I wont lie: I am flat tired of writing preview-ish type pieces and getting summer, off season content up at the JCB. I had this great idea of doing preview pieces on all the Big 10 teams using a Over/Under theme. I didnt make it. I did not even make it half way through. Instead, I diverted my attention to other types of posts, eventually wore myself out at that and turned towards doing something pretty important the last couple of weeks: Enjoying summer. Or at least thats my excuse for only a handful of posts the last couple of weeks and no diaries in well over a month, despite promises to the contrary. We're in season now, so it wont be hard to throw up posts and diaries with actual games and results to mull over. But we want to give one last nod to the original preview idea and expand the Over/Under Board a bit before moving on to the season, so I've put together a post on the Michigan Defense for an MGoDiary and whipped up some Penn State odds over at my blog. For those who didnt see it earlier in the month, the Michigan Offense Over/Under Board includes, among others, total TDs from the QB position, 30.5; Drew Dileo kick returns 1.5; and leading rusher, 825.5 yards. To the defense........
Mark Moundros, total tackles: O/U 54.5
Before you scoff at how high this number is set, dont forget Kevin Leach, good old #32 marked 46 tackles a year ago. At the very least Moundros stands closer to the field at the beginning of this season than Leach did a year ago. The promise runs with the first team right off the bat could open the door for a high number of tackles. I dont expect him to get to the 90-tackle mark, a high water mark in recent years for Michigan LBs, but somewhere between 50-60 tackles might be the new expectation. Five weeks ago, the confusing case of Mark Moundros still seemed destined for limited touches as the fullback over any play at his fancy at linebacker. But the story has taken a surprising turn during preseason practices. He, along with
Darious Morris Tim Hardaway Jr., became August legends. For Moundros, he appears to be riding that momentum all the way into the starting lineup. When it was first pieced together by savvy watchers of the Countdown videos that Moundros was running with the first time, I chuckled that it didnt mean much. His stint with the one's just happened to coincide with the taping of the video at that time, right? But, this has legs. The Obi Ezeh era at MLB is apparently ending not because some uber, OMG shirtless recruit supplanted him, but because a former walk-on (er, I mean former#), turned linebacker after 3 years at fullback, waltzed into the position group and in the six months since then has turned the depth chart upside down. What a story. Musberger is going to love this by the time the Penn State primetime game rolls around. At least we hope so. I'm hardly discouraged by this development. Moundros' emergence upgrades this unit. Thats an indictment on the state of the position before he joined the depth chart, not the state with him on it. We'll find out on Saturday just how legit this is. I dont think position switches are all that bad. Northwestern has flopped David Arnold between the secondary and linebacking units and has been a solid producer. Indiana moved Ray Fisher from WR where he was buried behind some quality starters and became the team's top cornerback a year ago until a season ending injury. Christian Ballard arrived in Iowa City as a tight end, but he'll leave as an NFL draft pick on the defensive line. JJ Watts was a low-rated Tight End at Central Michigan, but he's now an All Big 10 contender at defensive tackle for Wisconsin. There's probably more oranges in those comparisons to the apples in Moundros situation, but the fact remains he's a good football player, loves to hit and apparently has shown more instincts in six months at the position than Ezeh or anyone else the last couple of years. If I am disapointed in anything is that the coaches didnt figure this move out sooner. Like the day they got here would have been nice. How much, and how well, Moundros plays on Saturday is one of the game's biggest storylines.
Mike Martin, total combined sacks and TFLs, O/U 13.5
On the offense over/under board, there's that quirky game trying to guess how many players will exceed their career catches with their single season numbers this year. Thats where the bar is being set here for Martin as 13.5 combined sacks and TFLs represent his career log during his first two seasons on the defensive line. He's had two sacks each season and last year disrupted to the additional tune of 6.5 TFLs, four more than his freshmen season in 2008. I think this kid is a beast and he's going to give first team All Big 10 a serious run. Outside of the interior pair of Christian Ballard and Karl Klug for Iowa, no returning defensive tackle has been as productive the last two seasons for his team. From an accolades standpoint, he's really suffering due to the team's lack of overall performance. That, and everybody looked like meager producers compared to Brandon Graham's season a year ago. Martin will be a force during his upperclassmen years in Ann Arbor. I think he flirts with double digit TFLs and a half dozen sacks. One of the enduring images of the team that I've clung to all off season were the long stretches of the OSU game when Martin controlled the line of scrimmage. The highlight play was an early sack on Pryor when Martin tossed aside Bryant Browning and threw the Buckeye quarterback down into the turf. I'd link to the UFR, but, well, I cant seem to find it. Are the archives working? Poking fun of Brian aside, we're all looking forward to a season full of more moments like that from Martin.
Total Takeaways: O/U 20.5
We all wake up in cold sweats after nightmares of Michigan ball carriers putting the ball on the carpet, quarterbacks throwing ducks to players with a different colored helmet and, of course, specialists muffing kicks. But Michigan actually took some babby steps forward in the giveaway department a season ago compared to 2008. Yet, the turnover margin got worse. When talking about Michigan's turnover woes the last couple of seasons, lets not forget part of the last year's blame should go to the defense that produced one of the worst takeaway number in years. Last year, the defense in Ann Arbor swiped just 16 takeaways. That's the fewest since 19 in 2001. The program's 11-year average prior to 2009 was 24.37. More than half of those years had more than two dozen takeaways. So last year was a 33-percent reduction in the production the Michigan defense had become accustomed to producing most of the time. Hypothetically, could the team have used 8 more takeaways a year ago? Give those to me, let me spread them around the slate--congrats, OSU, you get half of them!!--and BOOM, Michigan wins 7-8 games a year ago. We can write HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL in as many comment threads as we like, but the turnover margin wont be appreciably better unless the D steps up some and generates more giveaways. I dont know if Michigan will jump right back to getting more than two dozen takeaways a year, but I do expect the back to back years of regression with this stat to stop and at least begin to creep the other way. Where will the extra takeaways come? Craig Roh has the type of game that just screams forced turnovers. New Safety Cam Gordon packs a wallop on his sticks and should give Michigan a hard hitting, forced fumble threat in the secondary for the first time in years. Part of the reason Carvin Johnson has emerged atop the depth chart has been his ballhawking abilities. Finally playing for the same defensive coordinator two years in a row might help in this department as well.
Total Points Allowed, O/U 299.5 points
You know what I miss? I miss that goofy stat we used to throw around these parts about how unbeatable Michigan was when scoring at least 30 points. It's been a long, long, long time, it seems, since that era, so my memory may be wrong, but I think the Wolverines record in those situations was 531,731-2. I may be off a game or two. That's how bad the Michigan defense has been for a couple years running now. It has me pining for the manipulated stats used to support Mike DeBord's offensive philosophy. Uh, Rich, that is most definetly not change I can believe in. Here's the ugly money stat: The Michigan defense has given up 30 or more points in 13 of the 24 games the last two years. It's decidedly not a defense DeBord can win with. But Rodriguez could, especially if his high-powered offense in the making takes another leap forward and, more importantly, the defense puts up anything close to an average performance. How about allowing less than 300 points this season? That would be a big step. The Wolverines have given up 347 and 330 the last two years. Getting under 300 total points is the equivalent of allowing a field goal less per game compared to the last two seasons. Last year, thats the difference between 5-7 with an off season of continued angst and 7-5 while spending Christmas in Florida. Can the D reduce their points allowed by this much? More? Or more of the same and another season with half the slate dropping at least 30 on the Michigan defense?
Carvin Johnson, total combined tackles/sacks/TFLs/PBU/INTs: O/U 64.5
When Carvin Johnson comitted to Michigan ten months ago, he was an unknown to most recruitniks. He visited for the Penn State game, even though most of the gurus werent clear on who he was, and within the week had comitted to the Wolverines. He was not even ranked as a prospect. Yet, his legend grew during his senior season, an offer from noveau power Utah, combined with interest from homestate LSU suddenly turned this Louisiana prospect into a honest-to-goodness diamond in the rough. Months ago it was bandied about that he could see immediate playing time. It looks like his time will come this Saturday as he's expected to be the starter at the Spur position, which was manned ably by senior Stevie Brown a year ago. If the depth chart released this week is any indication, then it will be Johnson who gets first crack at this stat sheet stuffing position. For comparison's sake, Brown put up a 92 combined tackles/sacks/TLFs/PBU/INT a year ago in his only year playing this hybrid position. I cant see Johnson scoring that high because I dont think he's playing every down like Brown did a year ago. We're still going to see a few different people taking snaps there, especially if Johnson's debut against UConn is shaky. As a result, we're setting his number almost a full third below Stevie's 2009 production.
Hey all. Over at my blog, I have ended my flirtation with soccer, and I am finally getting back into some college football writing. That, combined with point spreads already being released for certain games of the year, mean we are inching closer to the season. We're basically seven weeks away and within the 50-day window of the first football being kicked off in anger. I'm excited. So should you. So get pumped, people!
Anyway, one of the recurring features over at the JCB will be sneak peaks at the various non league games the Big 10 will be playing this year. I take a look at three of those games in a post over there today. Included in that is this very limited sneak peak at our opener against what surely will be a feisty UConn squad. This is hardly a comprehensive preview of the game. More will be said on this game by yours truly on both blogs, not to mention by many other people, in the upcoming weeks. But I do think I've highlighted one of the better positional matchups we're going to see in this contest. I thought folks over here would like to read that portion and maybe get some discussion going on this and other matchups within the UConn game. So, I present that portion of my post as a Diary over here. And, why not? It's a cheap 10 MGoPoints and a way to pimp to my blog.
UCONN at Michigan, 3:30, 9/4. Line, Michigan -3 (Spread courtesy of the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas
Interested in what kind of game the Michigan defensive front has without the menacing presence of Brandon Graham? Well game-freaking-on in the opener against UConn when Michigan faces what will be one of the biggest offensive lines on its schedule. Things sometimes didn't go well when Michigan faced beefier fronts in 2009. And, when we last saw the Wolverines they were being more than generous on defense yielding yards and paths in running lanes like it was their major. In their last five games a year ago--all losses--the Wolverines allowed 230 yards rushing per game and 5 yards per carry. Whether it was a more traditional approach like Penn State or Wisconsin, or something more modern in the zone read genre from Illinois or Ohio State, the Wolverines had so many issues stopping the run down the stretch that Michigan really had no chance defensively in November. Even early in the season, Notre Dame's Armando Allen had one of his best games of the year against the Maize and Blue and against the large Indiana frontline, Darius Willis happened.
The chore will be sizeable against UConn. The Huskies return four starters from last year's line. Across the board, the line checks in at 315 pounds a person. Not only are they experienced and large, but they've proven an effective blocking front two years running. In 2008, they paved the way for 2,000 yard rusher Donald Brown despite an horrific passing game allowing defenses to stack the box all day. Last year, with new featured running backs, two Huskies churned out 1,000 yard seasons behind this line. One of them, Jordan Toddman, returns. In 300 career carries, he's averaged 5.6 yards a carry. He has 17 of the Huskies 57 rushing touchdowns over the last two years. Center Moe Petrus and Guard Zach Hurd are already multi-year starters up front for Randy Edsall's teams. Both earned first-team, All Big East honors a year ago. Hurd will combine with Tackle Mike Ryan, a starter a year ago, to form one of the largest right sides of an offensive line that Michigan will play all year. Folks, this is a legit rushing attack and Michigan's 3-3-5 look will be tested right out of the gate to stand its ground and keep UConn from taking over the football game the way every team did a year ago during Michigan's horrific losing streak to close 2009. The Huskies wont line up in the traditional, pro-style, power-I. They will spread the field with 3-4 wides often and allow their big lineman one on one matches to free up running space. They have no problem throwing rock all day despite coming out in fancier formations.
For the star power crowd, this ought to be a mismatch up front. In the guru approval game, there is no question Michigan has more raw talent on its first line of defense than UConn has on its offensive line. The Huskies starting offensive line is manned by four 2-star and a 3-star recruits, although with 66 combined starts the Huskies experience on the O-line makes those recruiting rankings somewhat outdated and irrelevent. Michigan, meanwhile, will counter with Mike Martin and William Campbell in the tackle spots, a 4-star and 5-star recruit respectively per Rivals, Ryan Van Bergen, a 4-star, at DE and Craig Roh, a 4-star playing OLB, but who will see plenty of time, in a variety of formations as a de facto fourth D linemen.
As a Michigan fan, there's a lot to be scared about defensively. The secondary worries me because its been a disaster for two years running, and the hope is an influx of new faces will help steady it this year. Outside of some Shawn Crable plays in Lloyd Carr's last season, the Wolverines havent had good linebacker playing since 2006. We're all worried about the Wolverine's guarding the pass, but dont forget this club was 92nd nationally in stopping the run. That's in the bottom quarter of all teams. Football is a simple game. Stop the run and even a defnese limited in talent can be effective. Michigan has the talent, skill and new found size up front to hold off the good Huskie offensive line. Can the rest of the defense fill the gaps? If it can and is able to slow the UConn rushing attack, then Michigan may walk away with an easier than expected victory in the opener. If we're treated to run after run with safety Cam Gordon or even Jordan Kovacs holding on for dear life as the last line of defense, then's its going to do a long, uncomfortable day for the Maize and Blue.
(Diarist note: This is the beginning of my Bubble News post today at the JCB. This part deals directly with the Big 10, so I thought it was relevant. I should have a picks post with the day's card at the JCB within the hour)
Let's be totally cheesy and use Joey Brackets from ESPN whose field they just posted on TV. Illinois, Rhode Island and Washington are among the final five in. Minnesota and Mississippi State are among the final five cut out. Even folks not interested in priming the pump of their own TV broadcasts seem to agree with this order. BaselineStats has URI, Illinoi and UW as their final three in with Minnesota and Mississippi State lurking among his last cuts. All play today among the dozen games on tap today among the multi-bid leagues. It seems to be the consensus that on the eve of selection day, there are only enough bids available to count on one hand and these five teams all have a chance that nobody else has today to stake a claim. You can make a case that there's room in the field still for all five. Who the heck knows which way the debate for the final at large bids will turn if all five lose today. I wont lie, there is part of me that would like to see that happen because I think we'll get some crazy selections from the committee that will come out of nowhere. Billy Packer might just interupt one of the first round games Shooter-style from Hoosiers in protest. That could be exciting. This will prove to be one last pinata swing at the bubble that will determine what pecking order will fall out. Beware of Bid Thieves in Conference USA and the ACC this afternoon that could derail some of the process. If I were a fan of Florida, Virginia Tech, Ole Miss, Dayton and even Wake Forest, I would be looking for VooDoo dolls of those teams to drive sabres through.
If things go right the Big 10 could be the big winner of the weekend. Before the weekend, the Big 10 looked like a 4-bid league. That's a disapointment from preseason expectations after seven bids a year ago and performing very well in NCAAs. But now they look like a decent bet to bump up to as many six bids. Anytime you can increase your conference's bid total by 50-percent during the final weekend of play, you've put your mark on March Madness as a league. Illinois impressive effort against Wisconsin and Minnesota exorcising demons over Michign State have set both clubs up for at-large bids that didnt have in their hands heading into the Big 10 sectionals. Are you kidding me with this Minnesota run? No, we're not, and buckle in your March may get a lot more interesting. The Dagger already claims six bids for the Big 10, saying Minnesota can move to lock status with a win. The ESPN Gameday talking heads all just preached the Gohper Gospel during their last segment saying Minnesota was a tournament team. Hubert Davis said they passed the eye test and Jay Bilas said they deserve to be in the field. Why are the pimping Minnesota? Dont they know their game is on CBS today? I thought ESPN hated the Big 10? Dont tell me Internet Tin Foil Hat Wearers have led my astray. Shocker.
Anyway in the Big 10 semifinals today it sure does seem the Big 10 can put a lockdown on six NCAA bids. Illinois win over the Badgers have finally moved them back into the Bracket Matrix. They're a Matrix 12-seed, but with 47 votes, they have the fewest amount of votes of any at-large team in that consensus field. Eight of the nine mocks that updated this morning do have them in, so they're support is rolling fast in the right way. No way they get turned away at the Ball if they beat Ohio State today. The Buckeyes really overmatched Illinois twice this year. But if the Illini can pull a 180 on the Bucks the way they did to Wisconsin five days after the Badgers embarrassed them at home, then they can easily win this game today. They're seven-point dogs. That intrigues me. Have you noticed how strong the puppies have been barking during this Big 10 sectional? The Underdog is 5-2 ATS. Yesterday, they swept the board and on the first half, second half, final score trifecta, if you will, they were 10-2 ATS. I think that shows that while the league's cream rose to the top and became elite and the middle class fell short of expectations, there wasnt that big of a gap between those teams when you really break it down. This league was marked by its top four squeaking out wins against the middle of the pack all season long.
Minnesota dropping games in the final minute they had dead to rights against Michigan State and Purdue come to mind. Tuck those games away and not go 1-3 against Indiana and Michigan and the Gohpers are easily in the field right now. In fact, they would have been part of the regular season title chase. But it's two down in the big 10 finals, but how manhy more to go for the Gophers? Is one enough? Two will give them the automatic bid anyway. Minnesota exacted a measure of revenge for that first heartbreak and have got themselves back into at-large discussion. If they can exact a second dose today, they will jump into most people's mock brackets. Bracketville and Bracketology 101 already have them in their field among the mock bracket crowd. These folks have had them in all along and have moved ahead of their final four in group.
So, they Big 10 has a chance to leave its mark on the final bid invites. But, there are plenty of other contenders. There are 13 games today between teams from possible multi-bid leagues. Five games will have direct impact of the bubble, three involve the bid thieves we talked about in an earlier post and the remaining four are, well, frankly, like quality college football bowl games like UK vs Tennessee in the SEC Semifinals or the Big East and Big 12 Championship games. And, there are six championship games, all televised in a row on ESPN2, from one bid leagues. Whoa. Lots of good hoops. Hunker down. Make a sandwich. Crack open some brewdoggers. And, enjoy while, as we always do, let's take a look at the bubble games away from the Big 10 today. We'll have a full on picks post at the JCB in a little bit. We're on Vols +5, Temple -2 and Illini +7.5 early one.
The rest of the bubble news post can be read here.
(Diarist Note: This is the beginning portion of a longer post at the JCB. I figured I would post the Michigan section here. Check out the rest of the post for a spin around the Big 10, in addition to even more Michigan talk. We do something silly, like compare Michigan and Louisville's resumes. It's closer than you think. And: Pick$$!!)
One of the Games Of The Year in the Big 10 takes place tonight. But its not the game you think.
Oh, sure, tonight's Michigan State at Wisconsin game feels like a heavyweight fight. But, for our purposes here of tracking the state of the Bubble, there arent going to be many more games as important in the conference as the game in Evanston tonight between Michigan and Northwestern.
How in the world is a Northwestern home game against an 11-10 team one of the season's critical juncture points? It's the confluence of the Wildcats urgency to earn their historic tournament bid, a soft bubble, a cratering Big 10 Bubble and the fact that Michigan represents one of their tougher challenges the rest of the way. At 3-6 in the Big 10, the Cats need to win twice as many games as they lose the rest of the way to probably be under legit consideration. That might seem like a tall order. But KenPom actually projects just such a finish, with Northwestern getting to the clubhouse at 9-9 in league play, 21-10 overall. Hard to see them left out of the field with those numbers. By giving the Wildcats a 62-percent chance at winning tonight, KenPom makes Michigan their fourth toughest hurdle over their final ten overall games.
This a major swing game for them. They will be favored by Vegas in a lot of those games down the stretch as well, so a big run to get their league record resume worthy is not out of the question. That run becomes harder, if not impossible, without a win tonight. Some feel the Cats need to go 4-0 in their next four to get back into contention. If Northwestern wins, they stop a two game slide, can start gobbling up wins en route to a 20-win campaign and work their way up the Bubble ladder. They have quite a ways to go. With 48 precincts reporting to the Bracket Matrix, and all but a small handful having updated since the weekend, only 5 mock bracketologists put Northwestern in their fields. That not only puts them out of the Final 8 cut from the Matrix but with less votes than Arizona and UTEP. If they lose tonight, you can do the math. They wont be anywhere close to anyone's bracket. They only have one game left--at Wisconsin--that they could win and radically change a lot of people's mind on just what postseason bracket Northwestern deserves. Every game from here on out is a must win for Northwestern's hopes, but there are a few they could afford to lose. This is not one of them. This would be a bad loss.
But not many bad loss candidates come in with the Experts in the Desert calling it a coin flip. Despite the disparate records, placement on the bubble and the home court edge, oddsmakers have made Northwestern just a 2-point favorite tonight. That's a testament to the fact that plenty of folks within in the betting public give Michigan as much of a chance at winning this game than the hometown Cats.
Where does the perception come from? One word: Defense. Michigan has some. Northwestern doesnt. The Wolverines have evolved into one of the best stop units out there. They're 35th in the nation in points allowed and 10th in three-point percentage defense. They also remain one of the top teams in the country at turnover margin. For all the Wolverines' flaws, they do a few things well, notably pushing you into taking treys from beyond your comfort zone and forcing sloppy play. On a points per possession allowed standpoint, Michigan is right up in league play with conference stalwarts MSU and Wisconsin. Their points per possession margin from offense to defense also puts them in the top half of the conference. If only their win/loss record did the same, then maybe Michigan would have some stack on the table tonight as well. As for Northwestern, they couldnt guard a crosswalk. The Wildcats have the most porous defense in the league. They might not allow a ton of points, per se, but they are the worst in the league at points allowed per possession. Michigan would be wise to push up the tempo at times. I think their defense can handle the extra possessions. I dont think Northwestern's can. If Michigan can limit its own turnovers against a 1-3-1 zone defense that they are obviously more than familiar with, then they will control this contest.
The teams find themselves in opposite positions from a year ago. in 2009, Michigan snapped a NCAA drought, but would not have done so had they not been the only team in the Big 10 to sweep Northwestern last season. A year later, its Northwestern that needs the wins to put an end to their own March Madness drought. But, they probably will fall a win or two short if they dont beat Michigan tonight for a season sweep of the Wolverines.
If the game is anything like the last two contests, then buckle in. Michigan won a crazy OT game in Evanston last year that proved to be a big swing game for both sides. Last month in Ann Arbor, Michigan held a big early lead. But Drew Crawford, a freshmen, blew up for 25 points, including 11 in a row in the first half to get the Cats back into the game, and 15 in the second half to push the Cats to victory. Michigan took a late lead, but Northwestern scored the game's final 7 points and Michigan's final two possessions ended in shaky turnovers.
Expect another close game tonight as the Wolverines attempt to avenge a painful defeat from earlier in the season. Close games have been killers for Michigan. In games decided in overtime or by less than 6 points, the Wolverines are just 2-6 overall and 0-4 in Big 10 play this season. That's the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT right there. While Michigan tries to reverse its season long bout of bad luck, they do have some historic numbers on their side tonight. The Wolverines are 10-3 ATS vs Northwestern, 8-1 at Welsh-Ryan Arena and the road team has covered four of five in this series. Something has got to give.
I've had a heartbreaking month of college hoops. I havent buckled down into religiously watching the whole nation, but I have watched, with anticipation and hope, every single minute of Indiana and Michigan basketball since their league seasons began, coincidentally, and perhaps in foreshadowed-bad-karma fashion, against each other on New Year's Eve. They are my two favorite teams, close to my heart, after all. Neverminding any backstory required to explain how that bizarre dual fanship has formed over the years, rest assured this month has totally wrenched my gut and punched my dong. Both clubs have had tremendous moments, but they've been meted out by a bounty of near misses and snatching defeat from the arms of victory outcomes.
It hasnt been all bad. The Wolverines and Hoosiers are a combined 15-5 ATS since league play started. And, if you haven't figured it out yet, I not only like to gamble on sports, but encourage betting on your teams games. So, there's been some Maize and Blue and Cream and Crimson profit to start 2010. I didnt have either in their Saturday covers yesterday, but i went to the window nine times in favor of one of these teams during the last month and not once did it net a losing ticket. (FYI: Just about each pick was touted at the JCB, so dont miss whatever February bandwagons we Book)
Ok, so I cant bitch one bit. But it did prove revealing that I still have a true heart and that sports losses remain impactful on me in a heartfelt, idealistic fan level. I have been downright mopey in the aftermath of my teams going 3-6 straight up in "close games." They mastered the art of losing, but covering,yet with each time my spirits dimmed, drowning out the cash register rings. I could not go a stretch a a few days without one of them team bringing me to the brink of celebration only to drop me and my fan brethern on our collective heads.
Indiana chokes away a 13-point halftime lead at home and losses to Illinois. Hours later I watch the Wolverines copy that in a loss at Crisler to Northwestern, a result I still havent been able to explain. Saturday, the Wolverines are nuetered by the sudden Manny Harris suspension. Sunday, the Hoosiers get blown out at home to Iowa, a loss that caused a lot of soul searching from folks regarding the reality of the rebuilding project. The Kailon Lucas show and DeSeans lip out proved an effective 1-2 punch that knocked me out of the college hoops world for a few days earlier this week. Just when I thought it was safe to step back in the ring, Indiana losses at the buzzer to Illinois yesterday after playing brilliant for 40 minutes. It was the most exciting and nerve racking three minutes of the Tom Crean era, but a stomach punch loss nevertheless.
The result? A February with a lot less stakes on the line where the teams postseasons hopes are concerned. A little more luck and IU could all but have an NIT bid in their grasp. That equals a huge step forward after a 6-win, 1-17 Big 10 campaign a year ago. We'd be having daily posts at the JCB reminding everyone just how smart we were by predicting an IU 5-4 home record or better in Big 10 play. Instead, the Hoosiers are 2-2 in those games with a lot of hard ones ahead and a better than .500 record needed the rest of the way just to finish .500 overall. The season will close out just like the second year of Michigan's football rebuilding job did this past fall. Progress totally obscured and, in some minds, totally wiped out by a string of losses piling up to end the year.
As for Michigan, they are 1-5 overall, 0-4 in Big 10 play in games decided by 6 points or less. If they are two games better and break even in those games--and lets say the 2-game turnaround is in league games--this club is sitting at 13-8, 6-4. A good bet for 11 wins in league play, their best conference mark in wins in years. An impressive record in an a power league. A non conference slate that at least proves you tried not to duck people. Dont bomb out in the BTT, and they're probably in. Instead, they're just one game above overall and one game below .500 in Big 10 play. A brutal spot to be in as February starts.
They have two hopes. Embark on the program's longest winning streak since the 13-game run in LaVell Blanchard's senior season that helped unbury the season after an 0-7 start. Now, there were a couple cupcakes in that mix, but it also included wins over 6 Big 10 teams and Vanderbilt and UCLA. Something in the ballpark of 6 or 7 in a row could get them into some brackets by the last week of February. With the rout of Iowa yesterday--and sixth straight cover-- it's one down and an indefinite amount to go. The second option is to win the Big 10 Tournament. Both are decided longshots.
Still, I dont think its unreasonable to claim Michigan will go 7-3 in their final 10 games. They wont go worse than 6-4. Doing at least that will equal last year's league mark and put them in the NIT. I think its important for the team to keep playing, if for no other reason than for Darius Morris' sake. The freshman point guard looks to be the biggest key next season. If Michigan expects to compete for the postseason next season, Morris needs to step up his production. I think he can be a double digit scorer next year and improve his scoring from year 1 to year 2 the way fellow Big 10 guards Travon Hughes, Verdell Jones and Chris McCamey did from their freshmen to sophomore campaigns. Morris was basically the same sort of prospect coming out of high school than all of them, so I dont discount it from repeating. I expect it. And, he's the best recruit the program has brought in since they inked Harris in 2007. He almost has to be The Man next year for this team. His length and speed will spearhead another good Beilein defensive unit next year. I could see him contending for league honors in steals and assists next season generating some easy offense for Michigan. But, he needs as many reps as possible this season. A 3-4 game run in the NIT with his role continuing to expand would be an ideal table setter for a better than most people expected season next year. Beilein is 13-6 SU, 14-5 ATS in NIT games, so there will also be some investment opportunities. The Wolverines have been one of the most profitable teams the last six weeks. I think it will keep up as I predict at least a 5-2 February. I'd like to keep winning on this team as long as possible and wont mind an NIT run if it also sets a good tone for 2010-11.
So, thats where I sit with my teams as February is about to begin. Anxiously awaiting the first NIT Projections of the year (due out here tomorrow) to see where Michigan sits and how far Indiana has to go to get there. Its not ideal. But at least I have more money in my pocket.
More depression comes from the knowledge that this is the first Sunday without football. I dont count the Pro Bowl. Despite next week's Super Bowl hullaballoo, we're left with a weekly hole in our sporting calendar. It's probably a good thing. There are better pursuits after all. College basketball, however, does provide some action on Sundays and, at times, will give us enough of a buzz the next six weeks so we dont go through complete cold turkey withdrawals with the sudden football void. Today is a perfect tonic. Eight big games--all on the TV dial somewhere--that all will have an impact on how the immediate Bubble will look when February begins tomorrow. There's four weeks to go until its officially March. Check out theremainder of my post on today's game with picks at the JCB
Who said Thanksgiving is a football weekend? Not anymore. It's all about the hoops, babby.
Screw the Lions. Screw the Cowboys. Screw the NFL and them shoving crappy games down our throat on a weekly basis. This is no longer their weekend. Maybe there are folks out there who dont know better, but the true sporting wonks know that for the last several years, this weekend has morphed from a football one into a college hoops weekend. Frankly, there is way more intriguing action on the hardwood today than on the gridiron.
And your Michigan Wolverines will be in the thick of it. In fact, I wont even turn the LOLions game on. Especially since John Beilein's boys will be in action at same time playing their first legit foe of the season.
We all know the deal. Old Spice Classic. Orlando. Florida. State of. We all have high hopes that the Wolverine cagers will take the next step and be a Sweet 16 caliber team. Personally, I feel the, uh, ceiling can be much higher. However, hoops is a tricky game come March, and we've seen plenty of legit Final Four teams bow out before the first weekend of the tournament is even over. I am looking right at you, Wake Forest.
Translation: Let's not get too far ahead ourselves. March is a long way away. Let's buckle in and enjoy the ride. The team is good. They will be there at the end of the season. But, March Madness is not much different than the hockey tournament that MGoBrian complains is as finicky as a random number generator. The Michigan basketball program still needs to put consistent and achieving regular seasons together. Remember, this a program that has not won a Big 10 Title in 24 years and has not been in position to win one in 15 years. Beilein's task is not as much to turn Michigan into a Final Four team, but turn it into a Big 10 contender. If the latter gets accomplished, the former becomes easier just from a seeding standpoint alone.
If its not obvious from the ramblings of these opening graphs, I've been chugging rum in south Florida since Monday afternoon. So, before I get too wordy, let's just simply relish the start of the season and I'll briefly break down this field the only way I know how to: looking at odds, checking out preseason brackets and going by my world famous gut that has been tried and tested to work 51.9457 percent of the time.
Michigan enters this tournament as the betting favorite. Their odds to win are 3/1. Technically, they're the co-favorites. Possible second round foe Xavier shares the chalk role with 3/1 odds. I think both are solid bets. I have a hard time picturing a final without one of these teams coming out of this half of the bracket. And, you cant win a future bet without a team in the finals.
After those squads, you have Florida State and Alabama at 4/1 odds. Both are on the other side of the bracket than Michigan. The Crimson Tide is a sucker bet. I dont know how strong they are. I dont think they beat Baylor in the opener. Yes, that is an official lean as to who I like in that game (Bama is favored by a single point). I would have thought FSU would be a solid play, but man, they looked awful the other night against the Gators. They had nothing going on offense. So far, uber-recruit Marcus Snear does not look ready to pick up any of the scoring slack left in the wake of Toney Douglass' departure. Snear had just five points against Florida and right now good defensive teams--which includes all four teams FSU might see should they even get to the finals--ought to be able to render the Noles impotent.
So, if you want to play a future bet, lay a little out there on either Michigan or Xavier. One of them will be in the finals. And, at 3/1 odds, there is some wiggle room to hedge that bet once Sunday rolls around.
But, the betting odds are for fun. The serious business is what kind of ramifcations will three days in late November have come mid-March and Selection Sunday? Looking back one year ago, you can say a lot.
In this very tournament last year, Oklahoma State and Siena battled for last place. And, yet, thanks to the RPI boost from playing three games against tough foes, neither were ever too far off the at-large bid radar. You can make a case that the Cowboys didnt really do anything from a quality win standpoint all season, yet they never fell out of too many mock brackets during the winter. Their 7th place finish, 1-2 record and win over Siena in this tourney last year kept inflating their resume. They parlayed that into a first round win over Tennessee in a 8/9 game in the NCAAs. The Saints, meanwhile, went 0-3 in last season's OSC. While we'll never know if they would have merited an at large--they made the point moot by winning the MAAC finals--they still got a generous seed compared to previous MAAC standards and in a 8/9 game beat Ohio State. Siena beat Ohio State. There is something poetic about those four words, n'est pas? But, I digress.
Conventional wisdon says this year's field is not as strong as last year's. I would not feel too good about a 7th place finish. But, its still pretty strong at the top. A team like Creighton, who plays Michigan in today's opener, would all but write their own at large ticket with a couple of wins today and tomorrow. Barring a MVC collapse, they will be on the board come March if they can get to Sunday's final. It may be too early to make these considerations, but tomorrow's nooner between the Jays and the Wolverines could end up being on the more important out of conference games of the season.
Did I really say it was too early to consider the possible bracket? Because that is hogwash. Before signing off, lets take a quick tour of the smattering of mock brackets that have already been put out there as part of people's preseason coverage and how it relates to this field.
According to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, only two teams in this field are early projections into the NCAA field. Michigan,a #4, and Xavier, a #8. Marquette is one of his final four teams out and Florida State is among the second final four left out of the field. Creighton is nowhere to be found and the only MVC team in his field in Northern Iowa, a #12, but the Jays are widely tabbed as one of the MVC favorites.
CollegeHoops.net actually places three teams fron this field: Michigan, #4; Xavier, #7 and Creighton, #11. Are you suddenly sweating today's game, MIchigan fans? Florida State makes the grade as one of their final four teams cut from the field.
The Sporting News published a bracket look-ahead in their preseason rag on newstands. Michigan, #6, Florida State, #7 and Xavier, #8 make thier field. They did not list the teams who just missed the cut. They did pick Creighton to finish in second place in the MVC. So, they Jays come highly regarded by their writers. Interesting stat from their preview article on CU, btw: Only Creighton, Florida, Duke, Gonzaga, Syracuse and Kansas have at least 11 consecutive winning seasons. The Jays are going for their 13th straight season of 20 or more wins. Yo.
Bracketology 101 lists Michigan as a #4, Xavier as a #10, FSU a final four out and Creighton as one of their next four teams out of the field.
The Bracket Matrix is already in gear with plenty of other way too early mocks to absorb. While some may find bracket crunching in November silly, I feel these mocks are way more tellin and engaging to look through than the polls. Those are, by and large, irrelevant in the college hoops world.
Obvioulsy, these snapshots are so early, they're not worth anything. But, you can see just how important tomorrow's game might be for Creighton. A win over Michigan and a good overall showing this week would put them on a lot of people's bracket lines and it would take a lot to budge them off. This game, in some ways, is a lot like that Boise/Oregon football game to start the season. It's much more important to the mid major. And, that makes tomorrow's noon tip way more exciting than anything the NFL is giving us during the day.
A year ago, Michigan was in the dumps with one of the longest tournament droughts within the BCS conference ranks. They were coming off an awful season. There was not much on the roster screaming big improvement.
Now, the Wolverines are ranked in the preseason polls, the betting favorite to win a Feast Week Tournament and considered a #4 seed via the consensus of preseason bracketologists. I am thankful for John Beilein.
Here's hoping the Wolverines can live up to the hype and not fall under the weight of the program's first bigtime expectations in over a decade.
(Diarist Note: I dont know how many of these hoop diaries I will do this season. This site was lacking last winter on hoops coverage, mostly because of Brian's sojourn abroad, but I never got the impression he was all that into it. Tim has set a pretty high bar so far for MGo hoops coverage. I dont want to be repititive. If anyone has ideas or hoop news they would like to see to supplement their coverage, feel free to drop me an idea.)