Friday, February 10, 2017
Michigan State 4, Michigan 4 (Michigan wins SO)
MSU 1 UM 0 EV 00:36 Assists: Appleton & Cox
It’s worth noting that this starts after the second shot on goal, so we’re picking things up in the middle of play. Cecconi tries to hit the second shot-taker in front of the crease and immediately comes off of him to track the State player behind the net who gets the loose puck. Considering the number of other defenders behind the net, it’s surprising that Cecconi didn’t move laterally and stay in front of the net.
Appleton, who now has the puck in the corner, is defended by Slaker. Appleton drifts backward and loses Slaker by quickly changing directions and pushing toward the net. Cecconi peels off his circular path back to the front of the net and strides toward Appleton.
Switching defenders momentarily opens up a passing lane, which Appleton utilizes to pass to Hirose. Hirose one-times it and hits the near-side top corner, just a touch over the height to which Lavigne can shrug his shoulder. Warren sees that Hirose is going to get the puck (because he’s watching it in the corner), but that delay means he can’t get his stick into the shooting lane before the shot it away.
[After THE JUMP: Bill takes great photos]
An Actual Piece Of News
flex TE Brevin Jordan
Brice Marich reports that 4.5* NV TE Brevin Jordan and 4* NV QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson are in the process of scheduling an official in early April. Those gents are teammates at Bishop Gorman; Thompson-Robinson is of course Michigan's top QB target, and Jordan is actually a bigger deal than he is in early rankings. DTR said UCLA was the team to beat after they poached Jedd Fisch a few weeks ago; this unofficial will be Michigan's best shot to change that opinion.
Well Played, Purple Stuff
Happy trails to MI CB Kalon Gervin, who committed to Notre Dame a few days ago. That continues a bizarre trend: 4-8 Notre Dame and their coach on the hot seat snatching up various propsects of interest to Michigan. They've got eight early commitments and fully five of those are mutual targets: Gervin, IN RB Markese Stepp, NJ twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola, and MI LB Ovie Oghoufo.
This is quite a turnaround for ND, which had a bit of an MSU-like scramble to fill some spots at the tail end of the last cycle. (It was not nearly as bad as MSU's, because obviously.) Whether these guys will stick with Purple Stuff if Notre Dame spirals towards 4-8 again is currently an open question—I left Stepp off the recruiting overview but Michigan is pushing pretty hard for him.
Paramus braces for influx of Rutgers magnets
4* NJ DE Dorian Hardy has transferred from St Joseph-Montvale to Paramus Catholic. This is good for Michigan's chances, though the Montvale coach wasn't one of those who was super cheesed off by Harbaugh during SATELLITE CAMP DEATHMATCH last year. HC Augie Hoffman:
St. Joseph Regional High coach Augie Hoffmann said he has no issue with the invitation.
“Not at all,” he said. “I got to meet Jim. He is a dynamic person. You can tell he’s passionate about football, and his love for the game and love for the team and work ethic is really at the top of the list.”
Hoffmann himself spoke at Michigan’s camp last month.
So this isn't getting a Bosco kid to transfer to Paramus or anything. Still, Michigan's long-standing relationship with the school means Michigan will get to make its best pitch. Hardy is currently fielding many crystal balls to Alabama, FWIW.
The Big List Of Guys Expressing Vague Interest
It's the beginning of a new cycle so there are a billion articles out there about kids with Michigan somewhere on their list of five to twenty schools; in these articles players express an interest in scheduling a visit and say everyone is even. Maybe a third of these kids will actually end up on campus, but here is the nebulous list of possibilities yet unearthed:
- 3.5* NJ RB Iverson Clement will be on campus Thursday, per Lorenz. Michigan's in an early top six.
- 4* CA WR Andre Hunt wants to visit, etc.
- 4* OH WR L'Christian Smith told Land of 10 that he will visit in the near future.
- 4* TX TE Malcolm Epps decommitted from Bama and listed Michigan in a top three with the Tide and Texas A&M. Says he doesn't like cold weather.
- 4* FL TE Will Mallory says Michigan has 'kind of been in his blood' and is 'kind of his dream school' but maintains no public leaders.
- 4* IMG OL Verdis Brown is originally from Chicago. He tells Scout's Jeremy Werner that Michigan is in his early top five, that he misses the cold, and that he's likely to return to the Midwest for school. OSU, UF, Miami, and Illinois are the rest of his early contenders.
- 4.5* VA OL Nana Asiedu put Michigan in his top ten. Clemson is a heavy favorite.
- 4* GA OL Jalil Irvin, who was briefly a Michigan commit before backing off, is making a swing through Michigan and OSU this weekend.
- 4.5* MO DT Michael Thompson says he's interested in Michigan, vaguely plans unofficial.
- 4* TX DT Keondre Coburn is high on Michigan's board per Lorenz; Michigan intends to pursue him heavily. Naturally the instate schools are currently favored. Coburn did tell Scout that he likes Michigan "a lot" and "really want[s] to go see them."
- Michigan offered 3.5* OH DT Aeneas Hawkins. Hawkins is out of Cincinnati and this is a Greg Frey area, so it'll be interesting to see how that develops.
- 4* OH DE Tyreke Smith fielded an offer, now has the full set from the Midwest, says he will visit.
- 4* OH LB Dallas Gant has his Michigan offer at long last and Michigan "will be a factor" per Lorenz.
- Unranked OH LB Brian Asamoah has scheduled an unofficial for March 18th per Lorenz. Asamoah is unlikely to be unranked for long since he's got M, PSU, and UCLA offers already.
- 5* VA LB Teradja Mitchell tells Land of 10 that he "loves" Harbaugh because he's "one of a kind" and will visit Michigan, along with a bunch of other schools, during the spring.
- 5* TX S BJ Foster named Michigan and Ohio State as offers that stick out early, following that with a number of local schools.
This has been your list of guys saying things about stuff.
2019 stuff? I guess
So you've probably heard about CA QB Michael Johnson Jr by now: he is the son of new Michigan employee Michael Johnson and 247's #1 dual threat QB in the 2019 class. If Michigan does get Thompson-Robinson and Johnson that'll be an interesting, Kaepernick-esque shift in Michigan's QB recruiting. I'm so down to see what a Harbaugh-coached Devin Gardner looks like, so bring 'em on.
Also of note is early five-ish star KY DE Stephon Herron Jr, who visited Ann Arbor last weekend. The quotes he offered Steve Wiltfong are highly encouraging:
"The family factor, today I felt like I've been there hundreds of times before when it was only my first. ...
"They were down to earth you don't get to see that side of coaches very often and today it was amazing," Herron said. "Michigan showed me a lot of things other schools haven't and it really stuck out."
Too early to tell whether Herron is like Jay "Everything Is Awesome" Tufele in the last cycle; looks like that will be a recruitment to monitor.
BONUS: Trieu's article on Herron has another interesting quote:
"The entire place stood out," he said. "The coaches welcomed me and all the players did as well. The academics and the fact that the team goes to study abroad every year."
I bet they're hammering that.
Slight connection between CA CB Isaac Taylor-Stewart and Jay Harbaugh: Harbaugh's alma mater is Taylor-Stewart's high school. In "not even saying he'll take a visit" news, Michigan offered LA DT Dare Rosenthal, who's 6'7" and therefore makes me think of Pat Massey.
There are usually two or three plays in a given Michigan game in which DJ Wilson makes his NBA potential strikingly apparent. This was one such play, and there were more than a couple others as the Wolverines finished an authoritative season sweep of Indiana.
Yes, the Crean GIF is after the jump.
[Hit THE JUMP for Wagner trucking Crean, lots of Walton and Wilson, and more.]
Suddenly it’s happening [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
Best/favorite/memorable senior-year breakout?
Brian: I surmise this is in honor of Derrick Walton?
Brian: We should point out that Walton's breakout is not merely a senior year breakout but the ultra-rare midseason senior-year breakout. After being called softbatch.
Ace: Yeah, I don’t really remember anything quite like what Walton has done over the last month, at least with Michigan basketball players.
Brian: I could kiss Maverick Morgan.
Ace: The senior-year breakout that comes to mind for me hopefully won’t have too many parallels to Walton. When I was a senior in high school, my parents got me a ten-game ticket package for Michigan basketball that covered the conference portion of the schedule. This was 2005-06, when it looked like this could finally be the year that Tommy Amaker’s squad snapped the tourney drought.
Senior Horton nearly got an Amaker team to the Dance. [MGoBlue.com via Holdin the Rope]
Up to that point in his career, Daniel Horton had been an enigmatic player: obviously talented, usually the best player on some mediocre teams, but clearly hamstrung by the system and surrounding talent. His ORating never cracked 100 in his first three years at Michigan, and after a junior season cut short when he pled guilty to domestic violence, it looked like his promising freshman year may stand as his peak.
It all clicked in his senior year. Horton took a Walton-esque leap with his finishing around the rim, hit 39% of his threes, and played remarkably efficient ball for someone shouldering such a huge load (111.4 ORtg on a 28% usage rage). He had several notable performances, most of which came down the stretch: 32 points in a win at Minnesota, 23 and five assists in a win over MSU at Crisler, 21 and five in the home rematch against the Gophers, and a masterful 39-point game to beat Illinois and get Michigan to 8-6 in the Big Ten and on the precipice of a tourney bid. (Someone, please, get that game on YouTube. That was as loud as I’d ever heard Crisler until the Final Four squad.)
Horton’s heroics weren’t quite enough to propel Michigan into the tournament. The Wolverines went 2-7 down the stretch, with Dion Harris’ ankle injury against Ohio State wiping out much of Horton’s scoring support; Horton’s 34-point game against Indiana still wasn’t enough to get M the final win they would’ve needed to get a bid. They instead had to settle for a run to the NIT final. Horton’s magnificent play to close out his career, however, remains one of my fondest memories from a relatively dreadful era in Michigan hoops.
[Hit THE JUMP for Seth just rocketing off answers before anybody else can]
impossible to google so here's his wiki photo
Michigan has hired former 49ers/UCLA offensive coordinator Michael Johnson in some capacity:
Head football coach Michael Johnson has resigned and is taking a position on staff at the University of Michigan. Good luck coach!! #GoBlue
— TKA Athletics (@TKA_Athletics) February 13, 2017
Michigan has all nine of their assistant coach spots filled so Johnson is an analyst until such time as the NCAA approves a tenth assistant coach, which is expected to happen in the near future. Sam issued a gut feeling that a guy matching Johnson's description would be coming in to help coach the WRs, which he's done on and off in the NFL.
Johnson's son, Michael Johnson Jr, happens to be 247's #1 dual-threat QB in the 2019 class. Johnson was until recently his son's coach. This is either good or bad for Michigan's chances with him depending on how this "individual associated with a prospect" legislation works out and what role Johnson actually fills.
If Johnson is the tenth assistant then Michigan can definitely recruit his son because the legislation only applies to non-coaching jobs. If he's a staffer, the legislation stipulates that you can't hire a guy for a two year period before the prospect's projected enrollment. Johnson Jr is more than two years from enrolling, so Michigan might be fine. There is some disagreement about this from our law-talking guy.
FWIW, Johnson was Jim Harbaugh's QB coach for a brief period when both were with the Chargers.
Bad things in East Lansing. This is going to be a bad week for Michigan State.
Tourney sel. chair Mark Hollis has canceled his 2-week CBB road trip due to obligations as Michigan St. AD that require him to be on campus.
— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) February 13, 2017
Nothing definitive has been released yet save for MSU's statement that three players and one staffer are under investigation for sexual assault; people seem to be expecting something very bad. Bad enough that point and laugh rivalry stuff is inappropriate.
Solomon aftermath. Georgia fired its DL coach, Tracy Rocker, in the immediate aftermath of Signing Day. A Scout article asserted Rocker got in an argument with Aubrey Solomon's mom in an attempt to offer up an explanation, and recriminations ensued. Jeff Sentrell of Dawgnation* interviewed Sabrina Caldwell to get her side of things, and I have some bad news for Teddy Greenstein:
She said a big reason why Georgia didn’t sign her son centered on coaching decisions and not anything specific in their recruiting relationship.
Caldwell said they were affected by the scholarship that was no longer there for 4-star Texas RB and longtime UGA commit Toneil Carter.
Adding to the confusion: SEC All-Freshman kicker Rodrigo Blankenship was not extended a scholarship offer despite what he did to win games for the Bulldogs last season.
She said that was not her family’s fight but that it was a factor into how they perceived UGA.
“We were concerned with the scholarship issues of those not either receiving (them) or getting it pulled and again (this was) not our fight but it played a factor,” she said.
Michigan won that recruitment in part because it looked like the more stable and straightforward program a year after forcibly decommitting multiple kids late in the cycle. While there was something Michigan needed to get fixed (as I said at the time), fix it they did, and next year's Erik Swenson Is Thriving Despite Being Done Wrong article will have the same impact this year's did: nil.
Caldwell's comments caused some introspection at Georgia-focused Get The Picture. It sounds familiar to anyone who read "Pick Up The Damn Phone" last year:
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the amount of angst that cropped up in the comments following my post about Jeff Sentell’s interview with Aubrey Solomon’s mother. It’s hard to let go of a gauzy, romantic image that you’re invested in, and for many, the ideal of a football program that doesn’t stoop to making business decisions when it comes to roster management is a powerful one. (As powerful as the ideal that student-athletes are already more than fairly compensated for the privilege of playing. But I digress.)
Anyway, whatever else one might say about the Process, romantic it ain’t. Kirby is being paid to win. In his mind that includes pushing roster management aggressively. The issues with Carter and Blankenship arose because Smart was at the edge, numbers-wise, with the 2017 class before the four underclassmen stepped up to announce they were staying. That decision — and would any of us have preferred that they leave for the NFL? — meant that Smart had to do a lot of re-jiggering on the fly.
I’m not defending the way the Carter situation was handled. Smart botched that by not stepping up and telling the kid himself. But he’s being paid to put together the best roster he can and that’s what he’s trying to do.
For what it's worth, I believe that recruits' publicly stated reasons why they chose school X are almost always post-hoc backfilling after a decision has been made. Georgia wasn't the choice but Rodrigo Blankenship isn't the reason why.
Also: GTP mentions that 100% above-board Mark Richt often slogged through SEC seasons with 70-some scholarship players. That's the choice the current system gives you: nobly waste resources or push the envelope with the detrimental effects to the croots. That's a dumb system.
Michigan is navigating it better than they did last year, and Georgia will probably follow suit.
*[Despite the fact that it sounds like a dot blogspot, Dawgnation is an Atlanta Journal-Constitution-owned UGA site roughly equivalent to a single-team Land Of 10, which is also an AJC property. IE: they got the journalisms.]
The haves split from the other haves. Also spotted on GTP is this article from Jon Wilner detailing the coming revenue split even amongst the Power 5 conferences:
Fiscal year 2015 school distributions (all figures confirmed):
SEC: $32.7 million
Big Ten: $32.4 million
Pac-12: $25.1 million
Fiscal year 2016 school distributions
SEC: $40 million (confirmed)
Big Ten: $35 million (approximate)
Pac-12: $27 million (approximate)
That looks bad … that is bad … but it’s about to get much worse for the Pac-12.
Remember: The Big Ten’s new Tier 1 deal begins in 2017-18, and it’s also a whopper, averaging $440 million per year.
Which brings us to …
Fiscal year 2017-18 school distributions …
Big Ten: $45 million (estimate)
SEC: $43 million (estimate)
Pac-12: $31 million (estimate)
This is an even bigger gap than it looks because most SEC athletic departments run close to the bare minimum number of sports to qualify as D-I and Big Ten and Pac-12 schools carry up to 12 additional teams under that revenue umbrella.
Not only is paying the players the correct thing to do from a moral, ethical, and free market standpoint; it is a Very Good Thing for the Big Ten as it tries to be good at football. And there can be absolutely no argument that the money is there. As of 2011 the Big Ten's payout was 23 million. By 2018 there will be 22 million dollars a year that did not exist just a few years ago. Half of that is sufficient to pay the revenue sports athletes 100k a year.
In bubble news. (Not that bubble.) Disney CEO and therefore ESPN CEO Bill Iger:
Disney CEO Bob Iger thinks there are too many ads on TV, and he's exploring whether Disney's ESPN and ABC channels should reduce the amount of commercials.
“In general there is probably too much commercial interruption in television,” Iger said during Disney's quarterly earnings call Tuesday, especially when TV is competing with new digital upstarts like Netflix, some of whom don't have ads at all.
Iger said Disney would evaluate the amount of ads aired within programs for its ESPN and ABC TV channels, though he did not say that any cuts to the so-called ad load were looming.
My eyes pop out of my head when my mother voluntarily turns on cable TV programming with ads in it. (It's always HGTV, and they're always building tiny houses for some damn reason.) Live sports has long been the last bulwark against that kind of thing because there are no alternatives, but my God last year was brutal. The number of three-and-outs both preceded and followed by commercial breaks seemed to go up exponentially. At some point you have to balance out the money you're making now with the money your losing down the road by making your product worse, and it's especially grating when the people actually comprising the product are not even compensated.
In bubble news. (That bubble.) Michigan's moved out of the last four in on Lunardi's bracketology. They are one spot behind... Michigan State? The hell?
I mostly look at Kenpom so that's jarring. There MSU is 54th; Michigan 31st. Metrics that are not margin aware, like RPI, have that ranking inversed. MSU is #41 in RPI; Michigan is 61st. MSU's main accomplishment in the eyes of RPI is to have lost to a bunch of good teams.
Insert general scheduling lament here.
The little details. Good rostering continues:
— Matt Baldeck (@MattBaldeck) February 10, 2017
Michigan picks up another longsnapper, Matt Baldeck. Baldeck is making the Threet transfer: enrolling early and then transferring after his first semester. As a walk-on. Who was at Ole Miss.
Etc.: Freddy Canteen transfers to ND, which will be interesting. I expected him to land at a smaller school. Indiana takes from Quinn and Holdin' The Rope. More croot profiles: Brad Robbins, JaRaymond Hall. Not a banner year in the Big Ten.
Wagner hits 3, runs over Tom Crean. pic.twitter.com/YdwT35WGlv
— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) February 12, 2017
In one sense, this felt deeply unfamilar. Michigan entered today's game with zero road wins on the season and one victory in 17 tries at Assembly Hall since 1996, that an overtime win over a terrible 2008-09 Indiana squad. They never trailed the Hoosiers or even came particularly close to relinquishing their lead.
In another sense, this felt pleasantly familiar. Michigan turned up the defensive intensity, forced 15 turnovers—ten in the first half—and rode hot perimeter shooting and another tremendous game from Derrick Walton for a comfortable victory over the Hoosiers.
If this wasn't a must-win game, it was damn close to it, and Walton once again played with an intensity that matched the stakes. He scored 25 points, going 7-for-13 from the field and 9-for-9 from the line, while adding five rebounds, four assists, and three steals. It was a masaterful performance that had the CBS announcers full-on fawning over his play:
— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) February 12, 2017
Much like in the first contest, Walton's main scoring support came from big men Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson. Wagner overcame a series of extremely questionable calls to post an 11-point, ten-rebound double-double while helping keep star IU center Thomas Bryant (8 points on 8 shots, 3 turnovers) in check. Wilson did a little bit of everything on both ends; he showed off an NBA-caliber array of shotmaking to net his 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting and his NBA-caliber combination of size and coordination to tally three blocks and three steals.
Other than Zak Irvin (5 points, 1-for-8 FG), whose offensive woes continued, the supporting cast had another strong outing. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman needed only four shot equivalents for his seven points and once again made James Blackmon Jr. a relative non-factor; Blackmon scored only six points, three of which came on a meaningless garbage-time shot. Duncan Robinson hit a couple timely threes, playing his part in making sure IU paid dearly for their live-ball turnovers. Xavier Simpson followed his breakout MSU game by converting a strong take the hoop on his only shot attempt and chipping in two assists and a steal in 12 minutes.
The first road win of the season couldn't have come at a better time. Michigan is now 16-9, 6-6 in the Big Ten, and they'll be in the field in the next round of NCAA tournament projections; in many of them, they'll be taking Indiana's place. A 3-3 finish down the stretch, which features four road games and tough home contests against Wisconsin and Purdue, should have the Wolverines in position for an at-large bid. That looks a whole lot more realistic this afternoon than it did a week ago.
#30 Michigan (15-9, 5-6 B1G) vs
#42 Indiana (15-10, 5-7)
|WHEN||1 pm ET, Sunday|
Indiana -3 (KenPom)
Indiana -3.5 (Vegas)
PBP: Kevin Harlan
Analyst: Dan Bonner
Right: Still obligatory. [Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog]
There's good news and bad news on the NCAA tournament front. The good: Michigan continues to get on more updated brackets in the Bracket Matrix. They're now the third team out of the field, and Sunday's matchup just happens to be with the last at-large team to make it; a win should get the Wolverines on the right side of the bubble for the moment.
The bad: the NCAA selection committee released the top 16 overall seeds this afternoon and the surprise of the day was the omission of the Big Ten (namely, Wisconsin, which is currently the top four-seed on the matrix). If the committee is down on the top of the conference, that spells trouble for the B1G teams on the bubble.
That all may become irrelevant, of course, if Michigan can't beat Indiana. The Wolverines need at least one upset win (by current KenPom projections) down the stretch to have a realistic chance at an at-large bid. This looks like one of their best opportunities but for the location of the game: Michigan is 1-17 at Assembly Hall since 1996, with the lone victory coming in overtime over a 2008-09 Hoosiers squad that finished 6-25.
In preparation for this game, John Beilein chose to give Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin two days off of practice this week in hopes of keeping the former at his current form and snapping the latter out of his slump. Irvin is quite aware that he needs to play better than he has over the last three games:
"I told the guys this, I know that in order for us to be able to achieve the goals we want, I've got to step up," Irvin said. "I told them that. I look forward to the challenge.
"Everyone goes through adversity throughout the season. It's been my time these last three games and I've gone through it. But I'm not going to let that define me in any way for the rest of the year. I told them, no matter what, whether I'm shooting the ball well or not, I'm going to be positive and I'm going to be a leader out there."
Irvin's last good game came against these very Hoosiers; he had 12 points on nine shot equivalents, three assists, and no turnovers in the blowout at Crisler. A return to that form would be most welcome.
THE LAST TIME
Derrick Walton scored 21 points, Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson exploited frontcourt mismatches with IU's Juwan Morgan limited in his first game back from an ankle injury, James Blackmon Jr.—who sat out the next three games with a knee injury—only mustered four points, and Michigan won by 30.
THE LINEUP CARD
Projected starters are in bold. Hover over headers for stat explanations. The "Should I Be Mad If He Hits A Three" methodology: we're mad if a guy who's not good at shooting somehow hits one. Yes, you're still allowed to be unhappy if a proven shooter is left open. It's a free country.
|G||2||Josh Newkirk||Jr.||6'1, 195||66||19||105||No|
|Most PG-like player, but has higher turnover rate than assist rate.|
|G||4||Robert Johnson||Jr.||6'3, 195||70||23||112||Not At All|
|Sniper beyond the arc, solid finisher inside of it. 16th in B1G in eFG%.|
|G||1||James Blackmon||Jr.||6'4, 200||62||24||122||Not At All|
|High-volume, high-efficiency scorer. Went 3/14 in first game back from knee injury.|
|F||13||Juwan Morgan||So.||6'7, 230||47||16||126||Yes|
|Great rebounder and finisher this year. Commits too many turnovers.|
|C||31||Thomas Bryant||So.||6'10, 255||70||22||118||No|
|Excellent rebounder and post scorer, good shot-blocker, hits occasional three.|
|C||20||De'Ron Davis||Fr.||6'10, 240||33||24||114||Very|
|Good offensive rebounder, high FT rate, struggling with TOs and finishing.|
|G||11||Devonte Green||Fr.||6'3, 186||32||17||94||No|
|Shooting has fallen off in conference play, very turnover-prone.|
|G||0||Curtis Jones||Fr.||6'4, 175||31||18||101||No|
|Outside shooting threat, struggling to finish inside arc, turnover-prone.|
|F||15||Zach McRoberts||So.||6'6, 200||29||6||130||Kinda|
|Minuscule usage walk-on pressed into action as undersized four.|
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the preview.]
[Ed-S: Team 40 played their first game today, beating Delaware 7-0. Before you ask: no, the Delaware softball team doesn’t use wings on their softball helmets]
It’s that time of year once again! [Photo credit: Bryan Fuller for all photos]
For the last four years, and especially the last two, Michigan softball has been defined by two women named Sierra. The two Sierras, Romero and Lawrence, headlined a star-studded line-up that shattered school, conference, and national records and propelled the Wolverines to the highest echelons of the sport. Perhaps even more importantly, the 2015 and 2016 teams catapulted the softball program into the spotlight among Michigan fans, capitalizing on a void left by underwhelming performances from the revenue sports. Over the course of the last two years, tickets to big games at Alumni Field have sold out in hours, game threads have exploded in length, and the names of the stars – Romero, Lawrence, Christner, Wagner, Susalla, Sweet, Betsa, and more – have become household names.
Now, it’s time to turn the page, and the Michigan softball machine will have to turn to younger talent to fill out the roster in 2017. Even with a number of returning stars there’s no mistaking the sense that we’re entering a new era, and things are going to look different. After several years as one of the nation’s top offensive teams, this year Michigan’s fortunes will most likely be determined by how far their ace pitcher can carry them. Especially in the post-season, when teams often lean on a single pitcher game in and game out, Michigan’s senior flame-throwing righty will be the driving force. If the last four years have been the Era of Sierra, 2017 should be the Year of Betsa.
Bidding farewell to the class of 2016 has not been easy, neither for fans who will miss watching living legends step to the Alumni Field plate week in and week out, nor for the coaches working overtime to find ways to replace their remarkable production. This remarkable group of young women won a staggering 210 games in their time at Michigan, 4 Big Ten regular season championships (3 outright), and 1 Big Ten Tournament Title. In the post-season, they earned 4 trips to both the regionals and the super-regionals, went to the WCWS 3 times, and reached the final game of the season in 2015.
In addition to role-players Olivia Richvalsky, Lauren Connell, and Mary Sbonek, the 2016 class included some true Michigan legends.
[cont’ after THE JUMP]
Less than a week ago, Michigan hosted a bad Ohio State team and lost, even though the Buckeyes’ best player (JaQuan Lyle) was hobbled and a key cog (Jae’Sean Tate) spent most of the first half on the bench with foul trouble. The Wolverines allowed 16 offensive boards and took over two-thirds of their shots from behind the arc in the narrow defeat. At the time, it felt as if that loss signalled that Michigan wouldn’t be competing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
A quick turnaround for the next game - a rematch against Michigan State soon after a competitive loss in East Lansing - wasn’t a problem; the offense caught fire in the first half and ran the Spartans out of the building, and the rest of the game was spent in garbage time with Michigan holding a commanding lead. Like they did against Indiana, the Wolverines managed to put together strong offensive and defensive performances at the same time and atoned for last season’s home no-shows against those teams: in 2016, Michigan lost to IU and MSU by a combined 39 points, and in 2017, they beat those teams by a combined 59 points in Ann Arbor.
If you’d have told me before the season that Michigan would blow out IU and MSU like that in the Crisler Center, I’d be expecting a shot at a top four seed in the tournament. As it stands, Michigan’s still squarely on the bubble; at 5-6 in a mediocre Big Ten conference, the Wolverines probably need to win at least four more to have a good shot at getting in. Road victories over Rutgers and Nebraska are a must, and Michigan needs to steal multiple wins from a group of games that includes trips to Indiana, Minnesota, and Northwestern, and tough home contests against Wisconsin and Purdue. A tournament bid is feasible, especially if Michigan keeps up its newfound defensive competence - after allowing 1.23 points per possession over their first five Big Ten games, they’ve given up 1.01 PPP over their last six, an improvement from historically bad to slightly above average.
As of right now, Michigan ranks 30th in Kenpom, 30th in Sagarin, and 31st in T-Rank, indicating that they have the quality of a tournament team, even if they don’t have the requisite resume. The Wolverines boast the best offense in the Big Ten because of elite shooting - especially due to easy 2-point looks created by their signature scheme - and elite turnover aversion.
Even with John Beilein’s most talented teams, there was usually a significant gap between the offense and defense; Michigan would score so efficiently that indifferent defense didn’t really matter. What Michigan has decidedly lacked since the exodus of talent following the 2013-14 season has been a dynamic playmaker who can take over and dominate in the spread pick-and-roll sets that have become deeply ingrained in the Beilein offense. Of course, Caris LeVert’s injuries were a big reason for that void over the last two seasons, and Zak Irvin has unfortunately been uneven at best as the focal point of Michigan’s attack.
[After THE JUMP: Walton fills the void.]