So this is going to be a bit abbreviated and focus only on MSU and the rest of the conference slate because, well, you know that Wiscy, Iowa, etc. happened and I like to save my salt for fresher wounds. Also, the WWE Network goes live Monday and there is a PPV on Sunday, so I’m marshalling my energy. You’ve been warned.
Best: All Three Phases
I remember very little from Chem 100 other than the fact things (intentionally) blew up occasionally, that the lecture hall had more students than my HS, and that most substances can exist in one of three states at any given time – solid, fluid, and gas.* Depending on both internal and external factors, a substance can vacillate between any of these states, with many a tome written and award earned from the study of these changes and the ensuing results. Because one of the most driving forces in human growth and evolution is this drive to figure out not only where you are, but how you got there; how what I’m holding in my hand or watching in the stars “happened” and what it means.
Michigan has beaten MSU 6 out of the last 8 meetings between the schools, with MSU not winning in Ann Arbor since early 2010, otherwise known as Heartbreak or, as I said to no one in particular sitting on my couch in the Bronx, “MF’ing Sims was held. What a bunch of shit!” I think talk of tides turning and rivalries renewed are best left to Dick Vitale under the influence of the vapors wafting off Mike Krzyzewski’s essence as he passes the announcer’s table, but the Michigan that had beaten MSU 3 times (!) total between 1998 and 2010 has become nothing more than an ever-receding Dark Ages, where dragons reside and guys throw lobs up 49.
When the Aneurysm of Leadership led to UM’s first win at the Breslin since Harrison Ford kicked terrorists of planes and then followed it up with another win in Ann Arbor as certain PGs were instructed to vacate the premises quickly, it was easy to dismiss those victories as coming against a pretty mediocre MSU team that made it into the tournament on the strength of reputation and a couple of nice wins earlier in the year. Still, it was a young team that seemed to finally be fitting into the system Beilein envisioned when he left West Virginia; good (if streaky) shooters with enough playmakers to keep keep defenders on their toes and away from the perimeter. There was something in the ether circulating through Ann Arbor, a whiff of possibility.
The next four games in the rivalry followed predictably; both teams held serve at home, with MSU winning pretty convincingly while UM scored their two victories with a combined margin of victory of 2 points. But while the margins were different, the results were what you expected when two equal-ish teams meet up, with MSU the bully inside while UM tried to win on the wings. Those molecules of competitiveness and equality that everyone sensed in 2011 took on a more tangible form, whether it be more consistent recruiting successes or increased tournament bids; UM wasn’t on MSU’s level quite yet, but there was a fluidity with which the teams competed against each other, and for lack of a better word the “tide” was to UM’s back.
But what solidified a return of a true “rivalry” between the two schools has been the two games this year. UM no longer has Burke, everyone’s POY and one of the best players in UM history, or Tim Hardaway Jr., the erstwhile freshmen who dropped a 10 and 8 in that first win and who looks like a solid NBA pro. No, MSU is supposedly the team full of stars, the standard bearer for the conference, and UM the team in transition. And yet, in both games this year, UM has won going away. They’ve won even when some stars aren’t firing on all cylinders on the court while others sit in street clothes off it, and they’ve won with The Butterfly, the Thief, and Blouses leading the way. So it isn’t so much that the rivalry has “changed” because MSU and UM will always want to beat each other badly; it’s that UM has been under the crucible these past years and emerged as hardened and strong a team as one could have hoped for. They won’t win every game against MSU, but all but the most delusional Spartans know that UM isn’t going anywhere.
* And yes, I know about the triple point of water and that there are a number of non-standard states. It’s a sports blog; let me run with it.
Best: The Elimination Chamber
In WWF/E parlance, the “Road to Wrestlemania” begins at the Royal Rumble (which took place several weeks ago) and culminates in April in the Superdome. And smack dab in the middle of that road this year is Elimination Chamber, so titled after the eponymous steel-cage-and-pod that serves as the main event. This event serves two masters; one, to help keep certain stars and stories tread water and remain relevant, such as Drax, er Dave Bautista taking on a “Mexican Aristocrat” named Alberto Del Rio prior to challenging for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania XXX. That type of plate spinning is standard issue for the non-Big 4 PPVs, but can still be infuriating if the payoff isn’t worth the hassle.
The second duty of these stop-gaps events is to end one narrative and/or introduce a new one that will help shape the coming weeks. While there are a couple of matches booked in this vein (for example, the corporate-controlled, SWAT-looking “Hounds of Justice” The Shield taking on the Wyatt Family, best described as deranged hillbillies [one with creepy sheep mask] led by a hulking Max Cady-type), the Elimination Chamber main event stands to be the origin from which most major storylines will emanate from heading into Wrestlemania. 6 performers will battle in the cage for the WWE title and a date with Mr. Bautista, and it is a veritable murderer’s row of the biggest names in the company, including champion Randy Orton, Jort Hogan and WWE mega-star John Cena, and Daniel Bryan, Indy darling whose simple “Yes” chant has permeated the sports world.
The premise behind the Chamber is simple; two wrestlers start the match, and at intervals thereafter another competitor is “released” from his pod into the match until all 6 wrestlers have been in the match. The man standing at the end is the champion. While there may be temporary alliances and the old adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” undoubtedly holds true, in the end everyone is looking out for himself. It’s fun to watch and, from storytelling and continuity perspectives, gives ample opportunities for feuds to end (or at least enter hibernation) and new ones to begin organically.
To say this conference season has created strange bedfellows is an understatement. Two weeks ago, UM fans found themselves urging Wisconsin to hold on against MSU; a week later, Wisconsin left Crisler with a resounding victory and fans cursing the bridge that birthed Bo Ryan. Similarly, MSU now finds itself needing IU to win at Crisler to end the year to realistically give them a chance at a partial conference crown.
Without a true round robin conference slate, these plenary rooting interests are common; scheduling seemingly handed Wisconsin a conference crown before tipoff, and now MSU has to close out the season with two ranked teams will be playing for seeding while UM has to protect against spoilers.
And yet, for all of the tiebreakers and conference prognostications based on a handful of remaining games, what will likely decide the 2013-2014 B1G conference crown will be these two games between UM and MSU. UM has swept the season series and will now (hopefully) enjoy raising a banner to start next year. They now control their destiny, which would be pretty awesome given how the season started.
Worst: The Damn Injuries
How Tom, you do know that when Dawson is back you’ll have your starting lineup in place…
LSAClassof2000 originally linked to it, but I thought it was apropos.
Still a valiant effort by Michigan State given all of their injuries. Plus, their injuries. And then you add in their injuries. Pure grit. — Tony Gerdeman (@GerdOzone) February 23, 2014
I get that memes are typically overblown events that people latch onto for mirth and humor. And around these parts, no greater tale of woe has emerged for ridicule than MSU’s continuous lamenting of “injuries” to stars that range from the understandable (Adrien Payne’s various maladies) to questionable (Keith Appling’s “unusable” wrist) all the way to laughable (Dawson Leadership Fisting** his way to hand surgery).
** DO NOT SEARCH FOR THAT TERM WHILE AT WORK!!!!
One could chalk up this disdain to fandom if Izzo and his charges brought up the lost players once or twice within the context of a press conference; so far this conference slate, every loss has been accompanied with the reminder that this team isn’t playing at full strength and that people may be “shut down” for stretches to recover. MSU hit a school record 17 3 pointers against Purdue, including 6 by Gary Harris. In their losses to Nebraska and UM, they hit 14 total out of 47, with Harris going 5 of 20. Apparently, those wrists, shoulders, and ankles were fine on Thursday but that long bus ride between East Lansing and Ann Arbor jostled all the bones out of sorts again.
Reenactment of MSU’s mid-week “team bonding” event
And yes, it does appear that Keith Appling is legitimately hurt, though perhaps playing him 38 minutes against Georgetown following 40 minutes against Iowa didn’t help. But what drives fans crazy isn’t that MSU is (rightfully) noting they have injuries; it is the damn repetitiveness of the refrain to cover up fundamental flaws with the Spartans and undermine legitimate wins by other programs. MSU could very well come around in the tournament and make a run; we’ve all seen it before. But at some point, you’d hope that the people being paid to cover sports for a living would ask for some other reason why the Spartans keep losing games they lead going into the second half.
Also, stop smacking the court with your hands if your f’ing wrists hurt.
Best: Everyone’s a Banana!
Once it became clear that Mitch McGary would be lost for the season, most fans expected Nik Stauskas to take the lead offensively for this team but there were legitimate concerns about who would provide that second level of scoring, the “second banana” if you will. Based on NBA hype, GRIII seemed the obvious choice, but he’s struggled all year with getting his shot and hasn’t “taken over” games the way many had hoped. The freshmen (Irvin and Walton) showed flashes, but neither set the world on fire and had maddening stretches. Morford are a lot of things, but offensive playmakers are not one of them. And Caris Lavert, while certainly capable of scoring flourishes, was still an unknown quantity who could keep UM faintly in a game against Duke but then score 1 point in 30 minutes against Stanford.
I said in the last recap that one of the “problems” (I use that word very loosely) with last year’s offense was Trey Burke’s ball domination as he facilitated the offense. It worked 99% of the time, but it also highlighted the part of basketball I hate the most: the hero ball/one-on-one style that started to take over during the later years of Jordan’s first NBA run and became almost unbearable in the mid-2000’s when Wade, Pierce, or Bryant would either hold the ball for 23 seconds before jacking up a three or slamming into a guy as they drive into the lane and pray for a foul or a bank-in. Burke was never this cavalier, but the team relied so heavily on him to be the point person that if he had an off night the team was typically in trouble, and he was encouraged to shoot his way out of it.
Since the first gauntlet, the offense has been less explosive overall, but you are seeing a unit that can Swiss army a team to death if given enough time. If Stauskas isn’t able to get open outside the arch, he and Walton are still able to drive and find shooters outside or bigs cutting to the rim. Irvin has been better in conference shooting the ball, and Spike has his microwave minutes that can turn the second unit into a force. And perhaps most impressively, Caris Lavert has emerged as the heir apparent to Tim Hardaway’s lack of conscious, unafraid to take “bad” shots when they need to be made while not shying away from contact inside. The team looks like one of those incredibly dangerous mid-majors (with perhaps a higher-than-average ceiling) that are so hard to defend because there isn’t a “star” that drives the whole production. They still have issues defensively that won’t be fixed this year, but this team should be able to hang with anyone as long as a couple of guys are on their game.
Worst: Keeping it Close
This is more a complaint directed at the Wisconsin, Iowa, and IU games than anything else, but this team simply cannot afford to have long stretches of poor shooting. They aren’t good enough defensively to keep pace with teams during those stretches, and while they usually don’t beat themselves (only 3 TOs this game), they went around 4 minutes without scoring a basket in the first half, allowing MSU to grab an 11 point lead while shooting 59% from the field. True, this wasn’t Wisconsin bad, or even MSU last year bad, but this team has a habit recently of letting teams mount first-half leads and then clawing after them. It worked this game because MSU cooled down significantly in the 2nd half (thanks in large part to Beilein calling for the 1-3-1 zone) while UM was able to make a bit of a run, but you can only go to that well so many times before it is dry. I know this sounds obvious, but I feel like a loss in these next 4 games will come from UM either allowing a team to shoot lights-out without responding properly, or slogging through a bad shooting night themselves.
I noticed this both during the 1st half of this game as well as a couple of the recent losses: people stating that prolonged dry spells were due to a “lack of leadership” by guys on the team. Now, I’m an avowed enemy of “feelingsball” and cliches, so I’m already not a fan of these digital diatribes. But what particularly irks me is the insanity of it; it is one thing to complain about WR loafing his route or not getting back on defense in transition, but it’s another thing to blame physics on a guy not “caring.” Unless Nik Stauskas is checking his WhatsApp messages and hitting on college girls while standing in the corner, missing shots have far more to do with random-ish chance and the vagaries of putting a ball through a cylinder from 20+ feet away than anything else someone might overhear at a bathhouse filled with Merril Hoge, Dickie V, and Herm Edwards.
Best: This Is The End
As has been noted numerous other places, the season isn’t over by a long shot; UM still has 4 games to play, and MSU, Iowa, and Wisconsin are all within varying spitting distances of the conference crown. Lose a game to Minnesota or IU and you are back to rooting for upsets elsewhere. But this MSU game should be the last “major” hurdle for the team, and at 11-3 they are also rounding into form a bit despite some setbacks. I probably won’t be back with another one of these columns until the regular season and BTN tourney are done, so hopefully this isn’t a jinx. But I’m looking forward to watching the next couple of games and know that I’m probably watching at least a share of the conference title for the 2nd time in 3 years.