Arizona is ranked for the first time in a minute after four straight Pac-12 wins. Tate watched Arizona's first four games from the sideline. Last year he completed 40% of his 45 passes and rushed for under 5 yards a carry.
A bit further north in that same conference, Stanford barely escaped an awful Oregon State team as QB Keller Chryst averaged 4.3 yards an attempt. Sophomore KJ Costello played the vast majority of previous high-scoring wins over UCLA and Arizona State. Twitter was rife with bitching about Chryst and stupefaction at what it would take for Costello to enter the game as the Cardinal labored towards a win over the 1-7 Beavers. You may remember that Michigan's first choice at QB two years ago was Costello; it was only after he committed to Stanford that Michigan started looking around.
A bit further south in that same conference, Sam Darnold watched USC start 1-2 under Max Browne last year before emerging as a 67%, 3000-yard, 31-9 TD-INT flamethrower and Rose Bowl winner.
A bit closer to home, Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke spent most of the 2016 season watching Tyler O'Connor bork it before getting a chance midway through the year. A few years back MSU also spent a brief, wonderful period as the worst offense on the planet under Andrew Maxwell before pulling the trigger on the Connor Cook era. Wisconsin left Alex Hornibrook, the conference's #2 QB by passer rating, on the bench early last year, and then benched him for their final two games.
Nobody knows! Even coaches. Coaches think things. They have the limited amount of data that practice provides, and then there is game data, and all of this information pales in comparison to a giant, looming Fear Of The Unknown. Some decisions make themselves; others have to wait until there's literally no way a second-year player is worse.
There is a moment when even if the backup sometimes seems like a semi-sentient radish in a human suit, he's the man, man. Welcome to that moment.
John O'Korn's struggles after Purdue sent the Michigan internet down a fairly appalling rabbit hole of speculation about Brandon Peters. "Promising young player stuck on bench for bad reasons" is such a trope that everyone knows the name of an otherwise obscure baseball player who Lou Gehrig replaced: Wally Pipp. The hundred-year persistence of this pattern was not good enough.
Nor were a plethora of recent examples at Michigan itself: Mike Hart behind David Underwood. Ben Gedeon behind Joe Bolden. Heck, even this very year Michigan went with Nolan Ulizio despite the fact Juwann Bushell-Beatty is older and apparently better. Sometimes the wrong guy is playing.
None of this mattered. O'Korn was bad so something had to be wrong with his backup.
So the last few weeks you couldn't throw a rock on a Michigan message board without hitting someone either implying or directly stating that Peters was a weird aspie with a fidget spinner and no future, Rain Man in a helmet. It's one thing when this comes from anonymous insider wannabes and entirely another when Rivals's Chris Balas calls a redshirt freshman a "big recruiting mistake" and says he "wouldn't be surprised" if Peters transferred.
Gasoline on the whisper fire, based on nothing. And this the second time Rivals has fueled baseless Peters transfer rumors that had to be debunked. The first time it was by Peters's father. This time Peters did it himself.
It turns out Brandon Peters is at least as plausible a second-year quarterback as anyone else suspected of being a sentient radish. Never in the history of Michigan Stadium has a soft toss in the flat or a fullback checkdown been met with more rapture, because everyone was worried that there was a good reason Peters was behind O'Korn, and that meant doom both now and later. Rutgers guys were annoyed at it, for some reason:
"It seemed like the crowd was kind of obnoxiously cheering," Rutgers redshirt senior Dorian Miller said with a smile. "(Peters) completed a 10-yard ball and the crowd belted out. Football is football, so I'm sure you could apply that to any team and the fans would respond like that. It's not a knock on them."
Just when folks who haven't seen Peters in action started wondering if this guy's arm strength was substandard, Peters stepped up in the pocket and ripped a laser at a receiver just in front of a safety. The ball got in a half second before the safety arrived, and the absurdity of the whisper campaign really settled in.
Brandon Peters is a quarterback in 2017, which means he was scouted to death in high school. And the thing that really leapt out to both Ace and I was that slow build to a ripping throw. Peters has the natural ability to vary his throws so they're catchable when they can be and darts when they have to be. That featured in his recruiting profile:
He varies trajectory and speed based on the situation. My favorite throws in the Brownsburg game above are two high-arc, low speed passes to his tight end that are the exact right throws in those situations. That's the definition of a "catchable ball."
Peters seemed like a savant, especially in the aftermath of Shane Morris's approach to the game. He had no QB guru, like most quarterbacks do these days. He ripped through high school football. This wasn't a guy completing half his passes who might be moldable into a guy down the road. Personality issues didn't prevent Peters from impressing the entire recruiting industry and flying up rankings after a senior year ending at the Army game.
So what are we doing when we search for some personality flaw when a second year player can't get into the game just yet? Why is a mountain of evidence from across college football not enough? And so what if the dude is more engineer than prom king?
Even if Brandon Peters isn't George Clooney—and I'm not saying he is or is not—has anyone actually seen Rain Man? Placed in his element, Rain Man is a baller.
this guy's mustache got an HM [Barron]
Known Friends And Trusted Agents Of The Week
you're the man now, dog
#1 Rashan Gary. Gary was rampant, consistently blowing around the corner to sack and/or terrify the quarterback. The Rutgers LT gets some NFL hype; Gary, and Chase Winovich to a slightly less rampant extent, made that guy look like a walk-on.
#2(t) Mason Cole and Mike Onwenu. Cole and Onwenu tentatively seemed like Michigan's most mauling OL on a rewatch, but probably I could have given this to any member of the blocking crew and not been particularly off.
#3 Sean McKeon. McKeon was able to dig out a throw low and behind him to convert a third and long; he was the only guy to pull in multiple passes. He probably would have scored on that fourth down if Peters put it on him. In addition, McKeon's blocking was excellent for a second consecutive week.
Honorable mention: That guy's mustache. Poggi, Hill, Kugler, JBB, and Bredeson all chipped in on a dominating ground game. Isaac and Higdon made the most out of the blocking. Winovich, Hurst, and Bush were all their usual selves.
8: Devin Bush (#1 Florida, T2 Cincinnati, T2 Air Force, #1 Purdue) 5: Chase Winovich(#1 Air Force, #2a Purdue), Mo Hurst (#1 MSU, #2(T), Indiana), Karan Higdon (#1 Indiana, #2 PSU), Rashan Gary(T2 Indiana, #1 Rutgers), Mason Cole (#1 Cincinnati, T2 Rutgers). 4: David Long (T3 Indiana, #1 PSU) 3: Ty Isaac (#2, Florida, #3 Cincinnati), Lavert Hill(#2 MSU, T3 Indiana)) 2: Quinn Nordin (#3 Florida, #3 Air Force), John O'Korn (#2 Purdue), Khaleke Hudson (T2 Cincinnati, #3 PSU), Sean McKeon(T3 Purdue, #3 Rutgers), Mike Onwenu(T2 Rutgers). 1: Tyree Kinnel (T2 Cincinnati), Mike McCray(T2 Air Force), Zach Gentry (T3 Purdue), Brad Robbins(#3 MSU), Brandon Watson (T3 Indiana).
Who's Got It Better Than Us Of The Week
Brandon Peters completes a short waggle pass to Ty Wheatley for a first down.
Honorable mention: Peters completes another soft toss to Poggi on his next opportunity. Higdon breaks free for a game-sealing long touchdown. Kareem Walker scores. Various annihilations of the Rutgers quarterback. Various annihilations of the Rutgers front seven.
MARCUS HALL EPIC DOUBLE BIRD OF THE WEEK.
Michigan misses a run fit against a wildcat formation, ceding a long touchdown that tied the score at 7. At the time it felt like that was the start of a very long day indeed. Also long wildcat touchdowns remind me of the Penn State game.
Honorable mention: O'Korn throws a pick in the direction of Gentry when he's covered by a 5'9" guy; O'Korn fumbles the snap and Michigan eats a 14 yard loss; Rutgers uses the same damn screen play MSU scored on to get down to the two.
10/7/2017 – Michigan 10, Michigan State 14 – 4-1, 1-1 Big Ten
a metaphor for somethin' [Bryan Fuller]
Don Brown is in one of those Progressive commercials where everything gradually turns white, except in his case everything is gradually turning back into Boston College. Someone walks by with a bunch of hockey sticks. Bill Simmons is on the television again. He swears he overhears a conversation about pahking the cah. Maroon filters into his peripheral vision.
On Wednesday at three fifteen PM there is going to be a knock on the door. Steve Addazio is going to walk in and sit down. Brown will summon all his willpower not to jam the nearest pen through his own eyesocket, to claw the power of sight from his face and evaporate from the world of men.
Jay Harbaugh, seated, will wonder if the slight twitch under Brown's eye means anything or if it's just something that happens to men of a certain age. He will not say something about "guys being dudes," and will never know how close he—how close all of us—came to Total Mustache Annihilation. He will tell Brown about Terrace House, a Japanese version of the Real World where everyone is very nice and considerate of each other's feelings.
Thus disabused of the Addazio specter, Brown will resume destroying all that opposes him until the inevitable knife in the back. He tries not to think of Sisyphus, and fails.
Michigan's main problem on offense is that they are bad at it. This is not a good problem. "Our right tackle sucks" is something you might be able to address. "Almost everyone is not good at football right now" leads to situations like Saturday. I brought up the Law Of Large Percentages Multiplied A Lot, which is something I just made up right now, in a brief twitter conversation with a reporter who wanted people to know one weird thing about Oklahoma football:
This is the 7th straight season Oklahoma has lost a game in which it was a double-digit favorite. Seventh.
That is a weird thing, but it's not as weird as it sounds. If OU was a 10 point favorite in eight games they'd get through unscathed just 12% of the time*. If they were a 14 point favorite they get up to 27%. You have to get up to 17.5—a 93.7% shot at victory!—before Hypothetical OU even hits 50%. The Law Of Large Percentages Multiplied A Lot is that even big ones fall off faster than you'd think.
Michigan's offense has 6-7-8 guys who have to execute on any particular play for it to be a success, and... let's just say many of them are not three-score favorites to do so on any particular play. They are an example of The Law Of Large Percentages And Some Quite Small Ones Multiplied A Lot. The results can be seen in the box score, or the haunted look on the face of a man who replaced ten starters and still has the #3 defense in the country.
And so today the Must brigade is out. "Must" is the worst word in sportswriting for a lot of reasons. Foremost among them is that whatever follows "must" is something so blindingly obvious Marcelo Balboa is probably talking about a replay of it as we speak. He must catch that ball. He must YES WE KNOW I HAVE EYES, AT LEAST FOR NOW, I'M CONSIDERING A CHANGE IN THAT DEPARTMENT, THANK YOU.
I spent most of the weekend trying and failing to get this column done because I couldn't wade into any commentary on the game that wasn't furious and over the top, and immediately made me want to go do something else. Weird shit happens in college football, especially when you're playing your backup QB, and there's a brief second-half monsoon, and on top of that you turn the ball over five times. Various dirt stupid people are now flogging a "Harbaugh is 1-4 versus rivals" thing as if that encapsulates the whole of his tenure, or even his career. Yeah, Michigan had the dumb thing happen on the punt and lost by a literal inch in Columbus last year. If you're ascribing that to something other than chance I cannot help you.
Whatever Harbaugh MUST do he's probably already doing. He has a track record, and he'll either follow that up with more of the same or not. We're oddly locked in: few coaches trying to establish themselves at a new school come with the pedigree that Harbaugh does, so he'll get a ton of time and a bunch of rope and we'll see where it goes. It'll probably go really well once they aren't carrying the baggage of someone else's screwups on top of their base rate.
But I mean, go ahead and yell about how unacceptable everything is, I guess. We are dying to hear about your feelings.
#1 Mo Hurst. Hurst got to play a lot of three tech this week and went from making good plays that someone else scoops up the glory on to wrecking the interior of the opposition offense himself. The fourth down stop stands out, because Hurst may have induced the fumble from a nervous center; Hurst whooped him anyway and the play was doomed either way.
#2 Lavert Hill. Hill's three PBUs were all excellent plays, and he was in the hip pocket of whoever his assignment was for the duration. MSU had... one open receiver? Maybe two? Lewerke averaged 4.3 YPA. Hill played the largest part in that.
#3 Brad Robbins. Averaged 43 yards a punt in often-difficult conditions and mindblasted the MSU returner on the muff; gave up just ten total return yards on seven attempts.
Honorable mention: Most of the rest of the defense. And... Grant Perry, I guess?
8: Devin Bush (#1 Florida, T2 Cincinnati, T2 Air Force, #1 Purdue) 5: Chase Winovich(#1 Air Force, #2a Purdue) 3: Mason Cole (#1, Cincinnati), Ty Isaac (#2, Florida, #3 Cincinnati), Mo Hurst (#1 MSU) 2: Quinn Nordin (#3 Florida, #3 Air Force), John O'Korn (#2 Purdue), Lavert Hill (#2 MSU) 1: Khaleke Hudson (T2 Cincinnati), Tyree Kinnel (T2 Cincinnati), Mike McCray(T2 Air Force), Sean McKeon(T3 Purdue), Zach Gentry (T3 Purdue), Brad Robbins(#3 MSU).
Who's Got It Better Than Us Of The Week
MSU's punt returner dorfs on a bomb by Robbins, muffing it back to the two and setting up a short field that Michigan would use to get their touchdown.
Honorable mention: The first drive was pretty all right until the back-to-back fades.
MARCUS HALL EPIC DOUBLE BIRD OF THE WEEK.
Eddie McDoom drops a pass that would have taken Michigan down to the 25 with 13 seconds left.
Honorable mention: Pick a turnover but especially the first two, as they were key in Michigan's deficit by the time the rain arrived. Lewerke scrapes out a late first down because he lands on Michigan players. Michigan gets a touchdown wiped off the board on a Higdon holding call. Most offensive plays.
I have ceased being a person who gets seriously exercised about the shortcomings, real or imagined, of Michigan's coaching staff. I will get my grouse on when it's fourth and a half yard and Michigan punts, because if I tried to hold that in I would literally die. There's some stuff later in this post about giving the ball to the Hammering Panda on short yardage and how it's dumb and stupid not to. There will always be niggling details that grate.
But I'm not going to freak out because Michigan's offense is struggling. If my mentions, or Ace's, or poor damn Nick Baumgardner's are any indication the Air Force game was HONEYMOON OVER for a healthy section of Michigan's fanbase. No doubt Sam and Ira have just completed four hours of radio where 75% of the callers were spittle-flecked, nude, and beet-red, proclaiming manifestoes about the personal embarrassment they were caused when Michigan could not score an offensive touchdown in the first 59 minutes of a game against a Mountain West team.
And... eh. I mean, nobody sane could disagree with propositions up to and including "this offense is butt and probably going to cost Michigan any chance of silverware." I wish the offense was not butt, too. In previous years I might be nude and beet-red, writing a manifesto about how I suffered personal embarrassment when Fitz Toussaint ran 27 times for 27 yards.
I am not. I'm going to see how this works out.
I'd like to think this is because I am so good at looking at football that I know that Michigan's problems under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke were clear, severe, and systemic coaching issues while Harbaugh's are not. To some extent this is probably true: Harbaugh has not switched his base defense midseason in a panic (twice!), or decided that "tackle over" was an offense instead of a gimmick, or continued inserting a quarterback without an ulnar nerve in the second half of an Ohio State game. The worst tactical issue he's had so far was the increasingly disappointing Pepcat package last year, which is a speeding ticket compared to the grand felonies perpetrated by Michigan's last two coaching staffs. Check that: three coaching staffs.
But I'm also extrapolating based on track record. There is an element of faith that Harbaugh engenders, because... uh... I mean, obviously? If you need numbers, here's Stanford, with Harbaugh in bold:
Harbaugh embarked on a similar project at San Francisco. The 49ers were 25th in Football Outsider's DVOA fancystat the year before his arrival. They improved to 18th in year one and then had consecutive top ten years (fifth and eighth) before a dropoff in Harbaugh's final season under Jed York. That last season is the only one in Harbaugh's pre-Michigan coaching career where the offense isn't either taking a significant step forward or an elite or near-elite unit, and it's saddled with a bunch of confounding factors. (SF got hit with a blizzard of injuries that year, oh and the owner was trying to force out a guy who'd gone to three consecutive NFC Championship games because reasons.)
At Michigan he immediately took the dead thing that was the Brady Hoke offense and made it okay, leaping from 89th to 38th in S&P+. Last year plateaued largely because the starting QB inexplicably went in the tank in Iowa and then did something nasty to his shoulder.
If the late slide a year ago and early sputters from a team that lost seven starters is enough to overthrow Harbaugh's long career of mostly great offenses in your mind, please go away. Yes, there are problems. No, this isn't Lloyd Carr turning Tom Brady, David Terrell, Anthony Thomas, and four long-term NFL starters into the 60th-best offense in the country. Bitching about Harbaugh's offense makes no sense after two years of inventive game plans, plays I have to invent terms for after a decade of doing this, and mostly solid results despite Brady Hoke's abominable late offensive recruiting*.
This feels bad man. But put your damn clothes on and stick to not sports.
*[Deep breaths. Ready?
The only offensive recruit to even make it to year five from the 2013 class are Patrick Kugler and the fullbacks. De'Veon Smith and Jake Butt were productive and graduated. Da'Mario Jones, Csont'e York, Jaron Dukes, Dan Samuelson, Wyatt Shallman, Chris Fox, David Dawson, Kyle Bosch, Shane Morris, and Derrick Green all burned out without making any impact.
Hoke's miserable 2014 class has Speight, the starting QB, Mason Cole, Ian Bunting, and nobody else even contributing. Moe Ways, Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Freddy Canteen, Drake Harris are all gone or benched.
And literally the only offensive recruits Hoke left Harbaugh in the transition class were Alex Malzone, John Runyan Jr, and Grant Newsome. That is three recruiting years producing four starters.]
I felt pretty good about this game for a long time, and continued to feel better as we approached it. First Jim McElwain freaked out about someone on the internet facetiously claiming that he laid upon a shark in the nude. Then some Florida guy said this about the Michigan defensive line:
"They don't move well sideline to sideline, so I think we should take advantage of things like that."
Allegedly paying some SEO outfit 70,000 clams to scrub your Google results of a twitter joke that nobody would have remembered 24 hours later if you hadn't gone full Streisand Effect is one thing. Declaring Michigan's defensive line to lack Southern Speed is another.
The former is insane, yes, but insane manias are not just encouraged but required for high-level college football coaches. Telling your team that Mo Hurst, Chase Winovich, and Rashan Gary can't run is plain old laziness.Gary and Hurst made tackles on WR screens...
Heggie can't hold block on Hurst (duh, R-FR vs. NFL 1st rounder). McCoy, who's looking upfield to block 9, doesn't notice til it's too late. pic.twitter.com/cZu74GiA7T
A Michigan team that sent so much to the NFL a year ago could have been the subject of many, many legitimate critiques to be expressed in the media. For Florida Man to settle on that one, and say it out loud, was proof that the Gators' internal monologue was indistinguishable from any random SEC SPEED message board. Before this game they talked like one; during this game they played like one; after this game they probably imploded like one. Florida talked that work, got that work, and talked about getting worked.
Reporter: I saw you had a work type shirt with your name on it? What's that? Harbaugh: It's my work shirt. Reporter: Is there more of a story to it? Harbaugh: No, just a shirt I wear to work.
Jim Harbaugh is accused of stunts, antics, and bids for media relevancy on the regular. These are mostly true. The subtext, however, is that Harbaugh's profile-raising activities eat into time otherwise spent on the boring work of making a football team. That is not true. Harbaugh and his coaches are also doing that.
Michigan spent most of this game in a bonafide 3-3-5 that they had hardly shown on film last year, baffling Florida's blocking schemes and showing two unprepared quarterbacks a glimpse of hell. Hell is Rashan Gary closing on you unblocked. The proper response is to fall over and pretend you died of rabies, as Felipe Franks did.
On offense Michigan's backs repeatedly burst outside to find that Florida had neglected to deploy a force player. The consistency with which this happened was baffling at first and then felt like a thing Michigan saw and prepared to exploit. Probably 60% of their rushing yards came on the 10-12 carries that started inside and ended outside. At one point I thought about that sideline video from the Stanford-VT Orange Bowl where Harbaugh's telling his back the backside cut is there, and sure enough.
Mike Shaw would have kicked ass in this game [Cook]
In the aftermath, McElwain talked about how his team got beat up and pushed around by a bigger, stronger Michigan team... you know, the one deploying 10 new starters on defense and a receiving corps consisting entirely of baby lambs stretching their legs. That's default coach talk after taking it on the chin, but Florida didn't lose a bench press competition. They lost because Michigan presented them with a puzzle they could not solve.
Many teams have done that to Florida these last seven years. The Gators are now in the exact same place Michigan was during the dolorous late Hoke era. Spencer:
This is laughable, like openly contemptible. Consider the list of teams that with meager resources and worse recruiting footprints and every other curse imaginable have built top 30 offenses out of nothing. That list based on 2016 alone is hilariously bad given what Florida spends on their head coach alone, not to mention the resources surrounding the football program, one that even after all that spending has topped out at a recent ceiling of “sort-of fleshed-out secondary character with an inflated reputation who makes it into the second act of the Western before being killed in a gunfight when he runs out of bullets.”
Michigan is now on the other side of this equation and when Florida hires Jeff Brohm next year they will be too, and if you're not pulling for that you are a cold person indeed.
For Michigan, a fog of nervousness now evaporated. Your author spent 50k words talking about why he wasn't worried about Michigan's incredible outflux of starters, but as some guy named Foug walked up for the opening kickoff there were butterflies all the same. The difference between "should be" and "is" has bitten Michigan fans too many times in the last decade, and at kickoff all that practice talk is just talk.
Foug could have put that ball straight out of bounds and kicked off a clownshow. At one point, after three separate game-losing disasters in a row, it felt like he had. Michigan did not waver, and once the disasters stopped raining down they asserted themselves as one would.
"This is Michigan" no longer feels like a cruelly oblivious thing to proclaim. They lost the world, and they are still here, being Michigan. Working at it every day.
Full game tight cut:
Postgame presser from Harbaugh:
Known Friends And Trusted Agents Of The Week
you're the man now, dog
#1 Devin Bush. This space has asserted that Devin Bush was accidentally the perfect Don Brown linebacker recruit, and it took one game for that to become obvious. Bush got two sacks in this game and had a few more instances of QB terror; he takes angles that normally mean you lose and wins with them; he shows up in the QB's chest with a quickness that seems to shock them. He is a missile.
#2 Ty Isaac. Not sure how much this is going to translate to opponents that either make sure to have a force guy and pay attention to a run threat on third down, but Isaac was mansome in game one. He converted two third and longs on the ground, embarrassed a couple of would-be tacklers, and kinda looked five-star-ish against a very fast defense.
#3 Quinn Nordin. Nordin missing a 32-yarder was the only thing preventing him from ending up #1 on the list. One game into his Michigan career he's already tied for third in career 50+ yard field goals, with 50 and 55 yarders to his name. He also grooved a couple shorter ones down the middle. His other miss, from 52, was eminently understandable.
Honorable mention: Tarik Black's two catches went for 80+ yards; DPJ nearly broke two different punt returns; Winovich, Hurst, and Gary were all between good and dominant, also the entire rest of the defense.
3: Devin Bush (#1, Florida) 2: Ty Isaac (#2, Florida) 1: Quinn Nordin (#3, Florida)
Who's Got It Better Than Us Of The Week
Embedded above: Chase Winovich seals the game in the most appropriate fashion possible.
Honorable mention: Nordin bangs in 55-yarder; Nordin bangs in a 50-yarder; Tarik Black is wide open for a deep touchdown; Nick Eubanks is a very fast quasi-TE; Ambry Thomas rips the ball out on a kick return; various and sundry assaults on Florida QB sanity.
MARCUS HALL EPIC DOUBLE BIRD OF THE WEEK.
Pick six #2. This was the moment during the game when a loss felt most plausible, because every subsequent Michigan drive was destined to end in a pick six. Feels bad man!
Honorable mention: Pick six #1; punt block after pick six #2; Speight checks Michigan into the perfect play and he misses an easy TD; a couple of completions where Hill was in good position but couldn't get his head around and react.
[After THE JUMP: a play from the 2012 Nebraska game.]
3/23/2017 – Michigan 68, Oregon 69 – 26-12, season over
There are few things more haunting in sports than coming up on the short end of a bonafide one-point basketball game. There are so many points and so many opportunities to get two more or prevent two more that it is impossible not to inventory all the slight tweaks in the universe that could have gotten you one step closer to the promised land, or at least destruction at the hands of Kansas.
The wide open DJ Wilson layup and two Duncan Robinson threes that were halfway down stand out in this regard. So too does the late Oregon free throw miss that Wilson couldn't box out on. And then there is the blizzard of threes that did not go halfway down, for reasons.
Oregon's approach seemed to be "leave Michigan blitheringly wide open from three and see what happens." Michigan took more threes than twos, and if any of them seemed unreasonable it was only in aggregate. There will be some complaints about Michigan launching early in the shot clock, but the vast majority of Michigan's 31 attempts from behind the arc were preceded by my inner monologue—and sometimes the external one, too—yelling "shoot that." A couple of ugly ones should have been rhythm catch and shoot opportunities that Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Mo Wagner, collectively 0-8 in this game, passed up on to dribble themselves into worse shots.
This is certainly a way to play against a John Beilein team. Usually it's a way to get your face melted off. The shattered corpse of Oklahoma State basketball would like a word at this point. That word is "aaaargh."
Michigan hit a respectable 11 of 31—36 percent. This was not enough. It was not enough even though they won the style contest on defense. Oregon only got up 10 transition shots, which they did poorly on. A third of their shots were the two point jumpers Michigan strives to force and Oregon is very bad at. They hit 25%.
If you'd told me all the peripheral numbers from this game beforehand I'd have taken it in a hot second. I would not have believed you if you'd told me that despite those numbers Michigan's offense would look like a hamster searching for a wheel for big chunks of the game.
Dana Altman's combination of the half-ass press a bunch of teams run now that the shot clock is down to 30 and 40% matchup zone got Michigan off balance. A plan to punish the incessant switching by replicating the second half against Louisville ended up with some poor Wagner shots and turnovers; Wagner spent the last ten minutes on the bench in favor of Duncan Robinson, who seemingly couldn't guard anyone on the floor.
The game was just... off. With virtually every ticket in the sweaty palms of Kansas fans the arena was near-empty at tipoff and dead throughout. That gave a tense, taught game an unfortunate NBA D-League or NCAA hockey regional vibe, and while I don't think that caused the ugly game it certainly reinforced it. It was weirdly muted for one of the most important games of the college basketball season.
It was ugly to the point where a final score close to 70 for both teams is unexpected. Michigan perpetually felt eight points behind and suddenly they were in the lead with two minutes left, sort of like the Oklahoma State and Louisville games. And then.
In the aftermath you're left grasping at opportunities spurned, at whatever air eddies pushed this ball a micron away from a good-enough trajectory, at this breakdown or that breakdown that would go almost entirely unremarked upon if not for the fact that Oregon had N and Michigan had N –1.
An inch; a point; it's been a year of almosts for Michigan athletics.
Rather satisfying all the same. Losing a one-point Sweet Sixteen game is no shame. It's a hard thing to do, winning basketball games against good teams. Michigan picked up a banner, got a measure of Louisville revenge, and was amongst the best teams in the country for a full half season. Over the full span they finished 20th on Kenpom.
This wasn't a return to the Burke/Stauskas years but it was a solid top 25 season.
The Walton; the Irvin. I pulled the "Zak Irvin is happening" tag out of mothballs for this game because he was happening, man. His late surge as he re-found his excellent-third-banana level was such that everybody had to stop complaining about him. This is a monumental internet accomplishment. He held Michigan in this game, hit tough late-clock shots, and was clearly on another level from Duncan Robinson as he checked Oregon's perimeter guys.
Building on that? Obviously much hinges on the return of Wilson and Wagner. I'd guess with their tough final games and the super deep draft—DX has Caleb Swanigan 30th!—both will return for another year of that sweet Beilein development. Both guys are potential lottery picks if they continue to improve at a decent clip. Right now there are sufficient questions that they'd be borderline first rounders.
If Michigan does not have any unexpected departures you're looking at something like:
Xavier Simpson/Eli Brooks
Charles Matthews/Duncan Robinson
DJ Wilson/Isaiah Livers
Mo Wagner/Jon Teske/Austin Davis
Michigan does have an open scholarship they could use on either Mo Bamba—uh not likely—or one of the late risers they've done so well with; there are also a number of intriguing transfer options. Since Brooks and Poole may not be impact freshmen, an immediately eligible backcourt scorer would be real nice. You've probably heard about faintly ludicrous Chippewa Marcus Keene and his 37% usage. Keene shot 82/51/37 on incredible volume and had an excellent assist rate on a bad MAC team that was nonetheless 56th in offensive efficiency.
There's also New Mexico guard Elijah Brown, another 30%+ usage player with decent efficiency. His three point shooting fell off this year but he was near 40% a year ago (on 226 attempts); he gets to the line and his excellent FT shooting implies that his rough two point percentages are more about his situation than his talent.
Or Michigan could go the Matthews route again and attempt to acquire the services of blue-blood transfer Chase Jeter, who's leaving Duke after two injury-plagued years. Jeter is a 6'10" post and would have to sit out, so he's not an ideal fit for the roster. I'd still poke around there because the rate of big washout is so high. You can't count on both Teske and Davis being around in two years. See: all of college basketball.
Tourney coverage complaint. There are way too many fouls that don't get replays to check on them. DJ Wilson's second was a potentially dubious call on which a second look would have been very helpful; instead nothing.
Also in complaints: I have no idea how anyone can listen to Reggie Miller and think "I should pay this person to do this thing."
Michigan's NCAA tournament weekend was a lot like what I imagine it's like to enter Earth orbit.
You are strapped to a rocket. In the English language, "rocket" is shorthand for "tube that barely contains fuel." When lit, that fuel explodes; the rocket shunts the exploding bits out its rear to create the kind of incredible, bowel-threatening acceleration that allows one to escape the surly bonds of earth.
I'll be damned if there's a better metaphor for playing Jawun Evans and Oklahoma State. To watch this Oklahoma State team is to be continually surprised that Evans does not literally have flames coming out of his ass, propelling him inevitably towards death or glory at the rim.
At first, there was a lot of noise but not much action. This is also in keeping with rockets, which have various moments early in the enterprise when it is unclear whether the thing will go up or tip over, explosively.
After ten minutes when the game threatened to teeter over into a dud, the acceleration took, and did not stop until all observers were weak kneed and gripped with pallor, as if the blood had been forced from their heads.
Rockets do not have men in grimy outfits and train engineer hats frantically heaping fuel into a furnace to keep the thing from sputtering out and allowing gravity to reclaim what is rightfully hers. Our metaphorical rocket does. The men in hats are flinging three pointers, desperately attempting to stay ahead of gravity's brutal math. Evans and company are providing a constant drag of 1.58 points a possession. Walton and Irvin and Robinson must pump at least that much into the ever-hungry, blazing heart of the engine.
Amazingly, they do so. At first it seems easy. Walton drifts to one corner and then the other to work screens and grab passes for wide open looks. Robinson comes off a screen and rises up from a comfortable spot. A couple of transition opportunities find guys open in the corners. Things are going well—very well—but so far you can chalk it up to a bunch of open looks and good fortune against the nation's #133 defense.
Two things happen nearly back-to-back that take it into the realm of the spooky. Zak Irvin comes off a screen, takes a dribble, and fires an objectively bad shot, a heavily contested jack that draws the NO NO NO YES reaction not just from all Michigan fans but also the announcers. Almost immediately after this, Walton passes to Robinson, who's two or three feet from the line and getting more than a token contest. Walton yells at Robinson to shoot. He probably shouldn't shoot. Robinson shoots. It goes down, because of course it does. A bit later, Walton ignores DJ Wilson posting up a 5'11" guy to take this:
This goes down. Because of course it does.
As all this is happening, Evans is taking his rocket ass into the lane to claw two points back, like gravity does. Gravity draws you back at a constant 9.8 m/s^2, and you either beat it or you don't. Michigan beat it, in the way movies portray the first stage of rocket liftoff. There is a tremendous amount of noise. The camera shakes impressively. One of the cast members says "ohhhhhhhhh shiiiiiiiiiiiiit." There is a moment of unbearable tension as the G forces ramp up to the maximum humans can tolerate.
Then everything stops. There's a clunk as the first stage departs. You have won! You are alive. You are very high in the air on a fatal trajectory.
You've dropped your first-stage booster and watched it burn up in the atmosphere. (Underwood's stunning, immediate departure for Illinois will do nicely in our analogy.) Now you are up up up very far and have entered the realm of orbital mechanics. I've read just enough science fiction to not understand orbital mechanics at all.
The gist seems to be that certain things are all but impossible despite seeming easy, while other things are damn near free because of... reasons. The image above is something called the "interplanetary transport network," which allows you to visit any point of interest in the solar system—eventually, very eventually—by hopscotching through Lagrange points where all the competing gravities of the system average out to zero. This is virtually free in terms of energy.
These are tiny pinholes in a vast expanse of quicksand. Reaction mass is limited and space is very big.
Louisville basketball has four centers and plays two of them at a time, and if you want to get a shot up it's time to hunt for Lagrange points.
Mo Wagner changed the way most teams defend Michigan with his white-hot first half against Purdue. After halftime the desperate Boilermakers decided they were going to switch every screen no matter what kind of ludicrous matchups resulted. Michigan was initially confused, and then Wagner was forced to the bench with foul trouble for nine minutes of the second half. By the time he returned there were only a few possessions before Michigan's Lloydball clock-drain offense made the switching moot. Painter's move exited the game more or less untested.
That did not prevent it from quickly being replicated, to middling-at-best effect. The constant switching did dull the effectiveness of Michigan's pick and roll. It dared Michigan to post up, which they simply do not do. It's pretty easy to holler about exploiting a post mismatch when you are a fan looking at a 5'11" guy on DJ Wilson. It's evidently much tougher when you are part of a Beilein basketball organism that forcibly expelled post-ups from its DNA back when it was using flagella to florp around in its Canisius days.
So the switching mostly resulted in a lot of isolation with Walton or whoever against a big. It took Michigan's silky, flowing offense and battered it down to the heroball stuff you see at Kansas or Kentucky, except without the infinite alley oops. Since Walton stepback threes are Very Good Offense, somehow, the switching didn't really slow Michigan down much. All it did was cause me to goggle at Michigan bigs guarded by oompa-loompas and be like all "AARGH THROW IT TO THAT GUY."
There was that particularly brutal possession pictured above on which DJ Wilson was trying to post up a 5'11" dude and Walton decided to jack up a 35-foot three pointer. This went in because of course it did; whether or not Michigan could do anything with this tactic in the event that Walton jacks stopped being Very Good Offense remained an open question. No longer.
In the aftermath of Sunday it is possible to interpret Michigan's somewhat frustrating inability to take advantage of said oompa-loompas as a devastating long con. Louisville entered the game with a plan: no threes. They would switch everything to remove the rotation, because Michigan will get you eventually if you rotate. They would refuse to help in the post, because that results in rotation. They would make Michigan execute a thing they simply do not do. In an advantageous situation, sure. But they wanted to make the fish ride the bicycle.
The fish rode the bicycle.
It popped wheelies.
Louisville's tactic backfired spectacularly in the second half. The tiny windows their giant posts leave drivers became caverns as 6'7" Adel Deng was repeatedly tasked with checking a guy much taller and more skilled than him. The posts stuck to their shooters, and Michigan lived and died by the two for a change.
Pitino did not relent. If he was going to lose this game it was two points at a time. Thus Michigan calmly and gradually reeled Louisville back in after the disastrous last minute of the first half. Screen and screen until you get your matchup, dump it down, score. Repeat. Regular, controlled thrust, easing Michigan through.
"It was some scheme things," Beilein said of his halftime talk, "but it was more: 'Alright, hit singles. Do not come out of here trying to win in the first four minutes. Let's just win the first four minutes. Let's just win the first four minutes. Win it by two points. Win every segment and you'll win the game.'"
Too bad that doesn't fit on a whiteboard.
So here we are. Orbit. It's nice. Very pretty. Can see Phoenix from here. Or Glendale. Whatever. Just two more harrowing white-knuckle terrordomes to go.
The most explosive team in the country is in the rear view. So too is a nation of angry ents. Confidence is through the roof, relative to your average white-knuckle terrordome experience. Let's go.
Amongst teams still in the tournament they're #3 behind Gonzaga and Florida. You'll note they're a nose ahead of Kansas.
First-round victim Oklahoma State shows up at #12. (They have a lot of losses, yes. In this time period they were all against tourney teams: two against Kansas, two against ISU, one to Baylor, one to KSU, one to Michigan. Most of those were 3-5 point games.) When I tweeted this out after the game I meant it:
Michigan just won a Sweet 16 game in the first round.
That felt like a #2 going up against a #3. This is not a seeding complaint, or at least it's not much of one. Oklahoma State, like Michigan, was a team that got a ton better about halfway through January and was 1) more or less fairly seeded while 2) being a terrible draw for whoever got them. Michigan did, and barely survived despite scorching the nets.
Finally, the road doesn't get any easier in the Sweet 16 as Michigan draws #10 Oregon. That hurdle is significantly lower with Duck post Chris Boucher out for the season. Oregon's given up significantly more than 1 PPP in the three games since Boucher's injury, against offenses ranging from "somewhat worse" to a "a lot worse" than Michigan.
DJ Wilson, sometimes center, is a thing. Wagner finished the Okie State game on the bench just like he finished the B10 championship game, and this was fine because DJ Wilson was functional at center. The opposition didn't have the ability to blow him away with guys who are both very burly and very athletic. Ethan Happ is burly but not that athletic and Wilson's length bothered him. Mitchell Solomon is pretty much the same minus the post-up skills.
Michigan's ability to go small against a light-speed team and then run Wagner and Wilson at the same time against Louisville provided them the flexibility to get past two crazy outlier teams with just one day of prep. That's a major asset.
Expect more of that going forward: Oregon is minus a 6'10" center they played 20 minutes a game and is now a small-ball outfit that runs out one player taller than 6'7" at a time*. Kansas is along the same lines, with wing Josh Jackson playing the 4 for them most of the time. DJ can play center against both, and likely will.
*[To be specific, 6'9" Jordan Bell is their 5 and they'll give 6'11" Kavell Bigby-Williams 10-15 minutes a game spelling him. Dillon Brooks is the only other Oregon player seeing meaningful minutes who's taller than 6'4".]
Donnal survived against Louisville. Credit to the most maligned current Wolverine: Mark Donnal hit a three and blocked a shot in nine minutes, which went a good way towards offsetting the facemashing he's naturally going to receive when he finds himself trying to check UL's infinite conveyor belt of giant dudes.
I wasn't even irritated at Donnal's foul, which was an enthusiastic boxout of lanky 7-footer Anas Mahmoud. He got whistled for a foul that seemed impossible, because I've spent all season watching Michigan bigs take the same contact and get blasted off their spot. Donnal flipped the script and got a foul for his troubles. Better that than weak post D.
Walton didn't score much against Louisville, but... naturally he led the team in rebounds with seven and had six assists to zero turnovers. Also he was instrumental in harassing Quinn Snider into an 0/9 shooting performance. Also:
Michigan committed 10 turnovers, total, in its first 2 NCAA Tournament games. Derrick Walton Jr has 17 assists & 3 turnovers in 75 minutes.
Shot parity: close enough! Against UL Michigan lost the offensive rebound battle by six; they won turnovers by five. That'll do when you're the most efficient shooting team around. Against Oklahoma State it was dodgier, with Michigan –10 in OREBs while only ending up +6 in turnovers. Still, if you told me Michigan was going into a game with a top ten OREB offense and came out only –4 in shot margin I'd take that.
There is an alternate universe of Wagner foul bitchin'. One man's comically inept refereeing is another man's comically inept refereeing multiplied by –1, and I have to relate to you, dear reader, that it is the opinion of many Louisville fans that Mo Wagner commits offensive fouls every time he touches the ball.
This is not the most convincing ref incompetence highlight reel I've seen.
I imagine this stems from one of the first times Michigan went after the Deng Adel-Wagner mismatch in the first half. Adel flopped at the same time Wagner appeared to go for the ol' chicken wing on his path to the basket. The refs did not bite on the flop and the wing met air; Wagner went for an easy bucket. After that everything Wagner did seemed to set off cascades of complaints on UL game threads.
Big Ten seeding complaints on point. After the bracket came out there was consternation about the ordering of various Big Ten teams, and it was proven correct. 5 seed Minnesota was a Vegas dog against 12 MTSU and duly lost. Maryland was hammered by 11 seed Xavier. Meanwhile Wisconsin beat Villanova and Michigan beat Louisville to reach the Sweet 16.
The sample sizes are necessarily tiny here, but since there was plenty of evidence before the games were even played they serve to reinforce the fact that the tourney was badly mis-seeded.
Also worth noting that MSU was the only 8-9 not to give its opponent a competitive game. Wisconsin won, Northwestern battled valiantly before losing by 6 thanks in part to that missed goaltend, Arkansas led in the last four minutes. Hell, you can rope in the two seeds here as well: Michigan and South Carolina won while St Mary's and Wichita State battled valiantly to the final whistle. Only Michigan State was blown out, as you would expect them to be.
Wooooof. There was a plague of refereeing blunders this weekend that should but almost certainly won't be the cause for some soul-searching at the NCAA. The most egregious miss—Northwestern's comeback-stalling missed goaltend—saw the NCAA's head of officials show up on one of the studio shows to lamely defend the refs working the game because he, a 70-year-old man watching on TV, didn't catch it. I expect slightly more from a man literally standing under the basket.
Anyway, there were some doozies in Michigan's game, none worse than the two calls late in the first half against Louisville. The first was a phantom call on Walton that turned a turnover into two free throws for UL; the second was the Wagner open-court steal that again turned into two free throws. With Michigan likely to get a fast-break bucket if the second call isn't made that was a six-point swing just after Michigan had finally managed to claw its way back into a tie.
At that moment I could only think of the Trey Burke block and a couple other calls in the title game that prevented that one from truly going down to the wire, as it deserved to, and I resolved to never watch basketball again. I resolve this several times a season, and sometimes multiple times in one game.
Arizona's Lauri Markannen blasting a St Mary's player out of bounds, for which the St Mary's player got call
The Plessy v Ferguson flagrant in Seton Hall vs Arkansas
A horrendous charge call EC Mathews picked up in Oregon-Rhode Island.
Every single one of these made a tight game less tight, and every one of them favored the higher seed. (Seton Hall-Arkansas was an 8-9; the rest were serious upset bits.) A lot of the drama of March Madness was sapped by referee errors.
John Beilein’s defining characteristics (at least publicly) are being incredibly nice/genuine and being a bit, how do you say, hokey. In 2013, he celebrated going to the Sweet 16 with crazy subs, and this year has taken to ambushing players with water guns after big wins. It’s notable when he freaks out on the sidelines about the officiating because (a) it almost always means he’s getting a technical, and (b) he’s almost always right, and has held his tongue for untold transgressions up to that point. Maverick Morgan called Michigan “white collar” this year as a pejorative about their toughness, and more than a few fans felt the Wolverines reflected Beilein’s temperament. Both Louisville and Okie St. outrebounded Michigan this weekend, and a common refrain was that the team didn’t play tough enough on the glass.
But behind that gentile veneer is the heart of a killer. Okay, maybe not “killer”, but as Ace noted, quite evil. He knows what his offense can do to other teams. Matt Painter was exasperated trying to explain the difficulties defending Michigan, the harsh realization that your center has to defend a guy who shoots over 40% from three and can also shake-and-bake you behind his back on the way to the hoop. That even when the outside shot isn’t falling, Beilein will tax your team the entire time they are in the half-court offense, probing for breakdowns. And when they are firing from outside at a good clip, ooohhh. Oklahoma State scored 91 points and didn’t hold a lead after the 10-minute mark of the second half because Michigan shot 11-15 from 3 in the second half, a performance so scarring that OSU’s head coachg Brad Underwood left the Cowboys…for Illinois. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
D.J. Wilson, another of the day's stars, sank four free throws in the final 17 seconds.
That pragmatism? It was on full display. Wilson, a sophomore, made each free throw like he was in the driveway. Asked about the pressure of the moment later, Wilson sat stone-faced and said: "I don't feel any really."
3/09/2017 – Michigan 75, Illinois 55 – 21-11, 10-8 Big Ten 3/10/2017 – Michigan 74, Purdue 70 (OT) – 22-11, 10-8 Big Ten 3/11/2017 – Michigan 84, Minnesota 77 – 23-11, 10-8 Big Ten 3/12/2017 – Michigan 71, Wisconsin 56 – 24-11, 10-8 Big Ten, BTT Champs
Over the course of thousands of years of human history since the invention of writing, many people have written—or chiseled or typed or uh is there a calligraphy verb—unwise things. Incorrect things. Silly, stupid, terribly wrong things. Some of these were supported by the best available evidence available at the time. Some of these had rather a lot of backing.
Nonetheless, diseases are not cured by bleeding out-of-balance humours from the body. No matter what NBA players may tell you, the earth is not flat. And virtually everything written about the Michigan basketball team during the first five weeks of 2017 should be taken to the largest conveniently-located landfill or event horizon and disposed of, never to be revisited. For example, take this festering twit from the depths of the internet reacting to Michigan's trip to East Lansing:
gonna be hard for Irvin to erase this from the top line of his Michigan legacy
That was either in late January (by ordinal time) or the Cretaceous (by subjective time). There was rather a lot of data backing that up, as Michigan trundled towards the NIT with a defense that at one point had sunk as low as #184 in the country on Kenpom.
Even by then, though, things were fitting into place. That was their fourth straight game of decent to good defense, and Irvin quietly spearheaded it. Future lottery pick Miles Bridges scuffled to 15 points on 17 shots and chipped in couple of turnovers en route to a 94 ORTG. In the return game things would only get worse for him, with 5 turnovers sinking his game ORTG even lower.
Michigan is fighting in the post and closing out like crazy and every single guy on the team has bought in. Only Irvin had to do that while simultaneously coming to grips with his role on the team, and how it wasn't what he wanted it to be. Walton's gotten the headlines and the hosannahs, but in a way it's much harder to fade into the background gracefully than become the lip-curled alpha dog. In that hamblasting of Michigan State at Crisler he had three points on 8% usage. Zak Irvin's learned something about humility this year. Hopefully so have festering twits from the internet*.
Also emblems: Derrick Walton, about whom the Trey Burke whispers are getting louder. Duncan Robinson, the world's unlikeliest candidate for defensive stopper and also a gentleman who would have gotten Michigan to overtime against Northwestern if not for Julia Louis-Drefyus's heavenly intervention. DJ Wilson, who can apparently play center now and guard 1-5 and go bucket for bucket with Purdue bigs. Mo Wagner, who firebombed Isaac Haas off the floor and has developed a stick-and-move hedge game that turns late clock in to very late clock. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who nobody even notices anymore because he's just as efficient as everyone else. Maverick Morgan, whose sick burn made Walton so angry he turned into the Hulk.
That's everyone with a usage above "limited roles" and a guy who plays for Illinois.
The improvement is comprehensive and near-unprecedented, and it stretches back half the season now. This isn't a fluke. It hasn't been inconsistent. Michigan has won a bunch of blowouts during that stretch and aside from that inexplicable OSU game all their losses were on narrow, on the road, against tournament teams. They had a plane crash; they arrived at the Big Ten tournament barely over an hour before their scheduled start time; Illinois was more shell-shocked than Michigan was, trailing by 11 by the first break.
I can't explain it. I feel like Robert Hooke looking through a microscope and finding out life was impossibly smaller and bigger than it seemed, simultaneously. I feel like I've just watched a month long Rocky training montage that has turned this Poindexter of a team into... well, still that but a murder hobo version of it. We were given many pieces of evidence and this team has improbably, wonderfully overturned them all.
Mind the gap. Three point launch margin over the course of the tourney: +10, +6, +10, +8. An increasingly tired Michigan outfit wasn't as efficient on theirs as they usually are, and it's no surprise to find out that a Beilein team takes a lot of threes.
But the three avoidance is real, and it's spectacular: Wisconsin's first shot in the championship game was a late-clock long two forced by an aggressive MAAR closeout. This is a beautiful place to force an off the dribble shot from:
Once again, barely more than a quarter of an opponent's FGAs were from behind the arc. Michigan moved up a spot in 3PA prevention after the BTT. They're still 308th in 3PA% allowed.
In Soviet Smiths Album, DJ hangs you. In the championship game Mark Donnal was limited to a few brief cameos and avoided a trillion only because he picked up a personal foul; Mo Wagner also played just 24 minutes. Michigan papered over the gap with DJ Wilson at the 5, and this worked brilliantly.
He was able to effectively front Happ most of the time and use his length to bother him when he did get a catch; Happ ended up shooting 6 of 16 from the floor with 3 TOs. With Irvin capable of checking the perimeter-oriented Hayes and Wagner having a rough day on offense, Michigan simply chose to ride with their small lineup in crunch time.
Short turnover Beilein time. So Michigan's two-point shooting was scorching over the course of the four days: 68%, 54%. 68%, 68%. All the more impressive since there were periods in the second half of all four games where Michigan looked too exhausted to run their offense and settled for some heroball.
Minnesota in particular was diced into a fine mist by the Michigan offense. Discombobulated by the lack of Reggie Lynch on the interior—the nation's leading shotblocker had zero as he tried to check Wagner on the perimter—the Gophers fell prey to a half-dozen back cuts in the first ten minutes and fell behind so badly that Michigan's dead-legs period in the second half only got them back to a tie, and from there Walton took over.
That's Michigan's offense going to work when the three point shooting was iffy.
One note of praise for referees. The championship game was downright perfect. I was a little irritated from time to time when Michigan didn't get a particular call but since they were letting various minor bumps go on both ends I soon settled down into a mode where—get this—I was not surprised when fouls happened or what direction they went.
The golden age of offense. Big Ten players who played at least 40% of the time and had a usage rate of at least 16%, ranked by ORTG:
Duncan Robinson, 126
Derrick Walton, 125
James Blackmon, IU, 123
DJ Wilson, 123
Juwan Morgan, IU, 122
Vincent Edwards, PU, 119
Mo Wagner, 118
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, 116
Bronson Koenig, UW, 116
Trevor Thompson, OSU, 115
Only Zak Irvin(103) has the requisite minutes to qualify and is not on this list. This the second-best offense Beilein's ever had at Michigan, slotting in a hair behind the Stauskas/Levert-led Elite 8 team.
A bit on the draw. More on Michigan's first and (potential) second round opponents later in the week. At first blush this is a rough one. Oklahoma State is the #1 offense in the country and a team that, like Michigan, had a mid-season turnaround that has seen them thump a lot of teams and lose narrowly when they do in fact lose. If I had to pick one stat I do not want to see an opponent bring to a matchup with Michigan it's a bucket of OREBs, and Okie State is 6th nationally in that department.
On the other hand, their defense is miserable, like Michigan-before-Maverick miserable, and the only thing they're actually good at in that department is forcing turnovers. This could be a game where Duncan Robinson is 7/11 from 3, that sort of thing.
It should be good for neutrals. Thrill quotient type calculations that prioritize high scoring, close games have Michigan-Okie State as the best game of the first round.
A hypothetical second round matchup against (almost certainly Louisville) is not ideal, but at least the pod also features Kentucky so the crowd in Indy is likely to be relatively split. This version of UL has the usual jumping jacks in the middle that give them a ton of OREBs and swat/alter a ton of shots. Their shooting is only middling; they hang their hat on D and on the glass.
Seeding complaints are real. Maybe not for Michigan, but you know you screwed up as a committee when you've done this:
10-seed Wichita St. opened as a 6.5-point favorite over 7-seed Dayton. On what planet is that fair to the Flyers as a reward for a good yr?
That line is the best available guess from people with many dollars riding on accurate projections and just about matches Kenpom's 7-point projected margin. That corresponds to a 75% shot at a Wichita win. Congrats, Dayton. Here's a 25% shot at a first round game as a 7 seed.
I don't think Wichita should have been given a two like a world that seeds exclusively by Kenpom would, but does anyone blink if the Shockers are a 6? No. The team testing out the theory that Wichita State is actually good despite a loss to 3-9 19-14 Michigan State would be one of the last at-larges in the field and thus just happy to be here.
Don't even get me started on the Big Ten. The committee talked a big game about finally modernizing their approach, and that was all balderdash.
Once again, everybody who thought the Selection Committee had gotten off their RPI addiction looks like a fool.
When the committee chair is Mark Hollis I don't know why anyone expected better except for blind optimism.
Well, poop. They've been found. Chad Ford didn't have anyone from Michigan on his draft radar this season, but that's changed. He's got a list of the top guys to watch in the NCAA tournament; Wilson and Wagner check in towards the tail end of the list:
Wilson is an athletic forward who can both stretch the floor and protect the rim. He has a rare combination of explosiveness and skill. His inconsistency and soft play (despite his size he doesn't really like contact in the paint) concern NBA scouts.
He's on the first-round bubble, but a big NCAA tournament could change things for him. He was outstanding in the Big 10 tourney for Michigan with 26 points, eight boards and three blocks against Purdue and 17 points, six boards, three assists and two steals against Wisconsin to lead Michigan to the title.
Wagner might be the biggest sleeper on this list. The native of Germany brings many of the things that Lauri Markkanen brings to the table and is just six months older, such as size, agility, a terrific 3-point stroke and a high basketball IQ.
Like Markkannen, he isn't a great rebounder or shot blocker, but you don't find many players with his size and skill set in the draft.
He's still got both in the 30-50 range—ie, the second round—and FWIW, I've heard that both are planning to return next year. I wouldn't count on year four from either.
2/25/2017 – Michigan 82, Purdue 70 – 19-10, 9-7 Big Ten
GERMAN DURANT [Bryan Fuller]
For months I'd chalked the Purdue game up as a loss. Michigan has certain deficiencies, you see, and Purdue has 7'2" Ivan Drago and a guy better at rebounding than 7'2" Ivan Drago. These gentlemen aimed a dagger straight at Michigan's primary weakness. Therefore, pessimism.
That pessimism was well founded. Purdue grabbed 11 offensive rebounds, 36% of those available. Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan had five of those. Swanigan went 7/8 from inside the arc. And it didn't matter. Mo Wagner summoned the spirit of Stauskas and spearheaded a run-away-and-hide first half that was reminiscent of the good ol' days when official Twitter accounts had no recourse from posting shruggies during NCAA tournament games.
Purdue fans must have felt the same creeping helplessness Texas's social media wrangler during Wagner's barrage. Wagner posted up the dead-certain Big Ten POY successfully. He took him off the dribble. Somewhat later he hit three straight triples like he was Kevin freakin' Durant at Rucker Park. On defense he was... acceptable? Swanigan scored a bunch but some of that was very late during Michigan's no-threes period and some of it was when Wagner went out briefly in the first half. Swanigan got his but he also got got by Wagner's Mitch McGary impression, as Ace helpfully clipped:
Wagner knew he couldn't win the strength battle so those little gambles are making the best of a bad situation. Five turnovers drove Swanigan's game ORTG down to 109 despite his hot shooting. That's below his season average, and that's a massive win, one that led to a massive win.
Wagner, meanwhile? 148 ORTG. Like the turnover embedded above, it's a trap(!).
People get the Death Star all wrong. When a real life thing is compared to fiction's most well-trodden trope it's a supreme thing. A thing of tremendous power at the top of the game. That's not right. Whenever a Death Star shows up—and it shows up in every Star Wars movie because it's not called New Idea Wars—it is immediately and spectacularly destroyed by someone throwing a can of soup at it.
I submit that this year's Michigan basketball team is a real Death Star kind of team. Charge 'em up and point 'em in the right direction and they will turn a bucolic, pastoral world into rubble.
MSU—By 29 to Michigan Indiana—By 30 to Michigan Purdue—By 12 to Michigan Marquette—By 18 to Michigan SMU—By 22 to Michigan
Penetrate their flimsy defenses with some chunky clam chowder or, like, whatever Ohio State purports to be this year* and you'll be rewarded with a gradually expanding cloud of pine-scented debris. They put the thermal exhaust ports at backup center and for some unfathomable reason created nine-foot-high neon signs that blink SHOOT HERE. It doesn't have to make sense, because Ewoks.
It is possible that Michigan has turned the blinking signs off. That awful period at the beginning of conference play when every Michigan basketball observer except Ace gave up is now firmly in the rearview mirror. Michigan's defense is... acceptable? Both Dylan and our entire Slack chat took note of a particular play in the second half on which Michigan looked like they knew what they were doing:
Purdue's been very good this year not only because of their big guys but because they've surrounded them with shooters. Almost 40% of their shots are threes and they go down at a 40% clip. Michigan held Purdue to just 16 attempts, barely more than a quarter of their shots. They hit barely more than 30%, because a lot of them were contested jacks like the above.
That's a trend that's taken them off the bottom of the conference in most stats. Michigan actually hasn't given up significantly more than a point per possession since their win against Nebraska in the middle of January. That's an 11 game stretch of 1.01 PPP, which would be good for fifth in the league. Pair okay defense with an offense that is as scorching as any Beilein's had...
Michigan's adjusted offensive efficiency is now 120.3 - the team that made it to the title game a few years ago was 120.2
...and you're looking at the proverbial Team Nobody Wants To Play In The NCAA Tournament. Per this guy on twitter, Michigan was the best team in the Big Ten during February. One that nearly lost to Rutgers, just in case anyone was getting cocky.
One thing is clear: when Michigan takes the court a fireball will soon follow.
*[Ohio State Basketball 2016-17: "We Take A Comparison To A Can Of Soup As A Compliment."]
The cost and the benefit. Credit to John Beilein for rolling with Wagner for the vast bulk of the first half. He got an early foul and the bench time that results; Donnal came in and did what you'd expect against the Purdue front line for a few minutes in which Michigan was –7; Wagner returned and did not exit the rest of the half. This allowed Michigan to race out to a huge halftime lead.
Wagner's quick fouls in the second half were not the Bad Mo Whistle coming back out; they seemed to be sheer tiredness, especially the third, on which he grabbed Swanigan so blatantly that he did the sheepish hand raise thing. Every Michigan beat writer noted the time of his departure (14:58) but Michigan managed to extend their lead during the nine minutes he was out. This was largely because...
DJ Wilson functioned as the five. A few more Donnal minutes that were headed in a very bad direction and then Michigan went with their smallest possible lineup: DJ at the five. This had the same offensive benefits that Wagner did against Purdue's bigs, and Wilson did an admirable job using his tremendous length to deny entry passes to Swanigan. It's a stopgap, but I'm way on board with stopgaps at backup center.
Peak Derrick Walton. In a game featuring Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan, Derrick Walton led all rebounders with 11. He had literally half of Michigan's defensive rebounds. This is kind of a problem but not a huge one—Michigan is 9th in DREBs in the league.
Also in Derrick Walton news, 17 points on 13 shot equivalents, five assists, zero turnovers, and a steal. Find me a better point guard in the Big Ten. Melo Trimble has one thing on him: volume. Nobody else is even in the conversation.
Pretty good refereeing! There was only one thing that was insane.
The above is Wagner getting clocked in midair by Haas without a call. Nothing else stood out at bad either way; even the second half foul-fest looked to be entirely initiated by the players.
Third banana time. Zak Irvin was a perfect third banana as a freshman during the good ol' days. With Walton and Wagner blowing up Irvin's back to being #3, and that's fine. Sometimes he hits some shots and pulls Michigan over the hump—his 16 against Rutgers were desperately needed—and sometimes he throws up bricks and dribbles it off his foot and fades into the background. Michigan can live with Irvin scoring just four, as he did against Purdue, if he's only taking eight shots.
It would be really nice if he could get back to that 40% three point clip he had early in his career.
The late slowdown. With about six minutes left Michigan took the air out of the ball and proceeded to give everyone a near-heart attack. It's obvious when that slowdown took place on the Kenpom probability chart:
Michigan in blue
The Walton heave at the buzzer starts off Michigan's final scoring flurry. There has been a lot of consternation in the aftermath. I'm of two minds. I was freaking out like everyone else, and I hated those four minutes of bleeding the clock and shooting your offense in the foot. It's especially grating because Michigan has one of the nation's slowest and most efficient offenses. If they just act normally they are likely to run a bunch of time off the clock and get a good look.
The Boilermakers scored on 10 of 11 possessions after DJ Wilson hit a three to put Michigan up by 21 points with 8:50 to play. That’s 25 points in 11 possessions or 2.3 points per trip. That’s more than a basket every trip down the floor and Purdue scored just 45 points in the other 54 possessions of the game.
...and Kenpom was almost entirely unmoved.
Whittling it down to six with just over two minutes to go got Michigan down to a 95% win percentage, and Walton's dagger shut the door again. So it was probably the percentage play to shut down the variance.
Still felt like a couple minutes too early.
Bubble watch turns into something else. Michigan's punched their ticket and is now trying to get out of the 8-9 game, but there is significant bubble intrigue left in the league: Northwestern. At the beginning of February the Wildcats were 18-4 and cruising towards a bid. After losing five of seven—oddly one of the two wins in there is at the Trohl Center—they're 20-9, 9-7, and solidly on the bubble. They finish with Michigan and Purdue at home. Both those games are near coinflips to Kenpom.
It would have been disappointing if Northwestern's first NCAA bid was a cruise to a six-seed. This feels much better. The downside is that Michigan's going into Welsh Ryan against some desperate dudes.
2/19/2017 – Michigan 78, Minnesota 83 (OT) – 17-10, 7-7 Big Ten
I was pretty mad last night for obvious reasons, and it occurred to me that I hadn't been actually mad at a Michigan sporting thing since football ceased. Hockey's fallen into the abyss to the point where the poor damn SID for that sport is issuing game recaps like this:
Michigan's Comeback Bid Falls Short at Wisconsin
MADISON, Wis. -- The University of Michigan ice hockey team fell, 5-2, to Wisconsin on Friday night (Feb. 17) in a Big Ten Conference matchup at the Kohl Center.
Juuuust a little short. Now that their record has caught up with their play (they're 1-7-2 in their last ten games, including an 0-2-2 record against Michigan State, the worst power conference team in RPI) it's been hard to even pay attention. Even when I am at a game I come away from it with few opinions other than "they are bad but Lockwood is good." It happens in front of you and then it is gone. Hockey isn't even interestingly bad.
Michigan's big three sports have endured seasons like this before, of course, but football's so short and their 3-9 was such an anomaly that it still held some interest, as a historical artifact if nothing else. I did get used to ignoring various basketball teams because they started walk-ons at point guard and their game strategy was to hold the ball for 30 seconds and then get the one half-decent player on the team to heave up a heavily contested jumper.
Ignoring hockey (hockey!) is weird to me, but here we are. We sold our tickets to the most recent Michigan State game because 75 bucks sounded better than a punch in the gut, and when I tried to turn the game on only to find it was not televised, I was relieved. So that's where we are in 2016 with hockey: I can legitimately be surprised when a game is not televised, and I can be fine with missing the saddest has-been rivalry in sports.
In that light, getting mad on twitter about TV Ted Valentine is actually kind of nice. Don't get me wrong: I'd rather watch a college basketball game not run by people so deranged they might end up on CNN attacking the independent judiciary. I'd rather watch a college basketball game in which Michigan does not set a Beilein-era record for free throws allowed (41!). I'd rather have guys who don't give Michigan a tech from halfway across the court for no apparent reason. I nonetheless choose fist-clenching impotent fury over the listless apathy hockey's induced.
And that is a little something after Michigan's early conference swoon looked fatal. This chart is the change in teams' efficiency margins since conference play started; Michigan is the line that flirts with becoming Indiana 2.0—remember when they beat Kansas and UNC?—before reversing:
Here's the change in B1G teams' efficiency margins since the opening of conference play. Maryland is on fire. pic.twitter.com/Las2y7cgtB
Now I have a reason to silently hope people I've never met get a mildly debilitating disease that renders them unable to referee basketball games without having much impact on the rest of their lives and suddenly realize that this has already happened. Possibly twice.
So I've got that going for me. A silver lining.
Eh, I'm kind of fine with Wagner fouling out like that. Michigan's down one with about a minute left and Wagner tries his Mitch McGary poke. It works, but in the process of it working Wagner hits the guy in the face and fouls out. Shon Morris immediately starts bemoaning how dumb that was.
I don't know about that. Michigan only got to overtime because Wagner was successful at prying the ball loose at half court and getting a quick two points. Repeating that in overtime down one swings your victory percentage way up—at least 30-40 percent, I'd guess. It's a risk but it might be a good one.
This style matchup. Watching Michigan play Minnesota is always an interesting contrast in styles. Beilein recruits a ton of skilled shooters and has them run an intricate offense; Pitino recruits guys chiseled out of marble who have never seen a basketball and has them run wildly at the basket in case that works out.
I greatly prefer Beilein's approach for a number of reasons, with one exception: gol dang it would be nice to have a Reggie Lynch at center. Lynch was not highly recruited and in fact played his first two years at Illinois State; he was #1 in block rate both of his two years there and is #1 this year. My kingdom for a guy who can affect shots. Maybe Jon Teske will figure out which bits are his knees and which are his elbows next year.
In all other ways, Minnesota basketball looks painful.
Free throws. In addition to the ref rogering, Michigan went through a stretch last night where Derrick Walton and Duncan Robinson went 1-5 from the free throw line. Robinson is 81% and Walton 88%. There's a divide here between the kind of person who goes all MAKE YOUR FREE THROWS as if this was a moral failing deserving of a loss and persons like myself who look at an event like that as an improbable statistical event that is worth no more than a shrug and a shake of the fist at Gamblor.
Minnesota's troubles evaporated in the second half; by the end of the game they were right on their 68% season average. Michigan was at 50%, which I don't have to tell you is not what they average. That is one of the reasons they lost.
Here are Michigan's shot margins since December started: –10, –19, –9, –16, –16, –20, –35, –19. The good news, such as it is, is that Michigan managed to win two of those games. One was against Michigan State in overtime. The other was a 2-1 win against Wisconsin before two ENGs. Michigan got outshot 35-19. This is not just bad. This is astoundingly bad.
If you prefer a grizzled hockey veteran offering up the eye test, color guys at both games this weekend were clearly upset—even depressed—about what was going on in front of their eyes. On the Minnesota-centric Fox Sports North broadcast, Ben Clymer said that "this just wasn't the same Michigan team" they're used to seeing. He was probably feeling the same way I was, having just seen the season's most exciting series—Michigan-Minnesota on the big ice—reduced to a methodical execution. I've felt that way about Michigan State, of late. It is not the same when Ryan Miller is a faint memory and the present day is all pratfalls.
I didn't catch who the BTN guy was on Friday, but I think it might have been alum Sean Ritchlin. If so his extended lament about Michigan's complete lack of a defensive system bites even deeper. No matter who it was, you don't often see that kind of pointed criticism from announcers. Usually they default to talking about how young a team is, which, yep, happened a bunch on Friday.
This is the wrong age-related malady to cite. It's inescapable now: Red Berenson's in the twilight of his career and has hung on too long.
The slide has been gradual but it's also been a long time coming. The last Michigan team that felt truly elite was the 2007-08 squad that made the Frozen Four and was downed by Nickelback and Creed in the semis. The 2010-11 team that made the national title game was driven by Sean Hunwick's absurd save percentage. The semi against North Dakota saw Michigan outshot 2 to 1; it felt worse than that. It felt like being hunted.
Hunwick barely got them to the tournament the next year and they broke the streak the year after; in the five-years post Hunwick their conference record is 44-41-8. Last year's incredible pile of talent got them to the second round of the tourney, where they were once again outshot 2 to 1 by North Dakota. Michigan hasn't played an even game against the artists formerly known as Sioux in over a decade. Now they can't play an even game against anybody.
It's never been this bad; the arrow has been pointing this direction for a long time.
Now what? I don't know. I hope there are some tough conversations that take place and there's a new coach next year. I worry that won't happen because the narrative around the program often doesn't make any sense.
If you've paid close attention over the past few years you've seen Berenson throw Andrew Copp under the bus after his NHL departure. (Copp played 77 games his rookie year.) You've heard the rumor that Red stayed on another year because Warde Manuel asked him to. Even if this is true, Berenson could have said three words—"hire Mel, bye"—and resolved this impasse.
You'd think this would be the end of the road, but since the end of the road should have come a few years ago and did not there is a chance this will continue. You see it when a coach becomes synonymous with a program and nobody can tell him it's over. Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden are the prime exemplars. Those regimes had upward blips that were just enough ammunition to say "he's still got it" amidst a steady long-term decline, and ending them was either a nasty fight (Bowden) or only triggered by something unthinkable (Paterno).
I think the hockey program is unlikely to dig out without a new coach; I think a nasty fight might be necessary despite Mel Pearson hanging around; I don't know if Manuel has the stomach for a nasty fight, especially at a program that doesn't drive the revenue bus. At some point a football coach has to go because of the financial imperatives. That is not the case in hockey.
Maybe this is just a one year thing, as they say it is, and a new era can start next year. But I've been hearing that a change is imminent for seven years now. I'm worried it won't happen, and that's the thing that sucks most of all: Red Berenson, the guy who created Michigan hockey out of whole cloth, might keep damaging his legacy by returning. Time makes beggars of us all.