Happy March, everyone!
We're beyond the traditional winter months on the calendar and chatter of Spring Training promises warmer and longer days ahead.
For me, the arrivial of March really only means one thing: A cavalcade of intense college hoops dramatics. They call it March Madness. I am certain you've heard something about it before.
Over the next three weeks, a buffet of bubble battles, conference tournament elimination games and the opening rounds of the tournament itself will cut the game down from 343 to 16 teams.
Actually, we're below 330 teams right now as some hangers-on in the Atlantic Sun, Ohio Valley and Ivy leagues have already been eliminated. Sorry, Southeast Missouri State, but you didn't qualify for the OVC Tournament. You can stop any contigency plans for a parade in downtown Cape Giradeau. Of course, since you went 0-18 this year in the league, those plans probably weren't that far along anyway.
There will be a ton of hoops crammed in this a short period of time as we sort out who will be left standing and deemed #1 (not to mention, who will be named #66). As a college hoop junkie, I will be in Heaven. I shudder to think just how many games I will gamble on between now and St. Patrick's Day. And, then the NCAA and NIT tournaments will actually begin. Wow. Hold on Tight.
For Michigan fans, the arrival of March brings both great excitement and dread.
On one hand, the program is playing relevant hoops again. A year removed from one of the worst seasons in program history, Michigan sits squarely on the bubble with an obvious, and not impossible, road map into the NCAA Tournament. Doing so would break a decade-long qualifying absense from the final field of 65. That quest begins today at Wisconsin, in the first of at least three games remaining for Michigan of which the Wolverines need to scrape up two wins to likely make the field.
However, March has not been kind to the basketball program this decade. That's where dread sets in for Michigan fans. They've been dragged to the NCAA cut line before, only to see their hopes clipped in the end. Did you know that since their last NCAA appearance, Michigan is just 18-24 in the month of March?
Oh, that's no shock. I'm surprised it's not worse. We've had some lean times
Ok, so it's not that awful. It's not awesome, either. But, how about removing the 10-2 NIT mark compiled during those years? We're left with a brutal 8-22 record, all of which is against Big 10 foes either in regular season or league tournament games.
Ouch. Crap, that blows donkey.
Michigan has lost five regular season March games in a row and 11 of their last 14.
March Madness is to the basketball program as Pasadena is to the football program.
Triple Ouch, and thats a blow smart guy. You're On Notice
What's worse is how many of those March contests would made Michigan tournament bound had the result gone the other way.
In 2003, Michigan entered March tied with Wisconsin in the loss column for first place in the league. Late scoring droughts doomed Michigan in home losses to Illinois and Purdue. That was the last season Michigan was on probabtion, but its final 17-13 record would not have passed the grade anyway.
Eh. Who cares? It was good to be winning again. The probabtion being lifted was the biggest win of the season anyway. We we finally on the way back.
Which stomach punch loss to Indiana was worse? The 5-point road loss in Bloomington in 2004 to a sagging Hoosiers club with a losing record. Or, the 2006 season closer where the Wolverines vomitted a couple different double digit leads allowing lame duck Mike Davis to steal its tournament bid.
2006. Epic Fail. I wanted to tear of Tommy's head that day and feed it to zoo animals. How do you never beat Mike Fucking Davis in your entire coaching career? You have to work hard to blow that many games to that guy.
Courtney Sims missed dunk.
Is it too early to drink?
All those losses flipped UM from a tournament-looking team to the NIT or worse. And, it does not take into account any of the woes in the league tournament where Michigan has had plenty of chances to overcome those regular season gaffes. Mission Never Accomplished.
What's your point, I thought you said Happy March Madness?
What can Michigan do to break the cycle? I think they've already done it. They hired John Beilein. Beilein took over a complete rebuilding project last year. It's a feather in his cap that he rebuilt the program in his image and already has at least returned the Wolverines back to the level where his predecessor peaked. Getting Michigan to the brink of the tournament was the limit for Amaker.
I think we learned that Amaker is not that good of a head coach. He's a career #2 guy, best left to managing certain aspects of the team. As a head coach, he never was able to discover that new wrinkle or push that extra button to get the team those critical March wins. Its a different brand of ball this month, and you need a different brand of coach.
Beilien fits that bill. Chew on these numbers as we approach the tip today in Madison. During Michigan's stretch of futility, Beilein is 33-22 SU, 34-19-2 ATS in the month of March. While Michigan has been losing critical March games for the last decade, Beilein has been winning them.
That above record includes the 1-3 marks from last year when Beilein arguably faced his widest talent gap between his team and the bulk of its schedule. Last season was the first year that a Beilein team had a losing record in March against the spread since his second year at Richmond. That was also the first year of Michigan's NCAA drought.
The talent gap has clearly shrunk, evidenced by the fact the Wolverines are on the brink of doubling their league wins from last season and, more importantly, ending their long tournament absence. The club still is not loaded with talent. But there's enough skill and smarts on the team, that I trust it in a game like we have today, specifically because Beiein is behind it prepping and prodding them. I expect this March to deliver results that we're more accustomed to from Beilein squads.
The battle of coaching wits between Beilein and Bo Ryan today will be fascinating. Of course, it might create a game played in the 50s and not look aesthetically pleasing. But, it will create a game than ends closer than the experts in the desert (Wisco is an 7-point favorite) think.
Michigan has the chance to have the two best players on the court throughout the game. I like C.J. Lee's chances to lock up Travon Hughes so he doesn't kill Michigan like he did back in December. Manny Harris will not shrink from this moment.
I've seen enough of the Badgers this year to know that despite what defensive stats are out there, this is not one of Bo Ryan's vintage lock down units. I've seen teams from like Long Beach State and Iona carve out quality looks against this defense, convert and nearly pull off upsets. The Badgers have had worse moments against the league's bottom three than Michigan. At home this season against likely tournament and bubble teams, the Badgers are just 1-5 ATS. Michigan is one of those teams. I dont think they'll be able to shake free from Michigan all day.
The Wolverines will have their chances today. If they can convert a few more open looks than usual, they will be there in the end and we'll have another dramatic Sunday afternoon of basketball on our hands. Just in time for March.