...says Denzel Valentine of Big Ten Tourney favorite MSU, which is 5-7 in its last 12 games. Cumong, man.
Unlike in football, where you have a game a week and, thus, all carry a pretty high significance, basketball has far more games with varying levels of import. Last year I basically started this column with the tourney run, and so far the season has been just disjointed enough that it was hard to get a bead on what this team was capable of. So it wasn’t until this week’s games against Wiscy, Iowa, and MSU did I feel like I could do justice to a full-fledged Best and Worst on a series of games. Note that while I can at least impersonate someone who knows a couple of things about football, I am an avowed fanboy of basketball who begged his mom for a Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket and Bobby Hurley’s ITZ so that I could ball in the Michigan winters all day long.
Also, there might be wrestling references in here. To paraphrase Mel Gibson to Joaquin Phoenix, “Neg away.”
Best: Wrecking Ball
Even the most optimistic fan looked at this slate of games and said “2-1 would be fantastic, but just get 1 win and survive.” Then came the signature win at the Trohl Center, and everyone rejoiced for a day until the Ent Globtetrotters were seen emerging from a fertile Plains state. Then UM felled it’s second top-10 team of the week and the mood turned pure Lloyd Christmas with the possibility of a sweep at the Breslin, but for most that fantasy was quickly snuffed out by the realties of playing against a third top-10 team, on the road, before a rabid crowd that could easily sway the officials in ways both great and small. And it’s not like MSU is a pushover; led by the lilliputian Tom Izzo, one of the nation’s top coaches and 18-time winner of the Frances Pomeroy Van Gundy award for coaching, he’s the reason Cedar Village’s Google Image Search is virtually indistinguishable from that of London’s during World War 2.
(Click to enlarge. The black & white ones are London)
And yet, it was hard to shake the feeling at halftime that UM was going to sweep the week, or at the very least come damn close. Yes, the shooting has been unsustainably hot, but they were also able to weather some horrible officiating and Gary Harris’s amazing performance to keep the game close, and at some point a short-handed MSU team* wasn’t going to be able to hang with this squad, even if they weren’t at full-strength themselves. And so, like the other two games, UM won a bit going away, hitting their foul shots and playing stout enough defense to salt it. Basically, they followed the same formula MSU and UW have used for years to choke the life out of teams.
So now, midway through a season that started with much uncertainty, pocked with consternation and some despair, UM sits atop the best conference in the country, 7-0 for the first time since before anyone on this team was born. Though this is certainly not the last tough stretch for the team, and you have to expect some type of letdown in the coming weeks, these guys went from safe-if-unspectacular tourney team to one of the most dangerous outs in the country, a designation that seems perfectly appropriate for a Beilein squad. Speaking of which…
* This has been discussed elsewhere, but losing Payne to injury was tough. Losing Dawson to a “Fist Punch of Leadership” is just having an idiot on your team. Everyone loses players throughout the season, and sore wrists and bum shoulders weren’t the reasons UM has won 5 of the last 7 against MSU.
Best: The Beilein Hypothesis…
I’ve always believed that there are two types of successful college coaches: guys who thrive in chaos of new players and transition, and guys who thrive at installing players into a system. The archetypes of the prior are the one-and-done maestros like Calipari, while the patron saint of the latter are guys like Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan. Obviously, most coaches fall somewhere in this spectrum, with guys like Pitino, Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Self, and Williams making do with varying mixtures of near-pros and matriculating talent. But in general, their greatest successes fall into one of these two camps.
John Beilein has always been a system guy. Now, when I hear that term as it relates to college basketball, I think of your defensive taskmasters; your Ryans and Izzos who recruit annoyingly-good offensive rebounders and defense-first guards who want to leave teams looking like Zach Novak and muttering “Jon-a-than!” as they board their bus.
But with Beilein, the focus has always been about his offense, and he’s recruited those players with a very specific set of skills with aplomb since he arrived in Ann Arbor. Sure, he made do with imperfect lineups featuring guys like Morris, Harris, and Sims, talented players who helped carry UM back to respectability even when they weren’t great fits for the system. But you always saw him tinkering at the edges, trying to create the type of team that, well, he’s had for the past 2-3 years (though perhaps still a bit too guard-heavy, with McGary’s injury being a major factor).
Still, it has gotten to the point with Beilein’s team that they can lose one of the best players in the country and another first-round NBA player and really not miss a beat. Sure, Stauskas and Caris have made strides and the Morgan/Horford combo has impressed, but this team is still down 3/5ths of the starting lineup that took them to the championship game last year. And yet, after a couple of early stumbles as the pieces settled into place, the offensive productivity remains elite while the defense remains in line with last year’s acceptable rate. And unlike defense-heavy teams, which seem to be better able to plug in, how do I say this charitably, “high energy” guys with limited offensive games and still come out on top, Beilein’s system requires players to be able to actually score with some consistency, a skill that (I presume) is far less abundant.
It seems that it has gotten to the point with Beilein (and more importantly this team) that players have become largely interchangeable provided they possess certain basic skillsets and a decent level of athleticism. And in some ways, perhaps his best teams are going to be those bereft of a great many “stars” from an NBA perspective. This isn’t meant to invoke the Ewing Theory because losing in the championship game could never be construed as “underachieving”, but I do think that the Burke-Hardaway squad was hurt at times by having two NBA-ready players sometimes vying for the same shots and space; you heard various people complain gently that the “hero ball” at the end of games by Burke and Hardaway felt forced at times. Obviously it didn’t cost them in the end, but his WVU teams weren’t overflowing with NBA talent and yet they held serve in a remarkably tough Big East for years. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to recruit the best kids, but his team seems capable of holding serve without the superstars guys like Calipari need to replenish year-in/year-out.
My only nagging concern is that the defense, perhaps by design or due to the players best suited for this offense, seems to have settled at about average, which puts pressure on the offense to be significantly more efficient than other teams to compensate. It is a relatively minor concern and one that should further shrink as more talent arrives, but it should be noted when discussing Beilein’s successes.
So while I’m not yet ready to consider that any future Beilein team at UM can be penciled in for a certain number of wins and a tourney run, it is safe to say that the era of “fretting” about the state of the program is at an end. Given a reasonable number of healthy bodies and at least some talented offensive players, Beilein’s squads will be highly competitive in the toughest conference in the land, always in the running for conference banners and capable of beating anyone on a given night. That is the best mark of a good system, and given the past two decades of UM basketball, a welcome sign.
[He isn't even close to done with Bests yet. Jump!]
Worst: Even Our Leader Has Fallen
I'm going to mail it in this week, guys. Just know that ahead of time.
— mgoblog (@mgoblog) November 23, 2013
Look what you’ve done to him, Michigan Football! His e-blood is on your hands!
Worst: Pretty Meta
I’m warning you all in advance that this post is going to be less about the game and more holistic. Here’s why UM lost this game: Iowa scored 17 points in the 2nd half while UM’s offense recorded 6 fricking yards before their last drive of the game. That ended in a fumble from Devin Gardner (who is probably injured). Because of course that’s how a game against Iowa should end.
If you want more detailed analysis of the actual reasons behind UM losing to Iowa, stick around for the UFR and the other diaries and you’ll get more than enough information. That ain’t me, and while I’ll provide some numbers and stats I’m not going to drop into the muck too heavily this post.
Best: It’s Still Real To Me!
Basically since the debacle against MSU, the sentiment around this team is that the fans are checking out because, well, this isn’t a particularly good team and watching them lose isn’t any normal person’s idea of a good time. The offense remains historically awful against competent opponents (and Minnesota, apparently), playing Devin Gardner behind this offensive line could very well violate multiple parts of the Geneva Convention protocols, and the defense continues to solider on despite talent and support issues. It is an unwatchable team not in the sense that it is a bunch of thugs or jerks, but in the way a snuff film wouldn’t wind up on my Netflix queue. It’s hard to watch something you care about, played by people who seem genial and passionate, get destroyed week in, week out. No one could be blamed for spending these last weekends of the fall enjoying time with family, drinking your artisanal beers, and basically doing ANYTHING that doesn’t turn otters into Brooks from Shawshank Redemption.
And yet, I still can’t find it in myself to turn off these games. I know why, of course: there are only 13-14 games a year, and when times are good or at least exciting there is nothing better to watch. And when the team isn’t that good (which, let’s be honest, started well before RR’s tenure made it official), the calcified memories of former greatness and the diminishing hope of a return keep me coming back. And despite the losses and the continuing sense that UM is still on the wrong side of history, I’ll keep watching and coming back to watch, even games like this when you could feel the loss coming after Iowa’s first drive of the 2nd half. And in all likelihood, my kids will love watching UM football as much as me, even when they realize that patch of missing hair isn’t because Dad was pranked. But this simply cannot end soon enough for me, and next week’s OSU game will likely get the background treatment as I shop online, listen to music, and otherwise tool around the apartment.
Best: Next Year’s Defense
I usually start these posts focusing on the offense, since it tends to be have the easier-to-identify storylines and players and, well, your offense usually has to score points to win games. But that short-changes the defense, muting their performance because of narrative difficulties. So in order to rectify this slight once, I’m going to start by praising this defense, which put forth an inspiring performance that was one of its best of the year.
The stats weren’t great (24 points from 407 total yards at 5.4 ypp), but this defense did more than enough to secure a victory. It forced 4 TOs, including 3 INTs, one which was returned for a TD, and added a turnover on downs despite consistently being put in sub-optimal positions thanks to some early punting issues as well as the continued ineptitude of the offense to even gain a first down. In fact, the defense only really started to struggle when both Morgan and Ross were lost to injuries and the cumulative play count (76 plays versus 57 run by UM) simply caught up to them. Perhaps a truly elite defense could have found some way to score another TD or not allowed the tying and go-ahead scores late in the 4th quarter, but you look at the players on the field and their experience and it is difficult not to see how good this unit will be going forward.
So Jake Ryan seems to be rounding into form nicely. His pressure of Rudock led to Beyer’s pick-six, and for much of the first half he was all over the field. He seemed less involved as the game dragged on, but given his expected recovery time anything he’s been able to provide this season is encouraging. Of course, given how the season has progressed it might have been nice had he been able to obtain an injury redshirt (?) instead of wasting it on a lost year, but nobody could have expected quite such an implosion.
Clark recorded 2.5 more TFLs and was generally a terror out there; presuming he continues to mature at this pace he could finally live up to some of the hype next year. Henry and Wormley looked strong as well, including a bullrush by Wormley that I will call a MANSACK because I am an 11-year-old hopped up on Pixie Sticks. And both Taylor and Countess had interceptions while largely keeping Iowa’s passing attack in check (the long completion to Smith was mostly on Avery, who let Smith get by him and then compounded that mistake by getting tangled up with another tackler). It isn’t a great unit, and I remain confused as to why guys like Wilson and the freshmen DBs get inconsistent minutes, but the defense will be the bedrock of next year’s team and should be a strength for years to come.
Worst: Next Year’s Offense
Do I think an offense that couldn’t get a first down in the 2nd half until the final drive and had 6 total yards until that point is going to be better next year without its two NFL tackles, record-setting WR, and competent-ish RB?
There’s nobody to really blame anymore. There is an alternate universe in which Al Borges’s gameplan scores points (and in at least one of those universes he is a clown made of candy), and Devin Gardner has not so much regressed as devolved into a QB who is so afraid/warned against making bad decisions in the flow of the game that he makes bad decisions haltingly throughout the game instead. The funny thing is, of course, is that it really isn’t his fault, since his ribs and spleen are still looking around for Frank his gallbladder, which is probably still in East Lansing.
The offensive line is sometimes able to block on running or passing downs, but never consistently and sometimes spectacularly badly. In order to at least sometimes keep the opposition from destroying the offensive play at the snap, so many players are dedicated to blocking that 1 or 2 receivers are available on passing plays, resulting in Gardner surveying the blanketed field in a panic before taking off on a (usually) ill-advised scramble. In this game Iowa only recorded a single sack, which has to be some type of record*, but added 10 more TFLs to add to UM’s nation-leading total. Gardner wasn’t helped by a couple of key drops by Funchess and Gallon, including a couple in the second half that would have extended drives. And a week after a semi-competent rushing attack, Derrick Green and Fitz Toussaint recorded 35 yards on 17 carries, with a long of 9. Execution or gameplan, at least this clownshow is coming to an end.
*At some point this year, UM was one of the national leaders in sacks allowed, with only 12 total before playing MSU. Now? One of the worst.
Worst: It’s a Noah’s Ark of Beaten Animals
Ace and others noted a continuation of a disturbing trend for the offense: over-reliance on a play that worked despite the fact that the other team was clearly adapting to it. Last week it was the bootleg/designed QB run in short yardage; this game, it felt like every run in the first half was initiated with a fake bubble screen pass, and on two consecutive plays in the 2nd half Al Borges called for a reverse to Funchess (which got 10 yards) followed by a functional reverse to Gallon which, unsurprisingly resulted in a 4 yard loss. People joke about a lizard brain with Al Borges, but at this point it isn’t so much a lizard response as it is a record skipping in the most Milli Vanilli way possible. He seemingly remains trapped in the same playcall until the drive ends, forgetting that his opponents are watching the same game and aren’t suffering from brain damage.
My issue with the playcalling isn’t that the plays are objectively bad; many of them should work. But after 11 games, the team still lacks an offensive identity that is reproducible game-to-game, and saying “we didn’t execute” whitewashes over this incoherence. There are plays in every game where a player makes the wrong decision or misses the right hole and the play dies; that happens to everyone. But this team and this offensive philosophy is so flawed and inconsistent that they can’t “luck” into positive plays that should occur even when breakdowns occur.
That there is no coherence, no consistency down-to-down, is hard to describe, but I’ll try. When Iowa started to assert itself at the end of the game, they did so by stringing together plays that consistently netted them positive yards. They handed off to the RB and he gained 3-4 yards, so they did it again and 3-4 more yards were ceded by the defense. Each play drew upon the previous and something called “momentum” took hold, and the Hawkeye offense was consistently able to move the ball. Well, that virtually never happens with UM. If one play gets them 4 yards, the next play can just as easily explode into a 10-yard loss. A pass to Gallon gets you to 2nd-and-1? Well, let’s call a couple of failed runs and punt. That happened in this game, it happened against PSU, it led to a 4th-and-forever punt against MSU, and it keeps happening. The offense has gone from idiosyncratic drive-to-drive to unpredictable play-to-play.
I know the UFR showed “growth” running the ball, but let’s remember that was against a NW team that hasn’t won a game since before Halloween. The passing game has devolved from a unit of strength to a bunch of 2-route formations that competent defense can stop with little effort, and for the third time this year UM didn’t crack 200 yards in total offense. In all likelihood Al Borges is going to be back next year, and I pray for the residents of the Detroit Zoo that he doesn’t take a shining to one of the giraffes.
Worst: The Replacements
So I saw quite a few people calling for Morris to get some meaningful snaps as the game spiraled out of control with UM leading by 14 points. This only intensified as Iowa poured it on by tying the score and taking the lead, culminating in the humiliation of having to watch Devin Gardner try to mount a meaingless comeback down 3 insurmountable points late in the game.
Oh, I’m sorry. How terribly embarrassing. I forgot to include the <sarcasm> font before posting. Maybe this helps.
I understand everyone’s disappointment with how the season has turned out, and burning Shane Morris’s red shirt on a couple of meaningless snaps against CMU and falling on his face against MSU is an indictment of early-Hoke recruiting (though it is pretty weak). But if anyone thinks putting him out there would be even remotely productive for anyone involved is simply foolish or overly reactionary. People have seen how bad Gardner has been playing behind this rickety line and with whatever tutelage his OC/QB coach has provided. Now imagine a smaller kid with less mobility trying to stay alive back there, and one who probably hasn’t even received 1/12th of Borges’s focus as a mentor. Hell, the only reason TO play Morris at this point is the indefinable hope that Borges hasn’t ruined him yet. I suspect he’ll see some time against OSU because there is little chance Gardner will be upright after that defensive line tees off on him, but it will not be pretty and nothing good will come of it.
Worst: Who Let Mr. Freeze Out of Arkham?
At some point during the game it was mentioned that Saturday’s weather was the coldest for a gameday at Kinnick, with 17 degrees mixed with 20+ mph winds resulting in near-zero windchill. Though I’m from Michigan and am still somewhat accustomed to the freezing temperatures that are common at this time, my years in New York, with its somewhat-ocean-moderated temperatures, copious coffee shops, and hellish subways, has largely shielded me from these bone-chilling temperatures.
From the initial kickoff, though, you could tell the weather would play a significant role in this game. Iowa’s first FG was quite high and wide, which tends to happen when you are kicking frozen pigs. And Wile’s first couple of punts into the wind averaged out to about 25 yards, giving Iowa great field position (though Wile was able to boom a couple of nice punts later on to flip the field). Going into the 4th quarter BTN showed that the average play into the wind was around 3 ypp and nearly doubled when the wind was to the offense’s back, and while Iowa’s late-game runs evened out those numbers a bit both teams were clearly affected by the cold temperatures. Of course, you’d figure that would have helped the team with the 14-point lead…
Worst: Hey Florida, is that supposed to make me feel better?
So Florida nearly pulled the upset against Georgia Southern this weekend. I saw some people on Twitter and other places say that at least Gator fans will understand how Michigan feels. First, nothing will ever replace the Horror, as that loss has basically hung over this team for 6 years. Secondly, at least UF will likely fire the guy who is running that flaming barge and find someone, anyone who is an improvement. I still believe in Hoke, but there feels like a very small chance that there will be a noticeable shakeup on this staff, and I’m not sure what the endgame will be without it. So while it is humorous that Florida couldn’t keep pace with a SoCon school, it doesn’t really take the sting out of the past 2 months.
Worst: That Final Offensive Drive
Pretty nonsensical, right? Well, this makes about as much sense as UM’s dogged insistence on running the ball on their last offensive drive despite ample proof it wasn’t going to work and would instead basically burn downs and clock. Outside of Green’s 4-yard run on the first play, UM ran the ball four more times for 4 yards (8 of which on that final run that Gardner fumbled) while throwing for 31 on two passes. I get wanting to keep the defense “honest” by not purely passing and exposing your poor pass protection to blitzing LBs, but you’ve had 20-some-odd minutes of offense to establish the run and it’s netted you 2ypc; maybe it’s just not your day. But wasting time and downs on these plays made no sense, put the offense in worse positions, and drove me insane. Last week UM got lucky that they somehow were able to get that kick off despite horrible clock management; this week their playcalling put them in tough positions all day despite having the lead for most of the game, and helped to doom their last gasp at escaping Iowa with the win.
Best: It’s Almost Over
So next week is OSU and then, I don’t know, Texas for some crappy bowl game. I don’t expect the OSU game to be particularly competitive, which is pretty tragic since this Buckeye outfit isn’t a juggernaut; they’re probably a 10-win team that got some scheduling luck and may very well lose to Alabama or FSU in the MNC game. But this week is shaping up to be the least exciting one I can remember leading up to the game, and that includes those RR years. At least then you had a sense that maybe the offense could surprise OSU for a bit; right now UM cracking 200 yards of total offense would be their Rose Bowl. I expect UM to keep it close early on because of the home field and emotions, but it’s going to get ugly, and probably sooner than you think.
With thanks to Morrissey and Marr
Stop me, oh, stop me...
Akron, yes Akron, records 8 TFLs
Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before
UConn, still winless as I write this, records 10 TFLs
Stop me, oh, stop me
Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before
Penn State records 11 TFLs and holds Michigan running backs to 28 yards on 30 carries
I still love you, oh, I still love you
Michigan State records 11 TFLs and holds Michigan to -48 yards rushing
Oh, so I drank one
It became four
And when I fell on the floor
... I drank more
Nebraska records 15 TFLs and holds Michigan to 0 rushing first downs
Stop me, oh stop me
Stop me if you think that you've
Heard this one before
Northwestern records 10 TFLs and Michigan goes 0 for 13 on third down conversions in regulation
Stop me, oh, stop me
Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before
Iowa records 11 TFLs and holds Michigan to 158 total yards
I still love you, oh, I still love you
...Only slightly, only slightly less than I used to, my love
Burst of Impetus
* The burst of impetus occurred in the 2nd quarter when Michigan called two timeouts on the same drive to set up a go-ahead touchdown. I thought this was a key moment in the game because in prior weeks, Michigan had not been able to capitalize on opponents' turnovers. Unfortunately, you can't call a timeout before every offensive play. The game is moving too fast for Borges and the offense. Nine days ago, BiSB reminded us of the legal concept called "itsa gonna speek" (or something like that, I never took Latin.) He wrote, "There are some times when the thing that happens is so obviously wrong that the blame speaks for itself." That's where I'm at today.
I think I'll stop now.
here is the miniprogram for iowa. gotta start getting these up earlier. let me know if there are any changes or comments.
Quick Hello! post (and shout out) to Bettendorf (Iowa) High School senior Haley Zapolski, a member of the U.S. team at the Junior World Rowing Championships this summer in Lithuania. Haley made her verbal commitment to continue her rowing career at Michigan!
(After the team bow was hurt in warm ups, Haley's team competed in the quad race with only three rowers, and finished 3rd out of 7 teams. Awesome!)
The Michigan women's rowing team has qualified for the NCAA championships five-years running. Haley also visited Dartmouth and Princeton.
"I visited Michigan in mid-September and really connected with the coaching staff and team members," Haley said. "The culture of the program really impressed me, as there was a strong desire to row at a high level and a commitment to be supportive of each other during the training process."
Haley has only been rowing for two-years, but is an accomplished swimmer and tri-athlete. Welcome to Michigan, Haley! Go Blue!
Remember that Mattison is back and Ryan should be [Fuller]
Ed-Seth: Before every season a million prognosticators will tell you how the coming year shall unfold. Among these, usually the most accurate are those by the gamblers, for it is they more so than bloggers who ply their trade by ruthlessly excising their biases. Of these oddsplayers, our go-to guy is jamiemac of Just Cover Blog. For this reason I asked him to give us his own preview of the things that concern us, and he asked me to put pretty pictures in it, for it is at pretty picturing that we bloggers truly excel.
Football Study Hall riled up the Michigan base earlier in the week with their pessimistic projection of 7-5, 4-4. That would be a disaster. We're all anticipating much better after all. My simple expectation alone is make it to the Ohio State game controlling our own fate in the division. It's a lock that I would use up my allotment of FIRE HOKE ROD jokes on twitter if the season spirals towards that record.
But I'm don't come to bury the math. I do come to mention their projection puts them on the opposite side of the betting community. Over at 5Dimes.com, the Wolverines have moved to betting favorites in the Legends Division race after spending portions of the summer behind Nebraska and Michigan State. Michigan is chalk at +220 odds, followed by Nebraska, +290; Michigan St, +300; Northwestern, +325; Iowa, +1500; and Minnesota, +2900.
|How quickly they forget what I look like
in pads. [Upchurch]
There are reports that the Over 8.5 wins on Michigan has become one of the most popular bets of the summer. Another sign is simple point spread movement in favor of Michigan on the various Games Of The Year boards. Seven of the 10 Michigan games offered this summer have seen an adjustment based on Michigan action coming into their coffers. Take a look at the shifts:
vs Central Michigan: Opened, -26; Current, -31.5
vs Notre Dame: Opened, pick 'em; Current -3
vs Minnesota: Opened, -15; Current, -17
at Penn St: Opened, -2.5; Current, -3
at Michigan St. Opened, +3; Current, +2.5
at Northwestern. Opened +3; Current, -3
vs Ohio St: Opened +6; Current, +4
Some of those movements aren't that significant. But in five of those games, the line has shifted at least two points, including in the two most important home games of the season. In the case of the Northwestern game, the Wolverines have gone from underdogs to chalk. One line did move against Michigan, it's November road game at Iowa where Michigan opened as -10.5 favorites only to see the number come down to -9.5. Two lines have stayed the same the whole way through: -4 vs Nebraska and -12 at UConn, the latter line continuously balanced by Heiko throwing his MGoWages on the Huskies. Probably. Maybe. WOTS, at least.
[More good things after the jump]