the season has truly begun now
One of the main themes coming out of Big Ten media days is that Michigan's locker room was massively divided last year and that this was a major reason for the fractured splat mess that Michigan's season ended in. (And pretty much started in.) Frank Clark:
"There's no point in yelling at someone. Yelling to another grown man isn't going to get you very far. You've got to have a certain level of respect for that individual. And if he respects you, then there's not going to be that type of level of disagreement."
The implication is that this is a change from 2013.
This is both unusual and not. You often hear about chemistry problems in the aftermath of an unpleasant season; lord knows that I have heard it and fervently believed it about Michigan hockey the last couple years. It is a standard trope whenever sports people have to talk to media before a season, up there with Leave Touted Freshman Alone and We Are Only Motivated By Our Haters. That it's emerged after Michigan's 2013 is no surprise.
The unusual part is the not-quite-on-the-record vehemence being directed at one particular player. That would be Taylor Lewan. No one wants to come out and say it directly, but read between any two particular lines about locker room divisions and they land squarely on him. The result: regular threads on message boards about what a bad captain he was and how unity will unify us all now that he's gone.
I am not buying this.
I don't come to praise Caesar here. There's plenty of circumstantial evidence that Lewan was a dick, from his role in the Gibbons mess to the still-pending assault charges to his increasingly unhinged behavior in last year's Michigan State game. When Mike Spath did his annual piece from Big Ten Media Day in which he gives players anonymity in exchange for real talk, a couple of them called Lewan out for being over the line:
"I don't know how that plays at Michigan, but if my teammates were doing that, it'd be like dead silence in the room, and everyone would know what he's really about.
"That's not the guy I want leading my team."
So yeah he's not exactly Denard. No one is disputing that.
That said, the NFL grabbed him in the first half of the first round. And his performance matched that during the year. He took piles of criticism because Michigan couldn't move the ball, all of it ridiculous since the guy next to him—sometimes both guys flanking him—were blowing the play as he executed his assignment.
You know what doesn't get talked about when you're winning football games? How much of a dick player X is. "Chemistry" is often an effect of other stuff, not a cause. Before the departures of CJ Lee and David Merritt tanked a Beilein team I would have gone with "always" in the previous sentence; nowadays you have to acknowledge that sometimes it is a real thing.
It's not likely to be a big factor in last year's collapse—insofar as a pile of rubble can collapse. Fracturing was always going to happen once that offense was so so bad and the defense got sick of running on the field after a three and out six times in a row. There was always going to be a falling out with the coaches after their ham-handed attempts to fix things made them worse. If Michigan's players weren't questioning what the hell they were doing on offense, there's about to be some bad news about their ability to pass classes at Michigan.
When [Hoke] arrived at Michigan in 2011, he routinely discussed that the group's seniors would carry the club. They'd be the backbone, and the team would be playing for them.
In 2011, it worked. Hoke's senior group was close and welcomed everyone in -- and the team won 11 games. In 2012, it seemed to work again. Even during the moments when the team struggled, it never seemed to unravel.
But with a mostly younger group in 2013, it never clicked. The team stopped fighting for one another, and became disconnected.
When did the team "stop fighting for one another"? During the Akron game like two games into the season? Or on the two point conversion that might have beat Ohio State at the end? It "worked" in 2011 because Michigan got lucky repeatedly; it did not in 2013 because they did not. The offensive line was a shambles against Notre Dame, but Gardner played out of his mind.
There is no narrative in which the fight goes out of Michigan. The pattern here is not one of increasing incompetence, but game-to-game variability: beat Minnesota with a good ground game, get that tackle over set annihilated by Penn State. Run the ball against Northwestern, get 150 yards of offense against Iowa, put up 41 on Ohio State in consecutive weeks.
They were up and they were down and that was mostly because they weren't any good and the offense was mismanaged. Taylor Lewan's affability was at worst 1% of a problem that started with Rich Rodriguez's offensive line recruiting. Losing him isn't going to solve a problem. Winning will.
It's been just over a month since Mitch McGary announced his "decision" to go pro. The scare quotes are present because there was no decision to make if McGary were to act at all in his own self-interest.
This sucked. This sucked because Mitch McGary is a joy to watch on the basketball court, a 6'10" mace attached to a giant pendulum, swinging violently back and forth while pausing only to wreck shit. This sucked because he's equally fun off the court, with his unicycle and Bieber-crooning and invaluable coaching advice and generally making Michigan's bench seem like the best party on campus, even if McGary was the only one partying:
What sucked most of all, though, was the feeling that McGary had only scratched the surface of his potential, and factors almost entirely out of his control* limited our exposure to just 12 career starts. Mitch McGary's Michigan career lasted all of 966 minutes played. That's just over 16 hours. That's not nearly enough.
So while I had no trouble writing effusively about Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III after their departures, I've spent the last month struggling to put McGary's career into words. I try to analyze and am left instead with a whole lot of feelings. How does one discuss an athlete hyped to Webberian proportions before he ever enrolled who, apart from one brilliant six-game stretch, never produced as expected yet was beloved all the same?
Probably by ignoring all of that, sitting back, and watching him work, because again: when Mitch McGary was on the court, the only proper response was to drop everything and watch Mitch McGary. He didn't give you a choice in the matter. He grabbed your attention like so many entry passes:
McGary was a defensive force with impeccable timing. His steal rate as a freshman easily surpassed that of Trey Burke, Master of the Halfcourt Pickpocket. He protected the rim. He seemingly rebounded everything. Michigan's defense suffered mightily last season without McGary's interior presence and game-changing ability to erase opponent possessions.
He also boasted remarkable skill for a big man. Defensive boards turned into fast breaks in the time you could say "Unseld." Sometimes he'd eschew that route and just do everything himself. Occasionally he'd finish his coast-to-coast forays with a Rondo-esque fake behind-the-back pass. Speaking of point guard skills, he could thread multiple defenders without looking. Perhaps my favorite McGary play came in the Kansas game, when he hit a baseline turnaround right in Jeff Withey's face like it was routine, not a work-in-progress shot he'd rarely—if ever—utilized to that point.
He did these things while accepting a backup role until it was time to unleash him for the 2013 NCAA Tournament, playing in an offense that relied on him more as a garbageman than a creator, and being the team's #1 scholarship cheerleader and hype man.
Look at the GIF at the top of the post, one more time. It's a 25-point blowout of Northwestern, and there's McGary, showing more effort in one play than some guys do in four years. Sure, he lost the ball out of bounds, but it's not like you can be mad about it; even if it didn't end well, that play brought life to a dull affair, and we were all better for having seen it.
That's how I'll choose to remember Mitch McGary. The flashes of brilliance. The occasional mistakes born from genuine enthusiasm that bordered on excessive. Most of all, the feeling, after everything, that I enjoyed my life just that much more thanks to a big kid from Indiana who seemed to enjoy everything.
*Yes, there's the weed thing. Read that David Roth piece, then think about the punishment for McGary's transgression versus one of another Michigan center—the football one, Graham Glasgow, suspended for part of spring practice and one should-be-a-cupcake non-conference game for drunk driving. I find one of these things far worse than the other, and it's the one that puts other people's lives in actual danger.
Even after his meteoric rise from unheralded three-star to coveted five-star, Glenn Robinson III was never the centerpiece. In John Beilein's 2012 recruiting class, Mitch McGary commanded the most attention. In Michigan's offense over the following two seasons, Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas were the focal points. Playing a game in which the object is to put the ball through the hoop, Robinson was notable for how rarely—and briefly—he touched the rock.
He waited on the periphery, and when the opportunity arose, he struck with such suddenness and forcefulness that even if you forgot he was on the court, you were sure to leave the game talking about whatever he just did. One moment, he was a 30% three-point shooter standing harmlessly in the corner. The next, some unsuspecting defender was attempting to discard a 6'6", 220-pound hat with ill intentions.
Robinson's ability to make these lightning strikes look effortless belied the skill required to execute them. Correctly timing a cut requires not only reading the defense, but also your teammates—a foray to the rim is worthless if the cutter and passer aren't on the same page, and a poorly timed one can ruin the offense's spacing.
[Hit THE JUMP because of
excessive entirely necessary GIF usage.]
In today's basketball world, the corner three is superior in value to any shot that doesn't come at the rim. It's also the toughest shot in the game to create for yourself; to do so requires a silky touch, a tapdancer's precision, and the guts and/or stupidity to launch a shot that would earn most players a quick trip to the bench.
Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry covered this topic in exacting detail yesterday, posting this fascinating chart that shows the assist rate for shots made from each spot on the floor—three-pointers usually require assistance, and the rate increases as the shooter gets closer to the baseline [click to embiggen]:
Goldsberry's post focused on the players who could create those high-percentage shots for their teammates, because even in the NBA, finding players who do it themselves is a difficult proposition:
Meanwhile, unassisted corners 3s are the white buffalos of perimeter shooting. They don’t come around too often. As it turns out, dribbling into the corner and firing up a 3 is very difficult, and perhaps unwise, as well. It takes a special kind of player to even attempt this task, as Rudy Gay demonstrates for us here: [GIF of Rudy Gay dribbling into the corner and badly airballing a fallaway attempt]
Which brings me to Nik Stauskas. I've written before about his pregame shootaround routine, but it's worth mentioning again. In addition to practicing the usual spot-up threes from various points around the arc, Stauskas always spent time in the corner working his crossover stepback, a move designed to clear out just enough space to launch from a spot that opponents long ago learned to keep him from at all costs.
Without ever having to look, Stauskas's feet nestled precisely between the three-point line and the sideline, the product of countless practice hours transforming process into instinct. By the end of his Michigan career, he made these audacious warmup attempts at about the same outrageous clip that he hit his normal shots. Michigan's shootarounds were considered must-watch because of the team's—and especially Glenn Robinson's—impromptu dunk exhibitions; for me, however, the Stauskas Stepback was always the highlight.
[Hit THE JUMP for more on Stauskas's incredible shot creation in GIF, still, and chart form. Oh, and some more words, too.]
Brennen Beyer won't forget that moment. Long after Al Borges is just a name from a past that may or may not haunt us as fans, the Canton native who stayed close to home will delight in telling his family and friends about the time he—a defensive end—scored a touchdown; he'll have the football to prove it, and the final score of the game will be largely irrelevant.
These moments have been frustratingly few and far between this season, especially this month; even in the shadow of defeat, however, they provide fleeting flashes of joy, even when we're doing our best to detach emotionally.
When Devin Gardner rolled out, couldn't reach the corner, then threw aside Tanner Miller like a defective Weeble-Wobble before hitting A.J. Williams for his first career reception—in the end zone, no less—my reaction wasn't to slump back onto the couch, muttering something about Al Borges's doomed waggles; it was "F*** YEAH, DEVIN." Maybe not so profound or eloquent, but damn if it didn't feel good.
Then Michigan lost, miserably, and I drove home in a funk. But they had their moments, and so did I.
[After THE JUMP, basketball moments.]
2013-14 Preview Coverage
Media Day Wrap: Beilein transcript + interviews with Horford, Morgan, Walton, GRIII
Position Previews: Bigs, Wings, Point Guards
Preview Podcast: With special guest John Gasaway
A Whole Damn Book: A whole damn book
Tonight's Game Info
What: Michigan vs. UMass-Lowell
Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan
When: 7pm, Friday (Banner raising ceremony at 6:40)
Line: Michigan -25 (KenPom)
TV: Big Ten Digital Network (subcription required)/MGoBlueTV (ditto)
Radio: 950 AM (Detroit), 102.9 FM (Ann Arbor), Sirius Channel 92, MGoBlue stream
UMass-Lowell is making their Division I debut after finishing 15-13 (10-12) as a member of the Northeast-10 (Division II) last year. A full-blown game preview is rather unnecessary.
"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties." — Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning
As Michigan opens its season tonight against UMass-Lowell, I'm certain of two things about this team: they're raising a Final Four banner tonight, and they will be good.
The first is indisputable fact, not to mention a significant reason why it's easy to state the second: John Beilein's squad returns eight players (three starters, four more rotation guys) from a team that came within a half of requiring a bigger, fancier banner. Among those are two players garnering preseason All-American consideration, arguably the best shooter in America, a backup point guard who dropped 17 points in the first half of the title game, two experienced big men, and a sophomore oozing so much potential that he forced his way onto the court last year despite appearing malnourished.
On top of that, Michigan boasts one of the best coaching staffs in the country and bring in two top-flight recruits who will contribute immediately, one of whom (PG Derrick Walton) has already secured a starting role. They will be good, even without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway.
How good depends on a number of factors, however, and for every certainty there is an equal and opposite uncertainty.
Certainty: Mitch McGary is one of the most skilled, impactful centers in college basketball.
Uncertainty: When will he be able to return from his back "condition", and will it hamper him once he returns? (Also: how much do we weigh his tournament run versus his regular-season output?)
Certainty: Glenn Robinson III is an incredible athlete who had an exceptionally efficient freshman season.
Uncertainty: Can Robinson create his own shot, and can he stay so efficient with a bigger role?
Certainty: Beilein will try to play more two-big lineups this year.
Uncertainty: Will this work, especially with all the practice time McGary has missed? With all the talent on the wings, is it even worth trying?
Certainty: Caris LeVert is getting massive practice hype for the second straight year and looks like a potential breakout star as a shooting guard and part-time point.
Uncertainty: Will his practice/exhibition exploits translate to actual production against real opponents this year?
Certainty: Nik Stauskas is a great shooter; also: Not Just A Shooter.
Uncertainty: Can his lethal efficiency as a three-point shooter and pick-and-roll ballhandler continue when he's the team's first or second scoring option?
Certainty: Michigan is starting an extremely talented freshman point guard.
Uncertainty: Michigan is starting an extremely talented freshman point guard.
The list goes on and on*, and I'm okay with this. The uncertainty surrounding the football team this year has largely stemmed from "can this non-functional unit become functional"-type questions. The uncertainty surrounding the basketball team, on the other hand, is more of the "can this good thing become great" variety.
If the pieces all fall into place, Michigan is a national title contender once again. If they don't, this is still a team capable of winning the Big Ten (so long as Michigan State doesn't go full juggernaut, at least), and barring a rash of injuries they'll be a fun team to watch. None of us have any idea what's going to happen; it's still all but guaranteed to be more rewarding than watching this year's football team. Sit back and enjoy Michigan's status as one of the nation's elite programs, one that reloads instead of rebuilds, and savor that banner. We'll worry about certainties another time.
*Will the team's added functional size and experience on the wings equal better defensive performance, for example.