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!]
Michigan heads to Munn looking to sweep Michigan State. The game is on BTN.
Michigan heads into a must win game at Joe Louis to take on Michigan State. The game is on FSD.
Michigan and Michigan State play in the 3rd place game of the GLI, set to start at 4:30 after another delay.
The game is on FSD
Seriously, why is he at MSU? He should have been hried away long ago. He is seriously producing an alabama level defense with 3 star players. There is no way he should be at MSU right now. Imagine if he had the recruits that he could bring in at USC or Texas. He would have an NFL level defense. Thoughts?
Rivalry week is extra uncomfortable for me. As a lifelong Michigan fan and a Michigan State graduate, sometimes I feel like I don't belong on either side of the rivalry.
When I decided to attend Michigan State, remaining a Michigan fan was a no-brainer. The first football games I remember were Michigan contests. The Rose Bowls in the early 90s, the home games against Minnesota and Purdue that my family sat through no matter the score or weather. And of course, the Virginia game - hence the username.
Being a fan of your school's biggest rival has major challenges that most sports fans never consider and that's why I'm writing this diary.
In undergrad, I was open about my fanhood. There were other Michigan fans on campus, in my dorm and on the floor, but I was the only one who would go tailgate with my friends during rivalry week in a Charles Woodson jersey. Only a few people tried to fight me each game day.
It's not like being at Michigan was any better. In college, the first thing anyone asked is what your major was. When I said "journalism" everyone knew I wasn't a Michigan student. The next question of course was, "why aren't you a Michigan student?" The conversation always turned into some diatribe about how much better U-M was than MSU, as if I didn't know the University of Michigan pedigree. These academic conversations bothered me immensely because I didnt have the grades to go to U-M. As a huge Michigan supporter, this was crushing. But what can I say, I didn't have the foresight as a 13-year-old to understand how important my algebra and global studies courses were.
As I began to make something of myself, the conversations stopped bothering me. I'm proud of what I have accomplished and my MSU degree. I love the campus and my friends and family - just not the sports.
Some MSU fans can understand but some can't. Irrational fans, arguers, drunks and people who went to LCC love to lecture me on how I should be a Spartan fan. Meanwhile, my fiance's family - a long line of Spartan fans and athlete's don't mean to mind one bit. I even dated a girl in college whose grandpa coached football for MSU and her family was more understanding about the unique situation than 99 percent of the fans I knew.
Still there are situations where it is certainly not safe to admit to being a Michigan fan. My industry is dominated by Spartan graduates and I don't want to damage any relationships by pissing off the wrong crazy Spartan fan. Similarly, I wonder what other die-hard Michigan fans really think when I tell them I am a Wolverines fan. Do they even believe me?
As a former sports journalist, my work gave me a unique perspective on rivalries and sports in general. I covered MSU athletics without any bias, roomed with Spartan athletes and even had John L. Smith hit me with a rolled up newspaper in a joking fashion. He was truly one of the nicest people I ever had the pleasure interviewing.
Lloyd Carr on the other hand, not so much. I met him while job shadowing a U-M beat writer during OSU week. She told him I was a season ticket holder but an MSU student. He refused to shake my hand. I took this as the most direspectful thing anyone has done. He was kind of joking about the entire incident, but not entirely. He never shook my hand, which is like, 'what the hell dude, I buy tickets and support your team'! Seriously, I drove from East Lansing with another MSU student and U-M fan for every home game for the two years that I had access to a car.
Nine months later I sat in the stands during the Horror. I got so many text messages after the blocked field goal that my Blackberry crashed. I don't know if that is an indication of how poor the Blackberry devices were or how bad it is when all of your friends are Spartans.
Now that I'm older, the trash talk has slowed a bit. People are more mature, but there are still things that frustrate me. The Wal-Mart Wolverine cracks from the MSU fans and the MSU academia jokes from the Wolverines fans make me want to punch Taco Pants in the neck.
And we haven't even talked about the games yet. I can't tailgate at U-M because no one in my social circle does so. I can't tailgate at MSU because I will miss the U-M games. Sometimes schedule quirks allow for both, but generally I miss out. And since my fiance is an MSU fans, it usually turns into some awkward game day happenings. A few years ago I was forced to watch the U-M/UMass game a the East Lansing Bdubs. There are worse things that can happen in life, but most involve lizards eating your legs.
Even simple things like social media aren't fun when you root for your school's rival. Win or lose on gameday, my feeds will be filled with images of Mork Dantonio and whatever QB is playing this week. It is maddening. But I guess I signed up for this when I decided to remain a Wolverine.
Were there times when I considered changing my allegiance? Not really. The closest I came was after the Rodriguez debacle. I was team RichRod, and after his firing briefly considered making life easier and giving up football or casually cheering for MSU with my family and firends. Emphasis on briefly. I put up with the Horror, the basketball sanctions, Brian Ellerbee and Mike DeBord. That and the mere thought of giving up Michigan for MSU turned my stomach.
So here's to Michigan hopefully making my Saturday/Weekend/Week/Month better by getting a win on Saturday. If not I'm going to hear about from every direction.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to return to ignoring my Facebook feed which is full of YouTube videos about how I'm not allowed to root for Michigan and that I'm a Wal-Mart Wolverine. Fuck that. Go Blue.