1/4/2009 – Michigan 74, Illinois 64 – 11-3, 1-1 Big Ten
With a couple minutes left in Saturday's game against Illinois the Illini brought the ball up down four. Even with the students absent, Crisler fairly buzzed with nervous anticipation at a critical juncture. Michigan went to man; Laval Lucas-Perry moved up to take the point guard on as he crossed midcourt.
Lucas-Perry was afforded a moment in the window provided by Illinois setting a play, and used it to smile, big and toothy, before returning to the task at hand.
The thing that jumped out the most in the pre-game was basically the same thing: DeShawn Sims smiling wide before he was introduced as the starter, then settling down to business. After the shell-shock of last year, of the last ten years, it seems that Michigan players are periodically struck by the thought "hey… this is fun!"
Fans, too. When Zack Gibson saw a vacated lane late in the shot clock and beat Illinois' lumbering center off the dribble and threw it down, everyone roared and I looked around me to make sure there were 10,000 people who also saw that. And I saw people smiling, shocked and pleased and I just can't tell you what else because what in the hell is going on?
In the next timeout, Eric Puls came up behind Gibson and put a towel on his shoulders like he was a prizefighter. Gibson tried, with only moderate success, to look nonchalant about the whole thing.
So here we are, two games into the Big Ten season and 1-1. The Illinois game was critical. Start off 0-2 at home in a league where friendly confines matter way too much and it's a tough slog to get to the 9-9 that puts you on the bubble (unless Michigan upsets UConn, in which case 9-9 is a solid berth). It's still a tough slog, but one that looks doable.
The danger of Michigan's wildly divergent nonconference schedule, which had four tough games and then cupcake city, baby(!) was that the UCLA and Duke games were extreme outliers and the game-in, game-out performance of the team would just not be good enough to claw into the top half of the Big Ten. A couple games later, that chance is more remote. Not a whole lot more remote, but they're at least in the class of teams like Wisconsin and Illinois and should be clearly better than the Indiana/Iowa/Northwestern/Penn State collection of teams towards the bottom of the conference.
Not that they won't lose a game or maybe two to that set of four teams, but if they go 6-1 against those guys they need find only two more wins against the rest of the conference to get to .500, and 3 to get to what must be a tourney-clinching 10-8. Baby steps, always.
- The observations about teeth were made possible by the students' winter break; that allowed yrs truly to sit in the second row behind the Michigan bench.
Unfortunately the ambient noise (WHO WANTS A FREE TEEEEEE SHIRT) of Crisler drowned out what Beilein was saying during commercial breaks and timeouts, but I did catch a couple things.
One: about midway through the first half DeShawn Sims pulls down an offensive rebound and goes back up with it, getting hacked from behind; no call. Illinois takes the transition opportunity down and scores. There's a timeout on the floor and Sims goes to the ref, declaring what just happened to be "bullshit". Beilein yanks him immediately, and chews him out—sort of, he's not exactly Bob Knight—about this being the second consecutive game he's done that and Michigan can't afford for him to get a technical every time the refs blow a call. (Word to that, yo. Michigan would give up 20 technical free throws a game and finish with just Eric Puls on the court.)
Two: every time Michigan would give up a bucket in the 1-3-1 in the first half, Beilein would explain to the bench what went wrong. "You've got to get up in that guy to prevent the skip," etc. etc. etc.
- Sitting close to the bench gave me some insight into the value of Merritt and Lee: they were chatty organizers on defense whenever in the game and (in Lee's case, from the bench), shouting out instructions and generally attempting to make Michigan's array of switches work.
- Speaking of which: it looked like Michigan's man to man has given up on the idea of fighting through screens and just switches all the time. Makes sense when you've got four guys basically the same size on the court, but it also leads to some awkward incidents where Kelvin Grady is under the basket checking a 6'6" guy. This ended poorly.
- Manny alternated some rough possessions with his usual slithering to the bucket. His three-point shooting was pretty rough, and he's got to be a little more aware of when to kick out. Too many tough shots and turnovers so far.
- The above-picture dunk wasn't Gibson's only thunderous finish of the day, but on his first dunk he overestimated his athleticism and nearly killed himself. Ball still went in.
As long as we're on the subject: Gibson's always been shockingly good at putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim when the lane gets vacated. He's too slow to do it most of the time, as he'll pick up a charge if there's anyone to rotate, but, man, as soon as he put the ball on the floor I was like "this is going to be a gumpy white guy dunk."
- Novak has won a lot of minutes, and deservedly, but what happened to Jevohn Shepherd? Shepherd was playing pretty well in the nonconference portion of the schedule and provides much-needed size and defense to Michigan's normally Lilliputian lineup. Surely he can pick up ten minutes spotting Harris and Novak?
- Good to see LLP taking some guys off the dribble; hopefully as he gets more comfortable we'll see an increasingly diverse game from him.