I wanted to name this “Best and Worst: Rounds 1000000 and 0100000” but thought better of it.
Best: Survivor Series
(Because I want to lose a quarter of my readership off the bat)*
Growing up, my favorite professional wrestling event was called the Survivor Series, which typically featured teams of 4 or 5 wrestlers competing in an elimination-style match until all members of a team were eliminated. Over time this conceit has been diminished to a minor role as the Series has become a more generic Pay-Per-View, but at its advent it created a rare opportunity to tell a multitude of storylines during a single match. With relatively simple booking, you could put together teams that worked both on a base level (heels vs. babyfaces) as well as a nuanced (frenemies competing together, fissures starting to form between former best friends, etc.) one, while also teasing marquee matchups in the future.
But these matches all shared a fatal flaw, one that probably explains why they are not very common in recent years. Before getting into it, though, I should probably step back for a minute and provide some ground rules for the 2 of you who didn’t skip this section but also don’t follow professional wrestling.
“Good” wrestling matches are like your classic three-act play: the first act sets the scene and fleshes the characters out (via your standard “wrestling holds” and light brawling); the middle act is where the drama begins, typically with the face/good guy in peril as the heel dominates; and the third and final act is when the face mounts his comeback and a resolution occurs, usually with a dramatic final move leading to a victory for one of the wrestlers.
The problem with an elimination-style match is that this predictable formula doesn’t work on a micro level between combatants; on a macro level, of course, you can have the “good” and “bad” teams follow the general formula. But you can’t have 8-9 confrontations end with a finisher and a pin because, well, fans would get bored and you need to “protect” future match-ups by leaving some mystery and uncertainty about the outcomes. And so, watching these old matches you see guys pinning each with transitional or intermediary moves like lariats, sunset flips, and rollups, reserving the more high-impact moves for the end of the match, if ever.
So what does this have to do with UM getting to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year? Well, it’s that this tournament run needs to be viewed as part of a larger piece, of a team “surviving and advancing” as much as vanquishing opponents. Just like last year, these first couple of games were marked by moments of extreme beauty (8-15 from 3 in the first half against Texas, GRIII “chess”-ing fools) and long stretches of blergh (missing 15 of 18 to start the 2nd half against Wofford). Last year’s first weekend was punctuated with the evisceration of VCU’s swarming defense, but it started with a pretty ugly win over South Dakota State.
Blowouts aren’t really this team’s M.O.; even when they are shooting the lights out (like they did against Nebraska and Illinois during the conference slate and for the first half against Texas), they don’t play that ball-hawking, turnover-forcing tempo that leads to the Cardinals dropping 58 in the first half against Rutgers. They deliver knockout shots, but they’re of the “punches in bunches” Floyd Mayweather type instead of Mike Tyson’s “good night sweet prince”.
And unlike last year, where UM was staring down a date with #1 seed Kansas followed by a terrifying Florida team, the Mercer Nae Nae’s give UM another double-digit seed before they’d face either (I’m guessing) a rematch with Louisville or a winnable contest with Wichita St. And so if they can continue playing acceptable enough defense to weather the inevitable rough shooting patches, the path is there for them to make it back to the Final Four.
* Okay, you still don’t get why I keep referencing wrestling?
Best: Going Out in Style
At some point Jordan Morgan’s senior year will end and he’ll move on to the next stage in his life, but he is doing everything he can to keep it going a couple more games. He pulled down 10 rebounds in both games this weekend and added 25 points and 4 assists. In so many ways is he the perfect center for this team (solid rebounder and defender, doesn’t need the ball to be effective, can run and always has his hands up to score off the pick and roll/penetration), and it’s been fun seeing him put a nice exclamation point on a memorable career.
Best: A Dog-Related Pun in Picture Form is Worth a Thousand Puns in Words
So yeah, GRIII had himself a weekend. Going into the tournament, one of the team’s more glaring weaknesses was its lack of a secondary rebounder after Morford. You heard rumblings about LeVert possibly helping out, but you can only expect so much from a guy whose official bio lists him 10 pounds more than Spike. No, if UM was going to have any chance of not getting obliterated on the boards, it was going to be from Robinson, and while it didn’t much matter against Wofford, I thought he held up well (12 total rebounds, including 5 offensive) in that regard while also playing 71 of a possible 80 minutes. Sure, Texas pulled down 21 offensive rebounds, but there are going to be lots of opportunities when you shoot 37% on 62 shots, and it felt like that number was goosed a bit by some clustering in the second half when Texas just crashed the boards in a mad scramble to make it close (they had 6 in about a 5-minute span in the second half as they cut UM’s lead from 17 to 11, and another 3 at the end of the game).
Plus, it felt like Robinson displayed his increasing assertiveness on the offensive end (a team-leading 14 shots against Wofford and another 10 against Texas), especially during that second-half stretch when Texas cut the lead to 8 and Robinson responded with 2 FTs, a block, a jumper and then a 3 to push the lead back out to 11. No matter how many cutaways they make to his dad in the stands at the game, Robinson will never have his game, but there has been a steady increase in his confidence, if not his competence, on the offensive side. He’s still a pretty horrible shooter all year from outside (28%), but he’s deadly from inside the arc (58%) and good at the FT line. He still isn’t a deadeye from outside, but a look at his boxscores shows fewer threes that (I presume) are more in the flow of the offense as well as a renewed scoring touch inside.
They’ll need his athleticism to help wear down Mercer, and Tennessee seems like a bruisier, more defensive-focused version of Texas (#3 in rebound margin nationally, top-20 defense). Holding up against the size and strength of Texas was a positive, and even though it increases the likelihood he’ll leave for the draft, it is great to see Robinson rounding into form when it matters most.
5 starters were in double-figures against Texas and 7 guys scored against Wofford with none more than Stauskas’s 14. Still, the best stat of the weekend is that the team had 31 assists on 46 makes, including a career-high 8 from Stauskas to go along with his 17 points against Texas. Beilein’s offense isn’t designed for a dominant ball-handler or singular scorer, so getting an assist on 67% of your baskets means everyone is touching the ball and the best shot is usually going up.
Best: “Veteran” Sophomores
It is weird to say this about a second-year backup, but having Spike’s “veteran” touch at PG has helped immensely so far in this tournament, especially when Texas turned up the press a bit and Beilein could bring in Spike to spell Walton. Between Stauskas, LeVert, Spike, and Robinson, you have 4 guys who were key parts of last year’s team and readily adaptable to defensive shifts and gameplan changes. Especially if Michigan runs into Louisville or some other team that loves to press and push the tempo, having that many capable ballhandlers will be immensely valuable.
Worst: Hold Onto the Damn Ball
Though they corrected course rather emphatically against Texas, UM had a very uncharacteristic 11 TOs against Wofford. As others noted, it was probably just a weird game that happens to everyone, considering this is one of the least turnover-prone teams in the country, though it was a bit shocking to witness. It (almost) made me sympathize with MSU fans who have had to watch that all year out of guys like Valentine.
And while it didn’t hurt them much against Wofford…
Worst: Damn Rollercoaster
I absolutely recognize that when you have a team as reliant on jumpshots and three-pointing shooting as UM, there are going to be stretches of “Death from Above” when your breakfast tastes better than any one you have ever tasted before, and there are going to be games when nobody seems capable of putting the ball in the hole. But that crystal-clear clarity doesn’t make me un-see that second half against Wofford or silence those concerns of how a game could get out of hand if the other team didn’t shoot 1-11 and 36% overall in that half as well.
I actually do think the defense has taken a small step up in the tournament, as they have escaped the dodgy refereeing of the Big Ten into a world on the “reality” side of the Mason-Dixon line of the charge/blocking call. No matter how you slice it, holding a tourney team to 40 points (a school tournament record) is impressive, and to follow it up with another nice performance against a tough Texas team that can give you fits inside shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. But they’ve also faced two of the worst shooting teams in the country, and no amount of increased pressure and “closing out” is going to sustain a 5/30 rate on 3’s.
So as cliche as it is, UM needs to keep starting games shooting well and build a lead that can be maintained when the shots stop dropping. While the team has shown great resiliency, this offensive scheme is so (relatively) ponderous that it isn’t equipped to score lots of points quickly. Indeed, this team is built to get a lead and then trade you buckets as you try to catch up, with long possessions and the effect it has on the game clock serving as a 6th defender. The nature of single-elimination tournaments is that sometimes you’ll keep throwing scissors while the other team can’t help but stumble into rock, but the fewer times you give let it stay close the fewer times you can be surprised.
Worst: Free Throw Defense
This probably sounds like a broken record, but Texas joined an illustrious list of squads that could not f’ing miss at the line all game. All year the Longhorns shot 66% on FT’s; this game, 94% on 16 shots. That’s a 5-point swing that pushes a comfortable victory into a bit of a runaway. It hasn’t hurt them yet and it may not this tournament, but man is it infuriating to watch.
Of the many things they fail to tell you at the hospital after your wife has given birth is that your sports viewing habits will be indelibly changed by your baby’s arrival. Whereas before you could walk into the living room and basically own the TV whenever your favorite team is playing, now I get this look from my just-returning-to-work-and-definitely-stressed mother of my child.
So combined with work and a long commute, I’ve had to watch these games in non-traditional formats, either on feeds via the internet or on DVR. In a sense it has helped because I know the outcome or am so distracted that I just root for the laundry and the final score. But at the same time, you feel a bit disconnected from the best part of fandom, which is organically enjoying athletes playing a sport and (hopefully) winning. I’m not trying to be a buzzkill because I am absolutely ecstatic that she’s in my life, but for future mothers and fathers out there I’m here to warn you that your friends who say nothing changes are either liars or delusional liars.
Best: On We March
So on to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, a streak that UM hasn’t enjoyed since [REDACTED]. Looking at the relative struggles of presumed “studs” like Florida, MSU, and Arizona as well as a number of key upsets, I feel much better about this team’s chances to emerge from this bracket, and at the very least make a solid run at a another championship game appearance.
Man, it feels SO nice to enjoy Michigan basketball again.