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!
3/7/2009 – Michigan 67, Minnesota 64 – 19-12, 9-9 Big Ten
One of the bizarre things I love is soccer, and one of the bizarre things about soccer I love is the weird British permutations of American sports lingo that get deployed during the course of same and the bizarre permutation I love most is the phrase "get in!"
"Get in!" appears to be the stuffy British equivalent of "GOLAZO," deployed for goals of such spectacular mind-bending quality that a mere "goal" or "gol" is totally insufficient, the existence of such things being another major reason I love soccer. The thing that's bizarre about "get in" is this: it's invariably shouted after the ball has, in fact, gotten in. The ball will get in, and then the suddenly very electric and not at all somnambulant announcer will exclaim "GET IN!"
I think this is because some things you dare not hope for, especially in a game in which goals come so rarely and have this potential to rearrange the universe. Sometimes the situation develops in such a way that the arc of the ball is so improbable and so important and the whole thing is so unlikely that you dare not express hope lest it be wrenched cruelly from you. You can see the curve of the future; you cannot let it enter your heart until the net ripples and the impossible is before you, horned mermaid nuclear spaceship captains and all.
There's three minutes left and Michigan leads Minnesota by two. Manny Harris, a meh at best three-point shooter, takes a pass in the corner and unwisely decides to rise and fire—again. The ball arcs. Someone in the bar has just shouted "C'mon FRESH." If time ever stopped, surely it would do so now.
It's a terrible shot. I mean, just terrible. There are more than twenty seconds on the shot clock and Harris has the ball. He gives a jab step, I guess, but there's a guy in his face and Harris is a 31% three-point shooter and in this game he's two of seven on his way to two of eight and in all ways this is a slow motion 'nooooooooo' situation. Someone hit the abort button. This ship will self destruct in ten seconds.
I am a Michigan fan, so I know how this story goes: long rebound, fast break the other way, transition and-one layup that puts Minnesota ahead for good. Maybe there's a missed wide open dunk for Michigan, or Manny Harris is attacked with a machete and given a technical for spraying blood on the great and powerful Hightower, but those are just details. I know what happens next.
It's just that arc, you know. It looks pretty good. It looks true.
The thing with "get in" is that what has gone down is so good you have to retroactively hope for it, to rearrange yourself into a person so wildly stupid that they would actually believe such a thing is possible.
Last year Michigan was 10-22, more dire than any product put out by Tommy Amaker. Amaker, in fact, kicked the crap out of them in his new job at Harvard. It was one of their eight wins. This year Michigan has two walk-ons splitting most of the point guard minutes, no seniors outside of them seeing any time at all, and a 6'5" freshman guard playing power forward. I mean:
This is a team on the cusp of the NCAA tournament, and they were down twelve halfway through the second half of a road game against a probable NCAA tourney participant.
Beat Iowa and it's over. Get in.
- Every once in a while there's a moment that immeasurably improved by your presence in a sports bar when it happens, and that Minnesota prayer from near halfcourt that went right in moments after Tubby had called timeout was one. The entire bar went "ohhhhhhhh!" in this perfect way. Then there was a brief "Tubb-y, Tubb-y" chant.
- Wow: 100% wrong about Sims in the preview, eh? I've been trying to figure out which totally average NBA bench player Sims reminds me of and it's a tight race between Joe Smith and post-knee-ravaging Antonio McDyess. He's got an NBA shot but I don't know if he's big enough or active enough to be worth having on the roster.
- 100% right about those turnovers, though. It's not often you get a win when the opponent shoots 55% and rebounds half their misses. You kind of have to get 17 turnovers in a 56-possession game.
- Much more detail on this later, but I spent a large chunk of the weekend pondering the bubble and 1) we're obviously in good shape now but 2) we really, really don't want to lose to Iowa, who we just lost to without two of their best players. We might still get in but it's going to be tooth and nail.
Last year I attempted to coin a clever nickname for the Feagin-Threet quarterback pairing: "Dual Threet." Dual is now a slot receiver and Threet is moseying on out of town, possibly to North Dakota State if you believe random guys on a message board. (Do not believe random guys on a message board. Believe specific guys on a message board.) So it goes for Michigan in the past couple years.
I've been a stalwart supporter of Rich Rodriguez since his arrival. I didn't think Ryan Mallett's departure was his fault, nor did he have much of an opportunity to land a dual-threat guy in the month or so he had to finish off Michigan's 2008 recruiting class. The one guy it seemed he did have a chance with, BJ Daniels, ended up at South Florida amidst a flurry of payoff rumors that even The Wolverine—normally a place that shies away from incendiary allegations like that—lent credence to. The hand he was dealt was an exceptionally poor one. I can find no better way to sum it up than this: how many walk-on quarterbacks can you remember at power (or even decent) programs, and how did they do?
I've got exactly two:
- Notre Dame's Matt Lovecchio, AKA A Major Reason Ty Willingham Was Fired.
- UCLA's McLeod Bethel-Thompson, AKA The Only Reason Notre Dame Beat A BCS Opponent In 2007.
There's almost no precedent for a quarterback situation like the one Michigan faced in 2008, and almost no way to claw yourself out of a hole that vast at the most important position on the field. Once that hand was dealt, Rodriguez was dead meat.
So the reasonable criticism of Rodriguez are mostly confined to his role in setting up his hand: "running off" Mallett, the Boren defection, the fruitless chase of Pryor, and so on and so forth. I didn't find any of these arguments compelling, since I knew Mallett had a foot and a half out the door even when Carr was running the team and that the Borens had major daddy issues and the options outside of Pryor were about nil. The decision to hire Shafer was a poor one, and that seemed like it should be held against Rodriguez. Other than that, it was Angry Michigan Whatever Hating God all the way.
You can tell there's a but coming, so: but. But the Threet transfer bothers me. Even with the recruitment of Forcier and Robinson, Threet is the most experienced quarterback on the roster by two years and has some decent starting experience. He will find no better situation wherever he transfers unless it's to some podunk I-AA school. The transfer makes little sense for him personally or professionally unless there's something behind the scenes we don't know about.
Meanwhile, Michigan now finds itself down to two true freshmen before they have to drag out another walkon, be it Nick Sheridan or Nader Furrha or whoever. Even if Threet was mostly poor a year ago, he was obviously far superior to the alternative, and at worst he would be the backup next year. With Denard Robinson something of a project, every one of Michigan's egg is now in Tate Forcier's basket. Threet leaving the program is an obvious negative.
So it doesn't make sense on anyone's part. Why did it happen? I go back to a quote from Calvin Magee in the aftermath of the Michigan State game. Dan Feldman's Daily article on the transfer highlights it:
By staying and giving Michigan another feasible option besides Sheridan, Threet opened himself to public criticism from the Wolverines’ coaches. Offensive coordinator Calvin Magee described Threet’s three-interception performance against Michigan State on Oct. 25 as “inconsistent, like it always is.”
Man, that's pretty rough. Behind-the-scenes reports from insiders always said Threet had major confidence issues and didn't respond well to this staff's high pressure style. Maybe they tried to adapt. That evidently didn't last, so Threet decided he'd be better off elsewhere.
It's obvious neither side had much faith in the other. That's not unexpected given the rickety nature of the pairing, but I can't help but think that Bo or Lloyd would have found a way to finesse it better. I don't know. Maybe I've been talking to John U. Bacon too much.
- Pretty sure Matt Hayes has no idea that Nick Sheridan is a walk-on. Asked "what does the Threet transfer mean for M" he responded "It means Nick Sheridan, who shared time with Threet last fall, is next out the door." This is unlikely unless Sheridan wants to go to UM-Dearborn or something.
- Maize 'n' Brew blows up a pretty dumb Blade article on the transfer. HT to them for the NDSU link, too.
- The Ann Arbor News thinks there's "no heir apparent," which, could not be more wrong since there is one obvious guy who is obviously the starter now.
- But, hey, Forcier seems slightly more confident than Threet (link ibid): "In this offense, there's always somebody open. You should never throw an incompletion.'' Forcier's cockiness should serve him well.
- Chengelis says you shouldn't anoint either freshman your lord and savior yet.
- DocSat has a take as well.
Throughout the first half of last night's game, the familiar thought crept up in the minds of Michigan fans: "If the offense just gets going, we've got this game." As per the script throughout much of this year, the offense never picked up enough for the Wolverines to steal a game against the #1 team in the Big Ten.
Michigan finished the first half with 15 points, something Brent Musberger and Steve Lavin continually pointed out during the second half. What they were neglecting to mention, however, was that this anemic offensive output only had Michigan down 10 points. The Spartans had only scored 15 themselves, and we hardly threatening to run away with the game.
The Wolverines performed admirably, despite giving up a lot of size to the Spartans. It's easy to see where this team will become a great one in the future as Ben Cronin, Blake McLimans, and Jordan Morgan appear on the scene. This team might not be good enough to make it into the tournament, but losing CJ Lee, David Merritt, and Jevohn Shepherd while adding good size and a 4-star point guard bodes well for the future.
Zack Gibson remains a frustrating player. He has flashes of absolute brilliance, followed by shocking incompetence (especially on the defensive end of the floor). Manny also had a rough game, and had trouble getting to the line. The Wolverines were also an uncharacteristic 6-11 from the line, something you can't do against a rival - particularly when you're the best foul shooting team in the conference.
Michigan next faces Northwestern in Evanston Sunday. The Wolverines dominated the Crisler half of the home-and-home, and with tournament hopes dwindling, nearly every contest is a must-win from here on out.
The author's work normally appears on his own site, Varsity Blue.