I'd love to get all up on my high horse about this undeniably douchy move by Thad Matta…
When Cameron Wright got off the phone with Ohio State men's basketball coach Thad Matta on Tuesday night, the junior guard from Benedictine knew he was not going to fulfill his dream of playing basketball for the Buckeyes. …
While recruits in football and basketball backing out of non-binding oral commitments isn't unusual, this wasn't a case of a kid changing his mind. Ever since OSU assistant John Groce, the primary recruiter for Wright, left to become the head coach at Ohio last June, Wright said contact from the Buckeyes had been sparse, and the call from Matta on Tuesday led to the final parting.
"I was definitely going to stick with Ohio State," said Wright.
…except I'm pretty sure Michigan did something subtler but similar with DeWayne Peace and Jordan Barnes, football recruits of yesteryear who decommitted in a fashion something less than voluntary. Peace had a conversation like this at some point:
Michigan: We'd like you to play defensive back.
Peace: Didn't I tell you I wanted to be a receiver?
Peace: Excuse me, I have to call Kansas.
Barnes, meanwhile, cited a wholesale lack of contact from the Michigan staff when he decommitted.* (He would later end up at Oklahoma State.) In both these cases Michigan didn't actually call up and say "you can't come here anymore," which makes their actions fractionally less douchy than those of Matta, but it's basically the same thing: whoops, can I have that scholarship back?
This might not be a trend yet, but it will be one soon, and then it will just be a fact of life. It's inevitable what with recruiting schedules moving so far forward, especially in basketball. Wright committed a year and a half ago(!). In the interim he went from highly touted to anonymous three-star. If you're a Michigan basketball fan you're probably thinking "I sort of wish Amaker had the balls to do that with Jerrett Smith," which assumes that Amaker would actually have replaced Smith with someone better but whatever. I feel you.
What's inevitable is also totally unfortunate, though. Wright's depressed final quote isn't going to be showing up in any annoying commercials starring violin-playing Asian soccer virtuosos:
"At the end of the day, it's all a business."
I thought the entire point was that it wasn't, in fact, a business. Upon this rests the entire near-fiction, not to mention the NCAA's tax-exempt status: that, in the end, the best interests of the student-athlete are paramount. That once you tell this Wright kid he can play basketball at Ohio State, he gets to unless he fails social studies six times or gets so high he can touch the sun.
As a fan I'd meet this news with two different emotions. One: hurray, it's more likely the team will be good. Two: boo, it's going to be harder to cheer for them when the ghost of Cameron Wright is sitting next to the walk-ons in a Cleveland State jersey. Everyone has a different balance there; mine slants heavily towards #2.
So it's good to be a fan of a university that did not actually run Jerrett Smith off, at least not before he got to campus. Smith's now a bench player at Grand Valley State after being booted for failing to meet standards set by Beilein. This also happened to Kendrick Price. Their removal from the team was not voluntary, but that seems fine as long as the standards are uniform and don't include things like "be useful on the court." Given the continued presence of Anthony Wright (before the Oklahoma game, at least), it's safe to say this isn't one of the standards.
Rodriguez's dance with the decommits hews closer to a line I'm uncomfortable with but still ends up on the right side of the line. If you don't think a kid can contribute or doesn't fit in your offense, it's best to tell them and let them make up their own mind. It's better to find out Michigan thinks you're a defensive back before signing day, after all, and unless you're being dishonest about that—which we'll never have any way of knowing—that's probably a net benefit. Peace is now a receiver at a place he'd rather be.
Barnes' case is murkier but there, too, Michigan let the guy make up his own mind. They helped along by making him feel unwanted, and while I'd prefer it if Michigan waited long enough to make sure they really wanted everyone they offered that kind of scrupulousness would put them behind the eight-ball, and as long as you don't actually yank the offer the kid's making a choice.
Do I have a larger point here? This is where the larger point goes. I don't know. I was just going to turn this into a UV bit and then it ended up pushing 1000 words, so you've read to the end and I should have a point.
I guess it's this: I don't want Michigan to be the sort of program that can pull what Matta just did. While I'm fine up to a point with the occasional moral compromise required to stay atop the shifting sands of Lemming-era recruiting, Rodriguez's tendency to shotgun offers out and let God sort 'em out later seems like a strategy that will lead to more uncomfortable situations not unlike a middle school dance: one party is desperately trying to extricate themselves from a situation they didn't think through before they checked the box that said "yes I like you."
*(I can no longer find a link for this, unfortunately. I have referenced it before, though. At the time of the decommit there was an Indy Star article that was pretty blunt about it.)
3/27/2009 – Michigan 0, Air Force 2 – End of Season
Naurato (left) and Lebler; Ariel Bond from the Daily.
Well, at least I don't have to make a tedious case that the way the NCAA hockey championship is determined is close to a random number generator. Reality has done that for me. Yost Built summarizes the chaos over the weekend:
-3 #1 seeds are out.
-3 #2 seeds are out.
-The only remaining #2 was down 4-2 with 40 seconds left in regulation. They scored with .8 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
-That wasn't even the latest a goal was scored to send a game to OT as UNH popped one in against North Dakota with .1 second left and won in OT.
-Cornell scored with 18 seconds left in regulation to beat Northeastern.
-A game was won in double OT on a shot that went through the net.
Hell, Michigan's loss against Air Force wasn't even the craziest thing to happen. Notre Dame got behind Bemidji State 4-0 and ended up losing 5-1. Literally the only team that adhered to expectation was BU, the sole one-seed to make the Frozen Four.
Today we stand at the edge of history, with Bemidji State—a team whose conference will cease to exist as soon as it is eliminated, if, you know, anyone bothers to do so before they win a national title—ticketed for the Frozen Four. Michigan outshot Air Force 44-13 and lost. In their next game, the Falcons were denied in double overtime by the above-mentioned shot that went through the net and was subject to a tortuous ten-minute review before it was declared a game-ending goal.
If ever there was a time for this particular youtube embed, this is it:
Does all this make me feel better? Well, yeah, kinda. When the misery was all Michigan's, it was weekend ruining. When Jeff Jackson (and the rest of the favored planet) can empathize, eh… that's single-elimination playoff hockey.
Travis Turnbull, who was this close to murdering a half-dozen people over the past couple months, probably disagrees.
I was actually planning on doing something else on Friday but the looming possibility of knife-twisting overwhelmed all. At this point I care about the hockey team as much as I care about football—for which you can blame/credit the back-to-back Yost regionals earlier this decade—and there is no point at which a football team finds itself at the mercy of the fates like college hockey teams do during the tournament.
Maybe this is an effect of the limited information we have in football. There are so few games that teams become their results; "deserved" doesn't enter into it. Teams become legendary because they win all their games, or in some cases win all but one and get lucky, and then that it. They exist as their body of work.
Hockey teams have a body of work, which is thrown into the pairwise blender and spat out somewhere else and then they show up and hope. I've mentioned this before: pucks bounce. And sometimes a seemingly harmless shot from the half-boards finds the millimeter of space the opposing goalie provides, and sometimes your first-round draft pick defenseman and senior captain gets walked and sometimes the team you're rooting for seems bound and determined not to score any goals that don't bore a hole through the opposing goalie and then you scream profanities and go mope until you fall asleep.
So ends Michigan's 2008-09 hockey season, and dude: lame. I wish I had something more enlightening to say about it, but when you outshoot the opponent by more than 3-1 and lose there's not much you can say except "goddammit."
Berenson himself drops the strange results from 97 (when Michigan had one of the great college hockey teams of all time and got bounced) and 98 (when a shell of the 97 team got hot in the tourney and won a national title) whenever someone puts a microphone in his face and asks him about his chances. I can almost rattle off his speech verbatim by this point: "the best team doesn't always win" etc, etc, etc.
But even if the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are old hat by now, this one had to be incredibly disappointing. Michigan was up 2-0 in the CCHA championship game, looking to extend their streak in non-controversial games to 21-1. Ninety minutes later the scoreboard reads Michigan 1, Opponent 7 and the season is over without anything to mark its passage.
The picture above says it all: what the hell was that?
- Man, that second goal was a killer. It's two-on-two coming into the defensive zone and Mitera steps up in a completely insane way, creating an unnecessary two-on-one. If he's been on the ice a month you have to play him and hope; I don't think that play happens if Mitera has another season of experience behind him instead of rehab.
- Well… next year. Primary flight risks are Summers, Palushaj, and Caprusso. If you made me guess I'd say Palushaj is gone and the others return. Seniors are Mitera, Turnbull, Miller, Fardig, and Naurato. (Also Sauer.) No offense to any of those guys, but that's two fourth-liners and two third-liners who occasionally got sucked up into scoring lines for physical presence along the boards and so forth and so on. Lebler and Winnett should be able to step into those roles, and then you've got a probable second-round NHL draft pick at power forward plus the U18 team's leading scorer.
The team should be very good again.
- Turnbull spent his last couple months in a Michigan uniform seriously pissed off (which was not entirely outside the bounds of reason), from the misconducts in the Ferris game to a wide variety of incidents with referees. I don't know why or anything, but it's worth noting.
One of the great complaints about Michigan football as conceived under Lloyd Carr was its distinct funereal air. I was a Carr proponent in many things, but at times it seemed like he barely tolerated the fandom that paid his salary.
This on display most obviously when it came to the spring "game," which Carr canceled a couple times due to stadium construction and downplayed at all other times. Never in its history was it, like, an event, and that seemed like a missed opportunity to have some fun. You know… "fun"? Ah, hell, forget it.
Rodriguez likes fun:
In hopes of enhancing Michigan’s annual spring football game, the athletic department will offer additional activities this year, including a flag football game featuring former U-M players.
The hour-long event, scheduled to start at 10 a.m. April 11 at Michigan Stadium, will feature former U-M head coach Gary Moeller coaching the maize squad and longtime assistant Jerry Hanlon coaching the blue team.
On Friday, the athletic department announced that fans will be able to tour the Michigan locker room and take photos from 8-10 a.m.
The cheerleaders and the band will be involved last year, unlike previous ones.
Rodriguez wants to break the all-time attendance record for the spring game. This is going to take some doing. Some showmanship. And so forth and so on. Even attempting such a thing will transform the Spring Game from a sleepy thing attended mostly by diehards into something that fosters a connection with the program. I am enthused and grateful for this sort of thing.
HOWEVA, an email:
I just happened to catch Rich Rodriguez at UMDM on the live video at www.umdm.org. He mentioned this: (allow me some room for error, I don't have a recording)
"We want to make the Big House the most electric atmosphere in the nation. We're obviously gonna keep the band involved, and we're gonna try and play a little music, do a few new things with the scoreboard and stuff like that."
Feel free to interpret that as you will, but I'm worried about a little sparty creeping into the Big House...
Yikes. This is the flip side of that coin. It's not easy to protest this sort of thing without emitting a "get off my lawn, kids(!)" air, but: dude, seriously, get off the lawn you hippies.
An attempt: one of the most powerful things that forges a fan community is the shared culture that naturally arises when you can say things like "one second left against Penn State" and know that the person you're talking to is thinking and feeling the exact same thing you are. It sets the group apart. This apart-ness is fundamental to the passion sports fans experience: it's us and them, and the more us our us is and the more them their them is, the more important the thing beneath us seems.
Michigan has a lot of culture. That, fundamentally, is its main asset. From that culture flows the passion, and from that passion flows the money. Part of that culture is a public address announcer who embodies neutral gravitas. Part of it is the lack of advertising in the stadium. And part of that is the way the game is presented inside the stadium, with no "NoISe!!!" signs or plastic chariots or electromagic Spartys with frickin' eye lasers.
I like it like that. I like my church with incense and deceased Jesus, my Christmas carols by Bing Crosby, and my Michigan Stadium without frickin' eye lasers.
It's safe to say I'm torn about what's going on here. I'd like it if the spring game was a game. And if it was worth going to. But that's not worth making Michigan Stadium chintzy. Any stadium experience revamp should be made with Michigan's existing culture in mind.
For example: Michigan debuted a hype video for the first time ever this year. It was fine. I thought it was pretty good. But it could have been a hype video for just about any school that had so few offensive seniors it had to drag Mike Massey into things. It would have been much better if it had taken some Michigan themes and integrated them. One such change: instead of "I am Michigan," or whatever, have people say "the team." There: done. Bo invoked, Michigan-specific, hurray.
Go ahead and change things, but please have a delicate hand. Let's not rush to join the great sweaty mass of brahs all around us. Let's not toss away something unique.
3/21/2009 – Michigan 63, Oklahoma 73 – 21-14, 9-9 Big Ten
The narrative of Michigan's basketball season was one of gritty, gutty, Eckstein-like overachievement, what with walk-ons at point guard and a 6'4" freshman at power forward and mismatched pieces in many places. It's not like this was a secret. I've typed "walk-ons at point guard" and "6'4" freshman power forward" probably a dozen times over the past couple months, often with exclamation points(!) in proximity.
But series finales are often overwrought things that take thematic overtones and bash them into your forehead, so Michigan drew the most un-Eckstein of opponents: Oklahoma and their THOG SMASH team. Then Manny Harris disappeared—maybe he's an angel—five minutes into the game and was replaced by Anthony Wright.
Wright proceeded to grit his way into 12 first-half points and Michigan went in behind by a single point at the half. They would have had a lead if not for the demands of the narrative, which caused them to blow a couple of easy fast break opportunities and the front-end of a one-and-one that would have pushed their lead to something substantial.
Halftime was spent in shocked contemplation of what had transpired. A brief attempt to calculate the probability of "Anthony Wright is Michigan's leading scorer at halftime of a second-round NCAA tourney game and the team is down one" was abandoned when one particular exponent was too large to fit in a 32-bit integer. A similar calculation for "Manny Harris plays five minutes in the first half and the team is down one" met a similar fate. ("Tim Brando is an abomination" came out to 1.)
So all this was clearly too good to be true, and Michigan duly proved that at the beginning of the second half when Harris emerged from the bench. But just as reality set in and began to harden, CJ Lee took a bite of his grit sandwich and gritted a gritty pair of gritballs, which in gritspeak are three pointers, three being the grittiest number and "balls" being the grittiest way to say "points."
Calculations begun! And hastily abandoned when Oklahoma threw it into Griffin and someone looked sideways at him and was whistled. Or something. Michigan loses, exeunt season.
And so. Here we are. This is going to be an embarrassing confession, but I remember standing in Crisler Arena on another Senior Day a few years ago and choking up a bit as the names along the lines of Chris Young were announced and the whatnot went on.
And I remember thinking that they should retire Lavell Blanchard's jersey, if only for sucking it up and staying home and enduring all the stuff you had to endure during that portion of Michigan's basketball history. At that point, anyone who managed to stay in school for four years without beating anyone with a belt or rolling an SUV or being Gavin Groninger seemed like a hero. I wanted to credit Blanchard with changing the culture of the program.
He actually which he may have done this, but the culture instituted was just a different kind of horrible. A much, much less horrible kind of horrible, but horrible just the same.
Thanks to Anthony Wright, we've all permanently lost our ability to criticize Beilein's rotation. This means we have to consider the walk-ons, and consider what it means when Jerrett Smith is deposited on Grand Valley State's bench and Kelvin Grady on Michigan's in favor of the above-pictured. In Smith's case, it just means he's bad at basketball. In Lee's case it just means he's better than Grady.
In Merritt's case… well. Merritt brought very little on the floor. His playing time is most easily interpreted as a rebuke to whatever Grady was doing that Beilein hated. Merritt is the culture Beilein wants, and he's going to get it, but a half-foot taller and able to pass and maybe score more than a couple points a game. This is just the end of the beginning.
- Michigan fans can't even assert that it was Harris' two quick fouls that doomed them since the guy soaking up the vacated playing time was Wright.
- As obliquely referred to above: Michigan had an opportunity to push its lead out to seven or eight points in the first half, which would have made the final, post-CJ-Lee-apocalypse minutes frenetic as hell. But they blew two fast breaks when guys pushing up the floor just had to catch the ball and lay it up, one of which led to a fast break the other way, and Douglass clanked the front end of a one and one. That's probably a seven-point swing,—you have to credit Oklahoma with about a point for their possession—enough to turn that five point deficit that was the closest Michigan came after their disastrous first few minutes of the second half into a two point lead.
These are the kind of opportunities you have to take if you're the ten seed, I think.
- I see I wasn't the only one to dub Griffin's treatment the Full Tebow. What perfect misfortune to draw the loathsome Tim Brando for this game. I mentioned this on Saturday, but at one point when it was declared Griffin had a "quiet" 30-15 I enjoyed a brief, dark laugh.
- The 400 shots of Griffin's parents may have made me want to claw my eyes out but at least they explained that weird ginger ubermensch effect going on. Over and over again. In the most annoying way possible.
- Also explained: why Griffin's opponents occasionally suplex him. He, Devendorf, and Vasquez should let their powers combine ("Ginger!" "Domestic Violence!" "Inadvisable Media Handling!") to summon forth Captain Douchebag.
3/13/2009 – Michigan 5, Western Michigan 2 – 27-10-0, 20-8 CCHA
3/14/2009 – Michigan 6, Western Michigan 1 – 28-10-0, 20-8 CCHA
This weekend's hockey series featured huge stretches of play so dominating that the above scoreboard resulted. That is the beginning of the first intermission. Michigan has three goals and 21 shots. Western has zero goals and zero shots.
Western's first shot would come at the beginning of the second when a Bronco forward, clearly instructed to get Western on the board, took a slapper from outside the blueline. It was going high, but they counted it anyway. The next shot was a clearance that dribbled in on Hogan, again from outside the blueline. That counted too: Michigan's official scorer was giving Hogan the full Jeff Lerg treatment out of pity to the visitors. By my count, the first actual shot Western launched on Hogan—certainly the first that originated from the offensive zone—came with 15:40 left in the second.
It was that kind of weekend. Total shots: 103 for Michigan and 41 for Western. Only Riley Gill's best Dominic Hasek impression kept Western from ceding 20 goals on the weekend.
So, again: this team is pretty freakin' good. They've pushed their recent non-crazy-goal-controversy record out to 19-1 since late November. Mark Mitera has been making excellent outlet passes and hasn't seemed out of place since an error that lead to Ferris State's first and only goal of the Friday game two weeks ago. They were 15-1 in NCGC games before they added last year's defenseman of the year. They're scratching an NHL draft pick every night. Our third defense pairing is either Steve Kampfer and Brandon Burlon or Tristin Llewellyn and Chris Summers, either of which pairings would be the #1 pair for any CCHA team other than Notre Dame.
When Michigan did anything other than dominate it was more because they were bored and hadn't spent any time in the defensive zone in two weeks and weren't quite sure what you were supposed to do. I am a little concerned that Michigan spends 80% of its time in the offensive zone because it leads to breakdowns and carelessness in their own end. This is a pretty good concern to have, all things considered.
Bullets Western left in the chamber:
- Holy crap was Carl Hagelin out of his mind this weekend. He singlehandedly dominated the penalty-kill, skated through the opposition like it wasn't there, and did his usual demonic backchecking. The Friday night ENG was justice for an outstanding performance. Two borks up.
- Northern Michigan upset Miami to reach the Joe, which improves Michigan's draw (they get Alaska) but hurts them in other ways: Michigan's SOS goes down as they played Miami four times, and Northern is now a TUC which brings M's 1-1 record against them into play.
- We wanted OSU to win the other series; they did not. Bizarrely, since we play now Alaska we want them to stay a TUC if we beat them since 2-1 is good for our overall percentage in that category.
- It doesn't hurt Michigan nearly as much as it does Miami, which is now the final team in the tourney and is vulnerable to an unexpected winner in any of the power conferences.
- I deeply regret that we were not allowed to trade Scooter and a recruit to be named later for Gill's services during the playoff run. That guy was insane both nights, which brings his record for insanity at Yost up to 3/3 on the year, as he was insane in a game Michigan totally dominated and contrived to lose 2-1 when Western conjured two late goals out of deflections and screening. About halfway through the Saturday game people around me started chanting "goalie-goalie" during the Temptation goalie-sieve chant, and, like, yeah. At some point Gill flat robbed Aaron Palushaj to the point where he was compelled to explain just how the hell the puck didn't go in the net to his linemates.
Gill's got a .920 save percentage, which is impressive but only 17th nationally. In context it's astounding, though. This is Western Michigan we're talking about here, always the worst defensive team in the league under Jim Culhane. He probably sees more grade-A rubber in a game than one of Mason's pedestrian .940 guys (Alban, Blackburn, etc) saw in a year; every Western goalie I've ever checked stats of is languishing around .885 or something. I'm sure Alaska's Chad Johnson is pretty good with his .939, but, man, how did Gill get left off the All CCHA Team for Jeff Lerg?
- Hey: they finally got a goal review right! Michigan's third-period goal to go up 4-2 was waved off by McInchak for no apparent reason—it was a virtual replay of the waved off OSU goal—but reviewed and declared good, largely because Shegos got in the box and was like "dude, that's his chest." Good on you, Shegos. Also, the look on Shegos' face—"not this s--- again"—was priceless.
- Last time we saw Shegos, by the way, he was with Langseth. This time no Langseth. Did he get busted down to linesman again? Or did they just tighten the crews because there were only four series to do this weekend instead of the usual six?
- I don't think we can pass ND, but I'll check.
3/16/2009 – Michigan 1, Decade Of Misery 0 … ok, 11.
So who else had a little heart attack when Arizona made the field and Wisconsin popped up as a twelve seed? I spent most of the past month reassuring everyone, including myself, that 9-9 and 1-1 in the Big Ten tourney would be good enough. But as 8, 9, 10, and 11 seeds rolled off the board with Michigan conspicuously absent, irrational concern rose.
There weren't nearly enough crazy bids deployed for Michigan to come under any threat whatsoever. As soon as two things went right on Saturday—which was about 5 PM—Michigan was in. Everyone everywhere told us so. But paranoia is a powerful thing.
Unruly sections of my brain busied themselves constructing scenarios in which the selection committee had managed to discount the Big Ten's impressive body of work outside of the conference. They'd been listening to Digger Phelps. They were going to put Providence and Notre Dame and Georgetown in. Corroboration: Mike Slive of the SEC was the head of the committee. Corroboration: Ohio State's athletic director was a member. Something could have gone wrong.
Obviously this is ridiculous, but they left us as late as possible and you can only stare at Brian/Greg/Burt Gumbel, whichever it was, so long without having your mind wander towards horrible apocalyptic events.
So when the time came…
…that reaction seemed totally appropriate. Most of the time it comes off as silly; the boredom expressed by Kansas and Pittsburgh is more reasonable than what appeared to be the entire state of North Dakota losing its mind when it found out which major conference team—the aforementioned Kansas—was highly likely to bludgeon it into submission. NDSU knew it was in. Not even the world's most inexplicable and pointless vast SEC/Ohio State conspiracy could keep the Bison out. I mean, it guess it's cool for you guys to be on TV, but it's not like there was any suspense.
The closest analogue I can think of is the reaction when a rock star says "HELLO SPRINGTON!" and the arena goes "OH MY GOD HE'S IN SPRINGTON I AM JUST REALIZING THIS NOW." Usually large groups of people assembled in a gym to be excited about something are going to be excited about something stupid. Lord knows I won't feel that way.
Ten minutes later I was again revealed to be a big huge hypocrite. Whatever. That happens all the time. Michigan making the tournament does not. Here's to future boredom with these things, and current joy.
Sandy, tired, camel-riding, joyous bullets:
- HT UMHoops for the celebration video.
- Crisler's reaction is on the front page of the Washington Post.
- A few things jumped out at me during the seedings: 1) Ohio State in Dayton against a #1 seed? Congratulations, Louisville, on your reward. 2) Siena got a 9; they were definitely in anyway. Not so much Utah State and their 11.
- Season ticket holders can get tickets online.
- At least a couple writers have Michigan as one of their tourney sleepers. Gary Parrish names Michigan one of two double-digit seeds with the best chance to make the Sweet 16. (USC is the other, and is also a ten seed. As far as double-digit seed upset predictions go that's as chalk as you can get.)
- The official site recaps Beilein's day: he goes to St. Thomas! Coffee from Caribou! He "meets family" at Bar Louie and probably enjoys a well-deserved, slightly overpriced drink!