Mailbag: Big Man Rotation, Dealing With Withey, NBA Departure Odds, Big Puppy's Breed, Unhappy Visitors
I received a recruiting mailbag question via email and, in the process of requesting more questions on Twitter, this mostly turned into a basketball mailbag. So, here's a hoops mailbag with a couple of bonus football recruiting questions, I guess.
Starter of the future, also starter of the present (Photo: Bryan Fuller)
Do you think that Morgan getting rest against VCU could help him have a serviceable/good game against Kansas? — @carlseikoll
This is the first of two questions about the big men, so let's focus on Jordan Morgan's situation for now. He got a lot of rest against VCU—the whole game, in fact—on the heels of playing just one minute against South Dakota State and 18 combined minutes in the Big Ten Tournament.
It'd be nice to pin the blame for Morgan's reduced role on his midseason ankle injury, but I think we're beyond that point—he played over 22 minutes in each of the four games leading up to the BTT. It's entirely possible that coming back from the injury too soon sapped his confidence, especially in his ability to get lift off the floor and go up strong when finishing with the basketball. Or a bad stretch of games and subsequent benching may just be getting in his head.
Whatever the reason, it seems unlikely that John Beilein would keep Morgan nailed to the bench in the VCU blowout—not giving him the chance to regain some confidence in a low-risk situation—only to have a big role in store for him against one of the nation's best teams (and best big men). Which leads to the next question...
What is the hierarchy of McGary, Horford, Morgan, and what they can do to stop Withey? — @stephenjnesbitt
Mitch McGary is the starter at this point, a point I doubt anyone will dispute. He's emerged as both the team's most consistent and productive center, and as long as he stays out of foul trouble he should play the majority of the team's minutes from here on out.
Given the above, Jon Horford is the next man on the floor, and Morgan should be used either sparingly or only in case of emergency. While this rotation worked out great in the first two tournament games, however, there's reason to worry heading into the Kansas game.
The reason, of course, is Jeff Withey—a real, functional, productive big man, something Michigan didn't really see in the first two NCAA games. I don't think there's a huge gap between Michigan's three big men offensively, aside from McGary's stellar offensive rebounding; all three aren't players Beilein is going to post up often, especially against one of the country's best shot blockers. Against Kansas, whoever's playing center won't do much more than set picks and fight for putback opportunities.
The difference will come at the defensive end. Morgan has certainly struggled in the last couple weeks, to the point that I don't think Michigan can confidently throw him into the fray on Friday; that's a problem, because he's still by far their best on-ball post defender, and Withey is a skilled post player with a high usage. McGary, meanwhile, has done everything well recently except defend on the ball—overlooked in his performance against VCU was the Rams' lone big man, Juvonte Reddic, scoring 16 points on 7/11 shooting in 24 minutes, with only one of those baskets coming off an offensive rebound. McGary is also foul-prone, though not as much as Horford, who commits a sky-high 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes.
I still don't think Morgan will play much, if at all. If he does, it will be because Withey is terrorizing the defense in the post. The best thing Michigan can do against Withey on Friday is to try to lure him away from the basket as a shot-blocker—expect a lot of pick-and-roll action—and look to deny him post touches defensively. This is one of the worst games for the Wolverines to be without a full-strength (mentally and physically) Jordan Morgan, but that's the way the ball bounces.
[Hit THE JUMP for the odds of Michigan's underclassmen jumping to the NBA, searching for Big Puppy's breed, and a couple of recruiting questions.]
Mitch McGary was unquestionably the star of Michigan's tournament weekend. He will appear several times in later on in this post. But my gawd, Spike Albrecht, you just made the pass of the year on a team with Trey Burke. Take a bow.
Four other reasons this gif wins the weekend:
- You can see VCU's defender rip open Glenn Robinson III's jersey as he runs down the court. This did not appear to affect GRIII very much.
- The bench goes nuts... before GRIII even dunks.
- Both Tim Hardaway Jr. (bottom left corner) and Trey Burke (in front of the bench) hop in identical fashion at the exact same time, like it's a Pavlovian response to Robinson's dunk.
- Spike rounds off his run at the three-point line. Walk it out like crutches, Spike.
All these things are great, and all pale in comparison to the pass itself. Thread, meet needle.
[Hit THE JUMP to see (and vote for) the best gifs from Michigan's opening weekend, also known as Mitchapalooza.]
3/23/2013 – Michigan 78, VCU 53 – 28-7, Sweet 16
It doesn't take long for people to forget who you are. One loss to a MAC team on the big stage seems to do it, even if that MAC team was an overtime away from the Elite Eight. The next year you might find yourself on a bit of a skid to end the year, facing down another mid-major star and instantly targeted by the talking heads as upset city, baby*. Rule one of sports opinion: the last thing that happened will always keep happening.
If you ever find yourself in this situation, I'll be surprised since that means you've been a head coach for a zillion years. You'll also be feeling like John Beilein has been the past week. Drinking decaf tea. Thinking about covalent bonds. Enjoying your grandchildren. Pissed off.
I mean… John Beilein, projected first-round upset victim. I don't know if you know this, head-talker,—I think you should since you will never stop referring to Michigan's 1-3-1 zone—but John Beilein has been around the block. He's made verbs. Have you made a verb? Does it mean "higher seed has just been blitzed out of tournament by three-raining center"? No. It means "seemingly has not watched college basketball since he played it, and probably not even then." Except your verb doesn't exist. "Pittsnogled" exists.
Even if your theory is that Beilein's March blitzes ended at the Big Ten's edge, you've got more evidence against you than in favor of you. In 2009, a ramshackle Michigan ten-seed took out #7 Clemson. At one point that game was a blowout before Michigan went into clock-kill mode. They held themselves in against Oklahoma despite deploying Zack Novak against Blake Griffin and having to rely on Anthony Wright as their primary scorer with Manny Harris stapled to the bench, in foul trouble. Two years later Michigan ran Tennessee out of the gym in an 8-9 game and was inches away from taking #1 Duke to OT.
Basketball's weird, randomness is random, bad things happen to chemistry teachers, yeah yeah. Going out of your way to project John Beilein doing poorly in the tourney is like pressing Trey Burke: once in a while you get lucky. Over the long run you're going to end up holding your intestines, thinking about a foolish life ill-lived.
Don't even get the tiny slice of John Beilein's brain given over to his id (he keeps it between gluten-free pancake recipes and lamp instructions in a disused, dusty corner) started about what happens after you show Summit Trey Burke his intestines. If the tiny disused id could draw Beilein's attention for a fraction of a second, boy, would he be slightly peevish about VCU this, havoc that. About new hotness Shaka Smart and his defense with a name and everything and a two-year-old play-in-to-Final-Four run.
The definition of whippersnapper (Bryan Fuller)
The gap between expectations of serious men—Vegas installed Michigan a slight favorite—and the chatter of VCU havoc-ing Kansas and whoever might come next was large.
"All we've been hearing was the VCU 'Havoc,' we didn't hear anything about us, and we wanted to prove we're no team to mess with right now," Michigan freshman Nik Stauskas said. "All you heard is 'how are they going to stop Nate Wolters?' Stuff like that."
The thing is: Shaka Smart is a great tourney coach. Entering Saturday's game against Michigan he was 7-1 against the spread during March Madness. He did that whole first-four-to-Final-Four thing. He is appallingly young to have done this. I have to tell you that when VCU's band was putting Akron's to shame on Thursday and their dancers were just kind of, I don't know, moving, you know, in a certain way and VCU came out and blitzed Akron it was intimidating. This was before I knew they had a guy with a Tim the Enchanter hat even.
Smart has created an aura. VCU's presence at an NCAA tourney site brings an electricity with it. This havoc thing will be a verb sooner or later. Shaka Smart is 35.
It's just that John Beilein's been doing this since Shaka Smart was playing with Legos. No, since Smart was gurgling out his first words. Dude was one year old when Beilein started his coaching career at an age even more appallingly young than Smart did. On March 19th, Beilein was 10-2 against the spread in the tourney since '05. He's since added two more ATS wins to his docket, the last one a deconstruction of Havoc™ so comprehensive that Michigan put up 1.2 points per possession despite hitting just 30% of their infinite wide-open threes.
Anyone predicting VCU to do things forgot that this was a John Beilein team piloted by Trey Burke. I am almost certain the handshake in the aftermath did not feature Beilein telling Smart he was strapped with gats when Smart was cuddling a cabbage patch. But not completely. Kansas awaits; John Beilein sips tea with eviscerating intent.
*["Upset city, baby" patently unfair here since Dick Vitale in fact put Michigan in his Final Four. I enjoy being patently unfair to Dick Vitale. If you consider this a character flaw in me, I consider it a character flaw in you. So there.]
McGary, of course. (Fuller photo, Ace photoshop, board suggestion at right.)
It will not be news if I tell you that Mitch McGary had himself a day: 21 points on 10 of 11 shooting, 14 rebounds, and even a made free throw. He earned Obligatory Wes Unseld references from the announce team and The Sporting News.
Oh, and he just might be the best outlet passer we’ve seen since Wes Unseld. Matter of fact, he’s built a lot like Unseld, too, with a hard-edged game like the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer.
He dove on the floor with Michigan up 20, because that is what a St. Bernard would do.
To cap it all off, he gave Kammron Taylor a flashback seizure so bad that Chris Rock (That Chris Rock) had a twinge:
He and GRIII were the engines behind a blowout on the boards: 19% OREB for VCU, 41% for Michigan. He played 34 minutes with a single foul. It was a day. If he can go head to head with Jeff Withey… dot dot dot.
While I don't think that's super-likely, guys do have coming-out parties that suddenly announce they have reached the proverbial Next Level. Beasting on an undersized VCU team with their one quality post stuck on the bench for a big chunk of the game* might count. Going head-to-head with Jeff Withey and coming out even is indisputable. I'm saying there's as chance.
*[Reddic had 16 points on 13 shot equivalents in 24 minutes. His backups saw a total of 21 minutes, in which they attempted zero shots.]
Stat of the game. Michigan gave up all of four fast-break points to VCU and scored 15 of their own. That is the recipe for blowing Shaka Smart off the court.
Stat of the game, part II. Michigan had 12 turnovers, VCU 11. This number is of course under the 15 magic number, or 23 magic percent. VCU also managed just two more steals than Michigan.
Slash and burn. I got a lot of grief about this assertion when Michigan ended up in the same pod as the rams:
Whenever someone posts a bracket and says they like or do not like the matchups therein there is always the guy who says they will boil themselves alive if VCU is a potential second-round matchup. I say bring the Rams on:
VCU 100% dependent on (huge) TO margin. A-10 opponents actually shooting better than Rams.
I'll take that strength versus VCU's many other weaknesses in the matchup game.
Now everyone will kill me if we lose to VCU in the second round. I should have said nothing.
I'm not usually a point-to-my-awesome-prediction guy, because predictions are stupid. (Remember "NC State is the #8 seed no #1 wants to see?") In this case, though, WOOOOOOOO.
Michigan's three and a half ballhandlers defeated virtually all attempts to run that 1-2-1 diamond trap. Except for a brief period right after halftime when Burke got run into a few traps—a couple times by his teammates—trying to heat him up was more loss than win for VCU. The 15 fast break points don't seem to include a number of possessions where the broken VCU press led to crushing GRIII/McGary dunks.
Those two were 17 of 19 combined on twos, and GRIII's miss was a chaotic attempt with guys falling all over the place that McGary immediately rebounded and put back. All but three of those attempts were at the rim. The press mostly set up dunks or layups or Kobe assists, not turnovers.
How did this happen? Why didn't the quick turnaround hamper Michigan's preparation? The program is based on ball control.
"Preparation for a game like this does not happen in one day," Beilein said. "If you came to our early drills in October, in the summer, we're catching on two feet, we're pivoting, we're passing the ball to the outside hand. We're valuing each possession. You play a team like VCU, if you don't value each possession and take care of the basketball, they're going to run points on you like crazy. (They're) averaging 75 points a game, 20 of those are off defensive transition off turnovers. We work on it daily.
"The prep was really minor (on Friday), as far as 90 minutes of walking around, doing things."
This was a draw of doom for VCU, playing a team that basically spends every practice defeating your system.
Spike. Hello. Spike Albrecht's 14 minutes came with a made three, a missed two that really should have been a Kobe assist (he drew Reddic and threw one off the backboard to Horford; Horford managed to biff the putback), and a couple of assists. The second blew the roof off the Palace:
nooooooooooooooo! ohhhhhhhhhhhh! lolllllllllllllllllll
(Watch the bench, BTW.) This is the bit where you started cackling madly because this was officially a replay of Tennessee 2011, and bitterly wished Gus Johnson was doing this game—oh my God Gus Johnson doing this game.
Anyway, Spike has a nasty habit of dribbling 25 seconds off the shot clock but eventually teams get irritated that this little white kid is running around the court on them and foul him. I do not think this is a sustainable strategy, but there are worse backup point guards to have.
One thing he's got in common with all Michigan point guards since Darius Morris emerged: kid is unflappable. He showed that today and during a stabilizing cameo after Michigan had gotten run early at Ohio State. Contrast his play with a clearly rattled Caris LeVert, who cost Michigan a few points in four minutes in the first half and then ceded the rest of his time to Albrecht.
A HUMBLEBRAG CHAMPION IS YOU. Hardaway on his reverse two handed slam:
"Coach (John) Beilein always said if you're going to do something flashy, it better work," Hardaway said after the game. "I just tried to do the easiest dunk that I knew how to do.
"It ended up being that."
Supporting cast turnovers. VCU got to Burke a bit, forcing seven turnovers out of him. A couple of those weren't his fault—in particular I remember one ill-fated backcourt trap that Nik Stauskas led Burke right into—but that's a high number. It's offset by the 5 the rest of the team picked up. Hardaway and Stauskas operated as press relief and auxiliary ballhandling, finishing the day with a 4 to 1 A:TO ratio. Add in Spike's one TO in 15 minutes and that's an impressive job of TO avoidance.
It's an expected job of TO avoidance, mostly. The exception: Hardaway taking the ball up the floor for big chunks of the game without incident was a bonus. It helped that VCU couldn't put one of their flypaper PGs on him with Burke out there and Theus in foul trouble.
A series of missed lane floaters. VCU was hurt early by a series of possessions that ended with their guards—I guess they're all basically guards—getting into the lane, whereupon McGary would help but not really challenge. The resulting short floaters went clang clang clang.
Looking at the box score, might this have been the gameplan? Rob Brandenberg, Melvin Johnson, Briante Weber, and Troy Daniels were a combined 9 of 24 from two, and if you look at those dudes' season averages and squint away a fast break adjustment, that's not far off what you'd expect from that collection of mediocre midrange shooters.
In compensation, VCU suffered a 3/16 night from three, with designated sniper Tony Daniels going 1/9, and got to the line just 6 times, all of those attempts from large-ish folk Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic. Graham, VCU's highest-usage player, was limited to eight shot equivalents in 35 minutes. As a team, VCU picked up six assists on 23 made baskets. Michigan had 17 on 31.
The problem with Michigan's D is that they kind of have to give something up. If those are lane runners without a Kobe Assist waiting, that doesn't seem too bad.
Behold the power of a withering tourney blowout on Kenpom. VCU rocketed from 22nd to 14th thanks to their Akron annihilation; Michigan providing the Rams the greatest two-game swing in tournament history bounced them up four spots. They are now ahead of Kansas(!) even after the Jayhawks' crunching second half against North Carolina.
All of this is poisoned by Akron playing their game against VCU short four players and the three-standard-dev matchup advantage Michigan had against the Rams, but you guys we're totally beating Kansas! You guys.
I don't think we're going to beat Kansas you guys. They've struggled for 60 of their 80 minutes in the tourney so far, sure. That doesn't change their season-long performance and the looming terror that is Jeff Withey. It seems like their shot is dependent on whether Kansas is a funhouse mirror version of some fourth graders like they were for about 22 minutes against North Carolina or a lethal death machine like they were the final 18 more than anything Michigan does.
I say that in part because turnovers are a persistent Kansas problem. They don't really have a point guard per se; facsimile Elijah Johnson's assist rate is barely above his TO rate. But Michigan does not force turnovers much. Unforced errors from Kansas seem to be make or break for them in this one.
But there's a reason Kenpom has this even. Just as soon as I figure it out I'll let you know about it.
Second small downer thing. Michigan couldn't have put Jordan Morgan out there for like five minutes? I'm worried that his mental state is haywire right now and Kansas looks like a team that will demand more post rotation from M. They play a two-post system with 6'8" senior Kevin Young (season 3PA: 6; season 3PM: 0). Young is a top-100 OREB guy and almost-top-200 DREB guy who shoots 56% from two. Meanwhile, Withey draws 5.2 fouls/40.
With the prospect of McGary foul trouble looming and the possibility Michigan will want to run two posts out there in the event Young is beating up GRIII on the boards, you'd expect Morgan to get 15 minutes or more in this one except for the fact he disappeared almost entirely last weekend.
Rothstein on McGary:
McGary almost shrugged discussing the hit, with a sly smile yet insisting it was unintentional. That is part of what makes McGary a question mark for how good this Michigan team could be in the final two weeks of the season.
“Mitch, his confidence was incredible today, easy drop-offs and offensive boards that he got and he just kept going,” said Michigan redshirt freshman forward Max Bielfeldt. “He can go on a run, and he’s just very talented. When he gets his game going, he’s really, really tough to stop.
“He’s a guy, when he gets going, he’s going to keep going, and his enthusiasm keeps his game at a high level.”
Gary Parrish on… McGary.
"We're an even-keeled group," Stauskas said. "Except for Mitch."
The Daily's Everett Cook on… McGary.
“He came in weighing in the 250s, ballooned up a little bit, you know, enjoying the cafeteria a bit too much,” Alexander said. “Then he got back, recalibrated with his discipline.”
John Niyo on… McGary. (And other stuff.)
McGary had 20 pounds on VCU forward Juvonte Reddic, and probably 40 pounds on just about everybody else the Rams could throw at him. Funny what escaping from the rough-and-tumble Big Ten can do for a guy, isn't it?
"I mean, I guess it was easy to grab rebounds," he said.
Easy for him to say. But hard to do justice to his energy level — "He went down and chased all the loose balls," Smart said — that never waned despite his playing a season-high 34 minutes.
"That's Mitch McGary," Burke said. "That's what he does. He's the guy that gives us the spark and makes our engine run."
Baumgardner on McGary!
"Mitch was at the LeBron James Skills Academy the summer before he (committed to Michigan), and he was out of the game and he was getting cups of water for his teammates," Alexander recalled earlier this week. "That, in essence, gave us an idea of the type of person he is.
"A selfless spirit that allows our culture to grow."
Burke broke Darius Morris's single-season assist record in the game. Talking head recap. Beilein says things. Clownfrauds no more, doubters silenced, welcome to the jungle amirite. Trey would be relieved if he could feel hoo-man squishy emotions, but clearly he cannot so this is probably a misquote.
Five Key Plays. Mitch, destroy.
Wallpaper by jonvalk.
Kids who were my age in France all grew up with this song Ce Matin, un Lapin… (this morning, a rabbit…) about a hare who turned the tables on a hunter and thus commenced the bunny revolution. The singer is a lady named Chantal Goya who spent years trying to carve out a niche in pop music by being ironically jejune, then found her calling by dropping the irony and singing kids songs on the French Disney Channel.
Kids my age who went to Michigan might remember a band called Tally Hall who have followed a similar career path. In 2005 I earned my Level 5 music cred badge by sharing a booth at a New York bar with the Atlantic Records people while Tally tried out for them. The music folk tossed around fancy adjectives like "jejune" to capture how fresh and cool it was to find a rock band that can occupy the antipode of metal the Beatles brushed with An Octopus's Garden. They signed them, but after one album the label forgot about them and that lapsed into that. Recently my best friend reported via Facebook that his three-year-old is a huge Tally Hall fan.
All this week Michigan fans shared a booth with all the really cool basketball people while they circle-talked themselves into the South Dakota State Jackrabbits as the hipster upset pick and Nate Wolters as the best point guard in the country (though you've probably never heard of him).
Nine minutes into the second half the rabbits were finally starting to lose pace with the Wolverines when Burke and LeVert* went up for a rebound and Wolters ran in to give Trey a 'Wisconsin Special' undercut hip check that sent Michigan's own pretty good guard crashing to the floor. As Burke clutched his head the panic claxons went off in yours. There was no foul (of course), the ball was awarded to the Jackrabbits (of course), and they of course went right down the court and scored.
You could imagine the Disney ending from here, a Cinderella advance amidst the cheers of Spartans in brand new turquoise tees. All it would take was 11 minutes of indifferent D, refs that hate us, threes that clang, twos that shouldn't have been shot, and Spike Albrecht running around with the ball like a mad chicken, to end the career of Michigan's greatest player since _____(?) with the prostrate pose above.
Here's how it really went:
- Stauskas drove hard (NJAS!) to the basket and through hard contact to make a layup and collect a rare and-one, which he made. 52-43.
- Wolters forced to take a long two, missed, rebounded by Albrecht
- Albrecht does his running around thing, gets the ball to Hardaway, TIMMMAYY makes a jumpshot. 54-43.
- Wolters misses a three, Horford MANBALLS the rebound out of another contestant's hands.
- Trey Burke returns, drives inside collecting ALL THE DEFENSE, then kicks out to wide open Hardaway for three, buried. 57-43.
That was enough for the Wolverines to finish off the rascally rabbits, final score 71-56.
As it turns out the audience for simple cutesy catchy formulaic music is little kids, rabbits tend to lose to hunters, and Michigan is better at major sports than those guys you've probably never heard of. Who could have imagined? Also as it turns out this little game column was all a prelude to the Diary of the Week by saveferris, who looked at the performance of past 4 seeds and found, well, the higher seed you are the better your prospects for tourney success. File all of this under the kind of duh that takes occasional reminding.
* His surname is French for "The Green" but a "leveret" is a baby rabbit.
Etc. Every goal from hockey's WMU sweep plus a few bad puns of blue/blew from MGoBlueline. The basketball game is at noon on Saturday so you can watch that then still make it to the Joe. LSAClassof2000 looks at run vs. pass balance over recent Big Ten history, finding Wisconsin and Ohio State run a lot. Need to get the 4th quarters and blowouts out of there though if you want to find the meat. Blockhams was drawn before Ryan was hurt, isn't funny anymore.
[Jump, Best of the Boards]
At my childhood home in Ann Arbor, a framed photo is propped up on the bookshelf in my brother’s old room. It shows my brother, Jack, and me with a close family friend in the cheap seats of The Palace of Auburn Hills. It was the spring of 1995, and I was seven years old. I couldn’t look more excited to be there, the smile on my face borderline cartoonish.
My father, a Detroit native and Michigan grad, had moved the family from San Francisco to Ann Arbor less than two years prior. In that time, he’d introduced me to Michigan football and Red Wings hockey; my brother and I alternated fall Saturdays with him at the Big House, and early summer evenings were reserved for watching playoff hockey in the living room. Dad was never a big basketball guy, though, so I had to look elsewhere to find an NBA rooting interest.
My father’s business partner lived in Ann Arbor at the time. Gail was a Boston native and, naturally, a Celtics fan—“The Celtics will rise again,” she’d like to say—and she also acted as a second mother to Jack and me. When my parents wanted a break from raising the two of us, we’d spend the night at Gail’s apartment. That was where she introduced us to basketball; one of my most vivid childhood memories is sitting on her bed, eating popcorn and watching J.R. Rider win the ’94 Slam Dunk Contest with his between-the-legs “East Bay Funk” dunk.
Gail also introduced us to Michael Jordan, and like most everyone of my generation, I couldn’t get enough of watching him play. He’d retired to play baseball, of course, but we’d pop in Bulls championship VHS tapes and marvel at the greatest. When I got home, I’d go to the backyard and play on the Little Tykes hoop set up on our brick patio, throwing down one-handed—and in my mind, buzzer-beating—dunks with my tongue out, just like Mike. Though I also watched the Pistons, rooted for them, collected their sports cards, I never pretended to be Grant Hill or Joe Dumars. If you’re not the best in your dreams, why have dreams?
On March 18th, 1995, I was in the midst of one of these backyard fantasy sessions. My mother rarely interrupted these except to call me in for dinner. This time, though, she walked out of the back door bearing an important message.
This was how, less than a month later, I’d be photographed at the home of the Detroit Pistons wearing a Bulls hat and Michael Jordan Birmingham Barons shirt. Jack wore a similar outfit. Gail, the Celtics fan, donned a Bulls sweatshirt. Some athletes transcend sports fandom.
My lasting memory of that night is seeing Jordan, wearing #45 and playing his way into shape, commanding the full attention of every spectator. He may not have been at the peak of his game, but the best player on the court was obvious to everyone in the building. From the cheap seats, my eyes rarely left Jordan, awestruck by his effortless greatness.
The box score shows that MJ scored 29 points that night, going 12/23 from the field while adding nine rebounds and nine assists; a great game, sure, but not one that would leave a lifelong impression on a budding sports fanatic if not for the nature by which it was achieved—with complete ease and confidence, Jordan moved through the game like he was starring in a play for which only he knew the script.
The box score also shows that Scottie Pippen had the night off, Allen Houston and Terry Mills combined to hit 10/13 three-pointers, and Joe Dumars dished out 13 assists. I remember none of these things, just watching Michael Jordan lead the Bulls to victory and going home happy.
Last Thursday, I walked past Michael Jordan’s statue and into Gate 3 ½ of the United Center, though a winding hallway adorned with photos of other Bulls greats, going by Jordan’s old locker room before finding a spot in the media workroom. Michigan’s opener in the Big Ten Tournament was the first road basketball game I’ve covered this season, so I immediately checked the seating chart—I get stressed in unfamiliar settings and wanted to know exactly where I needed to be when the game started.
As it turned out, press row at the United Center is courtside—unlike the Crisler Center, where the media is seated in the upper bowl—and I had a spot near the end of the second row. I’ve watched a lot of basketball, but this would be a new perspective. When covering games, I try to act like I’ve been there before, maintain a certain level of professional decorum, but when I got to my seat I couldn’t help but pull out my phone and snap a picture of the view:
As a blogger/fan working among full-time beat reporters, covering this year’s Michigan team has presented a challenge. The Wolverines have not just won in a way I’ve never experienced, they’ve done so while churning out the highlights; every instinct I have is to leap out of my seat and yell after each alley-oop, twisting layup, step-back three, or go-ahead jumper. This, of course, is not acceptable behavior in the working press area. I’ve been forced to perfect the subtle lean back in my seat, eyebrows arched, mouth slightly agape, reserving a slight shake of the head for the best of plays.
No player has elicited that response more than Trey Burke, for obvious reasons. On a team as talented as Michigan, his skill stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, even if he’s usually the smallest guy on the floor. While the others wear their emotions on their sleeve and struggle to consistently play their role, Burke wears the same expression as he goes about his business—calm yet intense, and utterly composed at all times.
He looks this way while making opponents defend air with his hesitation crossover, or throwing a pinpoint lob, or doing his best Rajon Rondo impression, or doing his best Dirk Nowitzki impression, or sneaking up to block Aaron Craft from behind, or picking Keith Appling clean at halfcourt and throwing down the winning dunk.
The Look was there for the second half of Thursday’s game. Michigan came out of halftime with just a two-point lead on the lowly Nittany Lions; Burke had started slowly, just 3/9 from the field, and it felt like the rest of the team was waiting for him to take charge.
The Wolverines were now shooting on the basket directly in front of me, giving me an ideal view of the Trey Burke Experience. Three minutes into the half, Burke inbounded the ball to Tim Hardaway Jr., took the return feed, and calmly drilled a corner three, standing no more than six feet in front of me. I turned into that wide-eyed kid again, and would stay that way for the remainder of the game, as Burke poured in 13 second-half points and the Wolverines pulled away, eventually winning by 17.
One moment in particular left me shaking my head in disbelief while I suppressed every urge to go into full-on fan mode. One of Burke’s go-to moves off the pick and roll is to stop his drive on a dime at the free-throw line and rise for a quick, unguardable pull-up jumper. With just under 13 minutes left, Burke took a Jordan Morgan screen and made his way into the lane, briefly checking over his shoulder to locate his defender, PSU’s D.J. Newbill, who was trailing him after fighting over Morgan’s pick.
In the moment that Burke peered over his shoulder, Penn State center Sasa Borovnjak—who’d been cautiously ceding ground—stepped up hard. At 6’9”, Borovnjak gave Burke, listed at a generous 6’0”, a sudden and tall obstacle. Normally, Burke likes to shoot that pull-up jumper like Chauncey Billups shoots his free throws—on a line, drilling that spot on the back of the rim that great shooters always seem to find. This time, however, that trajectory was no longer an option.
It’s barely perceptible on film, but what Burke did next is what separates him from the rest of the country—and every Michigan player I’ve had the opportunity to watch play. With an ever-so-subtle double-clutch, Burke shifted his right hand an inch or so to the underside of the basketball, then released a high-arcing shot that barely eluded Borovnjak’s outstretched fingers. The ball hit nothing but twine.
Burke momentarily held his shooting pose, as if to show the world that it's really as simple as this. For him, at least, it is.
The crowd reacted as they had for most of Burke’s baskets: with polite applause. This is what we’ve come to expect from him. We're jaded by a 20-year-old sophomore.
Burke would hit two strikingly similar shots later in the half, each recalling the one before but noticeably different in execution. I’ve included his highlights from the game in the above video. What strikes me the most isn’t Burke’s skill in shooting, passing, dribbling, or even on-ball defense, a part of his game that’s seemingly come out of nowhere in the latter half of the season. It’s Gus Johnson—that Gus Johnson—barely changing the inflection of his voice as he relays Burke’s latest masterpiece to the television audience.
The next afternoon, Burke couldn’t will Michigan to a victory over Wisconsin, though not for lack of trying. With the Wolverines down ten points with just over five minutes left, Burke almost single-handedly pulled the team back within four, recording a steal, two free throws on the ensuing foul, two more baskets, and even a block in the next 2 ½ minutes—his only miss in that span led directly to a Mitch McGary putback. The comeback stalled there as the defense faltered, but in an otherwise dreadful game Burke once again reminded everyone why he should be the national player of the year.
Burke put up 19 points and seven assists in that game, almost exactly matching his season average for both categories. This season, the question has ceased to be whether he’ll produce—he’s scored 15 points or more in every Big Ten game—but how hard he’d have to work to get there and if he’d have sufficient help along way. The Badgers made it a struggle—Burke took 22 shots, making only eight—and even then Burke’s misses were just barely off the mark. Left with no margin for error, it felt like Burke was mere inches away from dragging his team to victory anyway.
Much like the peripheral players faded from that night at Auburn Hills, eventually my memories of the Wisconsin loss, the late-season swoon, the crappy perimeter defense, they’ll all be lost to time, or at least need to be jarred into clarity by a Google search. What will stick is Trey Burke, expressionless, pulling up for that right-hand floater, each one nearly identical yet perceptibly different.
Incidentally, Michigan returns to the scene of my dalliance with sports bigamy on Thursday. I will not be there, having intentionally missed the deadline to apply for a credential. I want to experience Burke’s (likely) final games as a Wolverine as my seven-year-old self did Michael Jordan’s comeback: free to wear my team’s colors, leap out of my seat, and holler when a rare talent pulls off moves most of us save for backyard dreams.
Halftime stats on the left, final stats on the right, via scacchoops.com
If you're expecting a reasoned, informative recap of the game, I highly recommend stopping right now and looking elsewhere.
Still here? If so, you are either in search of schadenfreude or have a remarkably strong will to make your life miserable.
Michigan lost to Wisconsin 68-59 in a complete abomination of a "basketball" game. The halftime box score resembles something from a middle school junior varsity game in which all the players are blackout drunk. The Wolverines held a three-point lead at the break, courtesy of Wisconsin's inability to hit anything (5/29 from the field). The Badgers made it appear, momentarily, like Michigan had discovered how to play defense.
Then the second half began, and the Wolverines remained stagnant on offense while entirely forgetting how to guard the perimeter. After hitting 2/13 shots from beyond the arc in the first half, Wisconsin connected on 6/9 three-pointers in the second—most of their looks came without so much as a hand in the shooter's general vicinity, let alone a legitimate contest.
Trey Burke did his best to stop the bleeding, scoring 15 of his 19 points in the second half, and Tim Hardaway Jr. (14 points, 5/9 FGs) admirably returned from a sprained ankle to knock down a couple big shots. Nobody else cracked double digits, however, and any semblance of an offense rapidly devolved into the "Trey, go do something" strategy. Burke was forced to jack up 15 shots in the final 20 minutes; no other Wolverine attempted more than four.
Major culprits included, well, pretty much everyone. Ryan Evans scored nine of his 13 in the second half, abusing Glenn Robinson III and Hardaway down low—Robinson struggled so much that Spike Albrecht took his spot in the lineup down the stretch. Jordan Morgan started but played just eight horrible minutes, turning the ball over three times, completely unable to hold onto the basketball. Nik Stauskas went 1/8 from the field. Burke had an uncharacteristic four turnovers, though given the circumstances it's difficult to lay much blame on him.
A guy who shoots free-throw jump shots, a redheaded Art Garfunkel, and Ben "#@*#$@" Brust combined for 28 second-half points, going 4/8 from two and a perfect 5/5 from three. If there's a College Hoops Fan Hell, it is watching that game on a continuous loop while Bo Ryan waves the last bottle of whiskey in existence in your face, refusing to let you drown your sorrows.
Michigan will still play in the NCAA tournament, of course, and there's even a chance that I'm willing to watch basketball by then. They won't play Wisconsin, mercifully.