized such that each team plays the 5 members of it's group, 3 members of the other group, and 3 non-conference games that would always take place prior to the onset of a team's conference schedule--no exceptions.
--For rivals not placed in the same group, they would automatically be slated to play each other as an "other group" game with home field alternating from the previous year. Games would be set up as randomly as possible while ensuring that each team has equal numbers of home games each year and is basically even head to head within each 4 year span.
--Stage 1: 3 non-conference games of the team's choosing all at the beginning of the season.
--Stage 2: 8 predetermined intraconference games from the draw.
--*Stage 3: The Championship Game and Conference Tournament Finale Games
--The top teams from Group A and B determined only by Stage 2 results then meet at a neutral site with the undisputed conference championship at stake.
--The other 10 teams get a 12th game and 9th conference game based primarily on league play seedings; however, only games that did not occur during Stage 2 would be permitted to avoid rematches (ie., only the championship game could be a rematch). --There would be an off week between Stages 2&3 for obvious logistic reasons. The Championship would be at night and the others earlier in the day and set up at two prearranged neutral sites like Chicago, Indy, Detroit, Cleveland, Cinci, etc.
--The postseason plays out as usual and the overall records and total body of work would determine who the BCS sends where, so that it would be possible for a team other than the conference champ to be the #1 team if non-conference and overall conference records sway voters in favor of another strong team in the conference.
*Note. Stage 3 can be replaced by THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME by adding a 4th non-conference game OR by adding a 4th "other group game" and either way you eliminate the conference finales and play up the championship game.
I've had a heartbreaking month of college hoops. I havent buckled down into religiously watching the whole nation, but I have watched, with anticipation and hope, every single minute of Indiana and Michigan basketball since their league seasons began, coincidentally, and perhaps in foreshadowed-bad-karma fashion, against each other on New Year's Eve. They are my two favorite teams, close to my heart, after all. Neverminding any backstory required to explain how that bizarre dual fanship has formed over the years, rest assured this month has totally wrenched my gut and punched my dong. Both clubs have had tremendous moments, but they've been meted out by a bounty of near misses and snatching defeat from the arms of victory outcomes.
It hasnt been all bad. The Wolverines and Hoosiers are a combined 15-5 ATS since league play started. And, if you haven't figured it out yet, I not only like to gamble on sports, but encourage betting on your teams games. So, there's been some Maize and Blue and Cream and Crimson profit to start 2010. I didnt have either in their Saturday covers yesterday, but i went to the window nine times in favor of one of these teams during the last month and not once did it net a losing ticket. (FYI: Just about each pick was touted at the JCB, so dont miss whatever February bandwagons we Book)
Ok, so I cant bitch one bit. But it did prove revealing that I still have a true heart and that sports losses remain impactful on me in a heartfelt, idealistic fan level. I have been downright mopey in the aftermath of my teams going 3-6 straight up in "close games." They mastered the art of losing, but covering,yet with each time my spirits dimmed, drowning out the cash register rings. I could not go a stretch a a few days without one of them team bringing me to the brink of celebration only to drop me and my fan brethern on our collective heads.
Indiana chokes away a 13-point halftime lead at home and losses to Illinois. Hours later I watch the Wolverines copy that in a loss at Crisler to Northwestern, a result I still havent been able to explain. Saturday, the Wolverines are nuetered by the sudden Manny Harris suspension. Sunday, the Hoosiers get blown out at home to Iowa, a loss that caused a lot of soul searching from folks regarding the reality of the rebuilding project. The Kailon Lucas show and DeSeans lip out proved an effective 1-2 punch that knocked me out of the college hoops world for a few days earlier this week. Just when I thought it was safe to step back in the ring, Indiana losses at the buzzer to Illinois yesterday after playing brilliant for 40 minutes. It was the most exciting and nerve racking three minutes of the Tom Crean era, but a stomach punch loss nevertheless.
The result? A February with a lot less stakes on the line where the teams postseasons hopes are concerned. A little more luck and IU could all but have an NIT bid in their grasp. That equals a huge step forward after a 6-win, 1-17 Big 10 campaign a year ago. We'd be having daily posts at the JCB reminding everyone just how smart we were by predicting an IU 5-4 home record or better in Big 10 play. Instead, the Hoosiers are 2-2 in those games with a lot of hard ones ahead and a better than .500 record needed the rest of the way just to finish .500 overall. The season will close out just like the second year of Michigan's football rebuilding job did this past fall. Progress totally obscured and, in some minds, totally wiped out by a string of losses piling up to end the year.
As for Michigan, they are 1-5 overall, 0-4 in Big 10 play in games decided by 6 points or less. If they are two games better and break even in those games--and lets say the 2-game turnaround is in league games--this club is sitting at 13-8, 6-4. A good bet for 11 wins in league play, their best conference mark in wins in years. An impressive record in an a power league. A non conference slate that at least proves you tried not to duck people. Dont bomb out in the BTT, and they're probably in. Instead, they're just one game above overall and one game below .500 in Big 10 play. A brutal spot to be in as February starts.
They have two hopes. Embark on the program's longest winning streak since the 13-game run in LaVell Blanchard's senior season that helped unbury the season after an 0-7 start. Now, there were a couple cupcakes in that mix, but it also included wins over 6 Big 10 teams and Vanderbilt and UCLA. Something in the ballpark of 6 or 7 in a row could get them into some brackets by the last week of February. With the rout of Iowa yesterday--and sixth straight cover-- it's one down and an indefinite amount to go. The second option is to win the Big 10 Tournament. Both are decided longshots.
Still, I dont think its unreasonable to claim Michigan will go 7-3 in their final 10 games. They wont go worse than 6-4. Doing at least that will equal last year's league mark and put them in the NIT. I think its important for the team to keep playing, if for no other reason than for Darius Morris' sake. The freshman point guard looks to be the biggest key next season. If Michigan expects to compete for the postseason next season, Morris needs to step up his production. I think he can be a double digit scorer next year and improve his scoring from year 1 to year 2 the way fellow Big 10 guards Travon Hughes, Verdell Jones and Chris McCamey did from their freshmen to sophomore campaigns. Morris was basically the same sort of prospect coming out of high school than all of them, so I dont discount it from repeating. I expect it. And, he's the best recruit the program has brought in since they inked Harris in 2007. He almost has to be The Man next year for this team. His length and speed will spearhead another good Beilein defensive unit next year. I could see him contending for league honors in steals and assists next season generating some easy offense for Michigan. But, he needs as many reps as possible this season. A 3-4 game run in the NIT with his role continuing to expand would be an ideal table setter for a better than most people expected season next year. Beilein is 13-6 SU, 14-5 ATS in NIT games, so there will also be some investment opportunities. The Wolverines have been one of the most profitable teams the last six weeks. I think it will keep up as I predict at least a 5-2 February. I'd like to keep winning on this team as long as possible and wont mind an NIT run if it also sets a good tone for 2010-11.
So, thats where I sit with my teams as February is about to begin. Anxiously awaiting the first NIT Projections of the year (due out here tomorrow) to see where Michigan sits and how far Indiana has to go to get there. Its not ideal. But at least I have more money in my pocket.
More depression comes from the knowledge that this is the first Sunday without football. I dont count the Pro Bowl. Despite next week's Super Bowl hullaballoo, we're left with a weekly hole in our sporting calendar. It's probably a good thing. There are better pursuits after all. College basketball, however, does provide some action on Sundays and, at times, will give us enough of a buzz the next six weeks so we dont go through complete cold turkey withdrawals with the sudden football void. Today is a perfect tonic. Eight big games--all on the TV dial somewhere--that all will have an impact on how the immediate Bubble will look when February begins tomorrow. There's four weeks to go until its officially March. Check out theremainder of my post on today's game with picks at the JCB
Bill Freehan is arguably the greatest catcher Michigan has ever had. Freehan came to Michigan in 1959, choosing the Maize and Blue over then baseball power Western Michigan because UM also offered him a football scholarship. Freehan had actually wanted to go to Notre Dame, but they too wouldn't allow him to be a two sport athlete.
It worked out well for Freehan and Michigan. His sophomore season saw Michigan win the College World Series over Santa Barbara University. In his junior campaign ('61), Freehan hit for a .585 average, which is still the BigTen record for a season. It's such a ridiculous record that the closest anyone has ever gotten was Randy Wolfe (UM '85) at .514. Three other players have finished with .500 averages (including Scott Weaver, UM '95 and Scott Erdmann, UM '85).
I think its safe to assume Freehan's record will probably stay intact for a long, long time. Bill lead the league that year with 18 RBIs as well, winning him All-BigTen honors. That season is the origin of the University of Michigan Bill Freehan Award, given to the team's top hitter each season. One of his mother's favorite facts about Bill was he once caught a triple header against rivals Michigan State. He caught the morning, afternoon, and evening game, but still had the energy to go dancing that night.
That season brought all the teams calling to Bill's father's front door. This being the pre-draft era, teams lined up at the front door and offered signing bonuses of unreal magnitude in the 60s. Bill claimed offers up to $150,000 dollars just to sign with a team. To put that in prospective, minor leaguers only made about $6,000 a year salary. Bill ended up signing with the Tigers, but he did managed to earn his degree from UM by taking classes in the fall. Bill's father made sure the education was the first thing on his son's mind (from a Baseball Digest Interview):
"The deal with my father was I would never see a dime of my bonus money until I got my college degree. That forced me to live in the YMCA with the rest of the guys and live off the meal money they paid all of us. That was motivational."
Now if that was only the case for today's athletes? Freehan went on to play with the Tigers, getting called up almost immediately. He spent the pennant stretch of September that year getting a chance to pinch run or hit here or there. The Tigers were in a battle with the Yankees (this was the season of 61 homers for Maris and 54 for Mantle) for the AL East championship and the management was in no rush to throw a kid out into the fire too soon. Freehan was sent back down to start the '62 season, but was named the Tigers starter in '63. Did he ever start the season hot. During one stretch of fifteen plate appearances, he went 9/9 with 3 homers,a triple, 3 doubles, 2 singles, and a 3 set of walks. While that pace certainly didn't last, but he did solidify his place in Detroit's lineup.
Bill would spend the next 13 seasons as the Tigers' backstop. He made 11 all start teams and won the World Series of 1968. The pitching staff in his early career were all young guys, but all raved about how Freehan gave the them confidence. He called a great game. He was the team leader and the team - the city - knew it. Freehan would go on to play with the Tigers through the 1976 season, posting a career .261 batting average and 200 home runs.
While still playing, Bill would release a book, Behind the mask: An inside baseball diary, offering an in depth look at baseball players lives. Fans didn't like to think about the players in the way he wrote about them and booed Freehan for a few months, but Bill silenced them by having a great 1971.
He would then start working at his own manufacturer's representative agency, acting as a salesman. He took on a new job in 1990, the head coach of the University of Michigan baseball team. He returned to Ann Arbor just as the program was entering probation for NCAA violations under coach Bud Middaugh. The school had banned all scholarships for 2 years, post season play for 3 years, and off campus recruiting for the next school year. The program was crippled.
When I took this job, I was advised to expect the worst, andc this is the worst. I was looking to get in heaven or hell, and I am in hell. At least I'm not in limbo." -Bill Freehan, via Spokane Chronicle February 20, 1990.
Bo chose Freehan for his phenomenal character and hard work to replace Middaugh, and Freehan did fairly well in his first few years given the restrictions. He stayed on at Michigan through the '95 season when the team fell far short of expectations. Despite being picked to finish as high as 2nd in the BigTen, the team finished dead last. Freehan retired with a record of 166-167-1, the first ever Michigan coach to leave with a losing record. Along with this last place finish came the suspicion of more NCAA infractions. Freehan was accused of giving players free pizza as a reward and offering use of his sports car for exceptional performances. Freehan denied the rumor about the sports car (that it was just a joke), but did admit there might have been minor infractions here or there - nothing serious - and that pizza was occasionally provided for the team.
Since then, Bill has also worked with the Tigers organization as a catching instructor from 2002-2005. He now is retired and living in the southern suburbs of Detroit.
Bill Freehan at The Baseball Biography Project