A referee makes an arbitrary approximation of the spot of the football as Kain Colter is brought to the turf. A couple of guys dressed like crossing guards then take out an extremely precise ten-yard chain. The referee, staring at the football like it's the bottom line of an eye chart, determines that the play has resulted in a first down by the smallest of possible margins. For all intents and purposes, the game is over, decided by an educated guess made at breakneck speed.
Football is the worst.
The contest continues, however, and Michigan sells out against the run for a stop. For a moment, it looks like Jeremy Gallon could provide a miracle as he briefly breaks free after fielding a line-drive punt, but he's tackled at the 38.
18 seconds remain. No timeouts remain. Little hope remains.
But then the backup quarterback hucks the football to the impossibly-skinny senior receiver, improbably left in single coverage, and this wisp of a man somehow bats the oblong projectile out of the air and controls the ricochet, an absurd feat of concentration and athleticism that brings 110,000 despondent humans screaming to their feet in elation.
Football is the best.
From that point, victory feels strangely academic given the prior proceedings. Brendan Gibbons, Keith Stone cool, splits the uprights from 26 yards out for the tying field goal. Three plays after Devin Gardner finds Roundtree again to give Michigan first-and-goal on the opening overtime possession, he fakes a give to Fitz Toussaint, breaks contain, and lopes into the end zone unimpeded. Northwestern can only get within two yards of that blasted first-down marker on their subsequent series before Kenny Demens stonewalls Tyris Jones in the hole on fourth down.
The stadium erupts, again hopelessly in love with the greatest game known to man. Michigan 38, Northwestern 31, football forever.
Outside of a two-possession stretch when Michigan fans held their breath as Denard Robinson was sidelined with a pinky injury, the Wolverines couldn't have made it any easier to look ahead to next week's game against Michigan State, pounding a hapless Illinois squad, 45-0.
If anything, the final score belied Michigan's dominance. The offense moved the ball at will, rushing for 353 yards on 6.9 per carry and adding 174 through the air on just 15 attempts. The defense held the Illini to a mere 134 yards, including an unheard-of 29 yards on 16 passes; while it didn't help matters when starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase exited in the second quarter with an upper-body injury, his four yards on six attempts weren't lighting the world on fire.
Seemingly every play called by Al Borges worked as intended, starting with a 71-yard touchdown to Jeremy Gallon on a bubble screen* to open the scoring; Gallon weaved through the Illini defense, helped by stellar downfield blocking, most notably by tight end Mike Kwiatkowski. The next drive stalled near the goal line for a field goal after Denard exited the game with a banged-up pinky; it was the only moment when Michigan fans felt even a hint of concern.
The Wolverines continued to establish their identity as a run-first, run-second outfit on Denard's first possession back in the lineup, gaining all 68 of their yards on the ground en route to a six-yard scramble for Michigan's dreaded wonder. When Robinson opened the second half with a physics-defying 49-yard scamper to paydirt, the rout was on in earnest. Illinois's next possession ended after one play, a Kenny Demens interception of Reilly O'Toole. Three plays later, Devin Funchess hauled in a Robinson lob in the back of the end zone, bringing the score to 31-0 before many fans had returned with their halftime hot chocolates.
On the other side of the ball, Jake Ryan flashed his All-American potential again and again, amassing 11 tackles (7 solo), four TFLs, 1.5 sacks, and a devastating forced fumble as he flushed O'Toole out of the pocket, doubled back, and blindsided him to jar the ball loose. Denard Robinson may have finished with four touchdowns, 159 yards passing, and 128 yards rushing, but Ryan made a legitimate claim for best Wolverine on the field.
Ryan wasn't the only standout, as seven Wolverines tallied tackles for loss, neither Illini quarterback could find an open receiver, and Greg Mattison's blitzes hit home time and again. Two years ago, Michigan faced this same Illinois squad—with the same starting quarterback, even—and gave up 561 yards and 65 points. Against this defense, the Illini would need almost a full 17 quarters to rack up that same yardage; no matter how long they went, they'd obviously never reach that point total.
Safe to say, times have changed for both programs.
Michigan has found their perfect match at head coach and defensive coordinator. The offense under Al Borges has had their growing pains, but it's clear that they've found a suitable balance since the bye week to maximize Denard's remaining time as a Wolverine.
After the game, the marching band spelled out "Marry Me, Danielle?" as a band member dropped to a knee at midfield. Like everything the Wolverines dialed up on Saturday, the play was a success. On a cold, grey, rainy day in Ann Arbor, only the weather could dampen the spirits of those in Maize and Blue.
*On second look, it wasn't exactly a bubble screen, as Gallon started downfield before stopping and coming back to the line; a very well drawn-up play regardless.
It was there when Michigan had a first-and-goal on their third possession, when Vincent Smith—yes, Vincent Smith—threw an interception in the end zone.
It was there on each of the next four drives, each ending with a Denard Robinson interception.
It was there when—despite the above—Michigan faced just a ten-point deficit on their first possession of the second half, when they drove to the Notre Dame 16, only to lose a Robinson fumble.
It was there when the defense forced a do-or-die third-and-four with 2:35 on the clock, only to see Tyler Eifert beat J.T. Floyd down the sideline for a 38-yard completion.
In a game that felt like karmic retribution for the last three years, however, Michigan never seized control, instead making error after crippling error until there were no more errors to make. The defense did everything in their power to overcome the offense, holding Notre Dame to just 239 yards on 4.8 yards per play and forcing two interceptions of their own. They could not stop Robinson from turning the ball over, though, and in the end it was a triumphant Tommy Rees kneeling the clock out.
The turnovers overshadowed a stellar defensive effort, one that will sadly be forgotten in the aftermath. Notre Dame starting quarterback Everett Golson was completely ineffective, completing just one fewer pass to Michigan (two) than he did to his own team. The Irish rushing attack never got going, gaining 94 yards on 31 carries. Jordan Kovacs (7 tackles, 1 TFL) and Jake Ryan (5 tackles, all solo) both turned in outstanding games. With no margin for error, however, all it took was two poor plays on third downs—a pass interference by freshman Jarrod Wilson on the goal line and the final pass to Eifert—to foil an otherwise textbook Mattison game.
On offense, the bright spots are fewer and farther between. Fitz Toussaint finally got some holes to run though and looked like his nimble 2011 self when he found them. Roy Roundtree make a few crucial catches after largely disappearing from the offense this year. Al Borges added a promising wrinkle when Devin Gardner took an end-around only to throw downfield to fullback Joe Kerridge, drawing a pass interference on the opening drive. That's about it.
As I'm sure will be said ad nauseam in the coming bye week, all of Michigan's goals are still within reach. The Big Ten is awful and still very much there for the taking. If the Wolverines are to seize that chance, however, they'll have to be far more opportunistic than they were tonight, when a fourth straight victory over the Irish slipped through their fingers and into the hands of a team more willing to take advantage.
A half-empty student section, a press box full of beat writers already finishing their game columns, a field littered with walk-ons and freshmen; with eight minutes remaining in the final stanza, Michigan Stadium exhibited all the telltale signs of a blowout. A one-yard touchdown run by Justice Hayes had just given the Wolverines a 63-13 lead, one that stood as the final margin.
After the last two weeks, this was a welcome sight indeed.
Denard Robinson overcame an ugly pick-six to complete 16-of-24 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns, adding another 105 yards and a touchdown on the ground to lead the way offensively. Robinson spread the ball around to nine different receivers, led by Drew Dileo's 91 yards on three receptions. The stars from last week, Devins Funchess and Gardner, each recorded a touchdown reception—Gardner's on a stellar effort to tightrope the sideline and dive for the pylon—and the enigmatic Roy Roundtree found paydirt for the first time this season.
It was a rebound performance for Fitzgerald Toussaint, as well, as he gained 85 yards on 15 carries, showing off the agility in tight quarters that made him so effective last season; after finding little room to operate against Air Force, Toussaint reached the edge on his 11-yard touchdown in the first quarter with help from an A.J. Williams block. Vincent Smith added a pair of touchdowns from inside the ten, Thomas Rawls doled out more punishment than he took, Justice Hayes recorded his first career score, and Dennis Norfleet made his offensive debut with a 15-yard jet sweep that surely made Brian one very happy blogger.
Michigan fans were even treated to a Fat Guy Touchdown, courtesy of a Taylor Lewan recovery after Denard fumbled into the end zone. Lewan, for his part, appeared more concerned about his quarterback's error than excited for his own fortune, sheepishly pointing his palms towards the sky when the officials belatedly signaled touchdown.
The defense limited UMass to 259 yards of total offense, though there was still reason for concern. The Minutemen doubled their offensive scoring output from their first two games—six points—and strung together three first downs in a drive for the first time this year. This should not cause PANIC, of course—six points, fergodsakes—but there are still issues to be resolved, especially on the interior of the D-line.
UMass got paid. Michigan got a chance to breathe easy and give their backups plenty of run. Now the team can look ahead to Saturday night's matchup with Notre Dame; for today, they can feel content about handling business as expected. With the baby seal emphatically clubbed, it's time to move on to the real season, not unscathed but with the ultimate goal—a Big Ten championship—still within reach.
In a game that felt like something out of the Rodriguez era, Michigan showed that while there's great promise for the future, the flaws exposed by Alabama are very real.
The Wolverines edged Air Force, 31-25, and the outcome wasn't decided until Jake Ryan batted down Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz's fourth-down throw with 1:28 remaining. Denard Robinson accounted for all but seven yards of the team's total offense. The defense ceded 417 total yards—290 on the ground—and failed to keep contain all afternoon.
It wasn't all bad, however. Robinson was masterful, completing 14-of-25 passes for 218 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception—one that deflected off the hands of Vincent Smith—while rushing for 218 yards and another pair of touchdowns on 20 carries. True freshman Devin Funchess emerged as a viable threat at tight end, becoming the first Michigan TE to eclipse 100 receiving yards in a game since Jerame Tuman. Devin Gardner looked like a wide receiver, hauling in five passes for 63 yards and a touchdown while running crisper routes.
The offense lived and died with Denard, as Fitzgerald Toussaint found little room to run—seven yards on eight carries, to be exact. The offensive line failed to get a push against Air Force's undersized D-line, doing little to ease concerns from last week's debacle. By the second half, Al Borges had essentially given up on generating yards the traditional way, and he was justified in doing so.
Defensively, Michigan looked ill-equipped to stop the Falcon triple-option attack. The defensive line spent much of the day on their stomachs, unable to evade chop blocks or get any sort of push. Kenny Demens looked positively Ezeh-esque, letting blockers get into him again and again before being pulled in favor of true freshman Joe Bolden. Jake Ryan was all over the field, recording a career-high 12 tackles, but sometimes "all over" can be a bad thing—keeping contain was an issue. The final Air Force touchdown came when Desmond Morgan overpursued. The defensive backs struggled against the run as well, failing to shed blocks and come up to take the pitch.
When the defense needed a big play, odds are it came from an underclassman. Ryan continually redeemed his poorer efforts with critical stops, including two pass breakups on the final Air Force drive. Bolden replaced Demens and displayed the aggressive, instinctual play that made him a high school All-American. Fellow freshman linebacker James Ross spelled Morgan late and acquitted himself well after struggling in his debut against Alabama. Several other freshmen made appearances during the game's biggest moments, including Ondre Pipkins and Mario Ojemudia.
Last season's 11-2 record belied the myriad issues Brady Hoke faced upon taking over in Ann Arbor. After two games in 2012, those issues are at the forefront for the Wolverines. The lack of depth on the offensive line means Michigan must move ahead with the current unit—despite its ineffectiveness in the run game—unless they want to insert a true freshman. The defensive tackles will be a sore spot all year; the players expected to relieve that problem are freshmen or not even on campus yet. The offense still leans heavily on Denard, whose style doesn't always mesh well with the offensive philosophy of Borges.
The Wolverines came away with a victory, a fact that cannot be overlooked, especially against a team with a difficult style to prepare for in a week's time. Denard will still make magic with his feet—his touchdown runs were both exhilarating—and perhaps his arm as well—he looks much-improved from last year even if the numbers don't necessarily bear that out. The future looks bright, too, thanks to the major contributions from a number of young players already gaining crucial experience.
The overwhelming feeling in the aftermath, however, is that this team is still two years away from competing on a national level, the only level of success that matters at Michigan. Today's game had Rich Rodriguez's fingerprints all over it; as we know, that's a smudge that isn't easily wiped away.
Pull the string on a college hockey observer and you'll get a torrent of profanity about the latest refereeing injustices. Do it again and you'll get a statement about how it's a weird year. Do it a third time: more torrents of profanity. A fourth time and you get this: "there are no elite teams this year." Don't bother going any further. It's torrents all the way down.
It's just that… I don't know. I'm definitely not saying this, you know… but… would they be saying that if Jon Merrill hadn't been suspended for the first half of the year?
Consider Michigan's season. When Merrill came back from suspension Michigan was 11-8-3 and yielding 2.6 goals a game. Since, 1.25. They've gone 6-1-1 in that stretch against four opponents fighting for tourney bids with all but one win coming by multiple goals. Nine of Michigan's eleven non-wins in the first half were one-goal contests.
How many of those does Merrill—and the marginalization of Michigan's third pair—swing to the positive? How many goals per game is having him worth? The answer can be a lot less than 1.35 and still be enough to propel Michigan's season record into territory only Minnesota-Duluth is scraping this year. Past it, maybe. The idea I am creeping up to gingerly and fleeing in fear from after considering its audacious blasphemy is obvious.
What if Michigan is this year's elite team?
Look at it from a neutral observer's perspective: here's this team tied for second in RPI and PWR, third in KRACH. It's 10-1-2 in its last 13 games and midway through that stretch added a top-pairing defenseman from the WJC team. Their goalie has entered a new plane of existence in which it's reasonable to put up a .980 over a month. They are surging towards the top of what looks like college hockey's toughest conference. If not Michigan, then who?
Mentioning that point in November when it looked like the team was dead and buried and marveling at the huge distance from that point to this one is obligatory and discharged here. The shift has been abrupt and dizzying.
What changed? Merrill is obvious but Michigan was already on a 4-0-1 move when he re-entered the lineup. The formation of a thunderous top line helps a lot, as does Hunwick going from "still a guy you can win with," as I termed him in a post around the midseason mark, to a surefire Hobey finalist*. And then there's just… this feeling. Of competence and confidence.
Whatever it is, Michigan has rarely found themselves threatened since the halfway point. If it's still a little shocking that this Michigan team is rolling everyone not named Notre Dame, it's true, and the longer it goes on the more confident you can be in your delicate assertions that Michigan might be pretty good at hockey this year.
*[As in top ten, not necessarily top three. That's a possibility, though.]
The throbbing pestilence
The fetid sore on hockey that is Keith Sergott cannot be better summarized than by the meaningless penalty to Blake Coleman with one second left in Friday's game. After they'd let Miami run Hunwick twice without putting Miami on the penalty kill, a pissed-off Coleman plows Hunwick. Sergott does what Sergott does by Sending A Message and making this guy's penalty a major.
This infuriated me. One: the penalty was not a major. It was not dangerous at all, not much of a hit, and warranted two minutes. Two: twice earlier in the game Hunwick had gotten run harder and Sergott either ignored it or evened penalties up. Since the player did not get a DQ, the net result is to make it look like you're being strict without actually penalizing the behavior on the ice in any way whatsoever.
That's Sergott's MO. That's why he was on the ice when Conboy and Tropp assaulted Steve Kampfer, and his inability to keep tempers in check is indirectly responsible for the suspensions handed out at the end of Saturday's game. His incompetence is total, which shouldn't be surprising since he is Bull from "Night Court."
You'll remember that Sergott was the official a few weeks back at Notre Dame, when he let the Irish run Hunwick at every opportunity and usually just evened things up on the rare occasion that he did call anything. He was also the official when Steve Kampfer was attacked by Andrew Conboy and Corey Tropp. He was also the official of the ND/WMU game when the wrong player got ejected. Even if you set the bar for your officials at "Don't endanger players with your incompetence", Sergott fails in a big way. He shouldn't be reffing BGSU/Alabama-Huntsville, let alone high-profile games.
His existence as a referee is on the same plane as the CCHA adopting "gongshow" as a title sponsor.
Antidote. Denard was at the Friday game:
Further highlights from Friday:
Bullets That Shawn Hunwick Perceives As Lackadaisical Watermelons
Hunwick moved into 4th place in the history of the program with his ninth-career shutout. He also now ranks second nationally in wins, is fifth in save percentage, and ninth in goals-against. Hobey. Seriously.
Of the eight guys in front of him in GAA, four come from minor conferences (Union, Niagara, RIT, Quinnipiac), and he's played twice as many minutes as Knapp and CJ Motte. Only Douglas Carr from UML and Kent Patterson from Minnesota are from major conferences, have played around as many minutes, and have a better GAA. And Patterson is only .01 ahead.
The four guys ahead of him in save percentage play for Niagara, Union, RIT, and Robert Morris. And none of them are within 225 saves of him.
He is obviously the best candidate amongst goalies. Can he win against the usual parade of scoring forwards?
Baseball standings. Here you go:
The conference title race is still competitive, but Ferris State has a clear edge since they're in first place and have a BGSU series left. Michigan will either have to fly through the last three weeks or hope for Ferris to drop some points this weekend at Notre Dame.
The final week could be a barn-burner: WMU plays a home and home with Ferris as Michigan travels to BGSU. If the standings look like they do right now that could be a weekend where a split in FSU/WMU gives M the title.
"We'll keep sending the information to the league but the league has to respond. I don't know that they've done a good job of it so far."
…says a lot about how frustrating it's been to watch the league ignore opponents making the Hunwick a target part of the gameplan without consequences. After Saturday, Red's opening statement was this:
"Don't ask me about the officiating."
So people figured out ways to ask him about the officiating without really asking him about the officiating. It was like watching JoePa interviewed at Media Day, when every question was not about retiring (nudge nudge wink wink). So Red said "we should not have to kill that many penalties in a game like that" when asked about the penalty kill and "it was the way the game was being handled" when asked about the emotions escalating at the end.
Legion of Boom! Top line nickname? No? Maybe? Yes? Needs more brutal hits, probably. Whatever.
Level up. When AJ Treais got a pass from Lee Moffie, held it… held it… held it(!) and then passed it back to Moffie at just the right moment for him to bang it into the net I was not surprised.
This was surprising. After a couple years of watching Treais be not Mike Comrie I'd resigned myself to the fact that he wasn't going to be the devilishly entertaining short guy that is my favorite hockey archetype*. But dang if he isn't basically all of Michigan's secondary scoring in the Legion of Boom era.
A lot of this has come from sniping. See his first goal Friday above. Yeah, Reichard could have done better there but Treais had about a square inch of real estate to make that relevant and nailed it. Then he zinged himself:
I saw a very small spot. I was just trying to get it to that spot, and the puck went in. I haven't done that since juniors. Usually my goals are back-door tap-ins.
This has not been true of late. High-variance shooting percentage aside, Treais has started walking dudes and generating chances. It seems like the light has gone on.
Moffatt and Brown are also contenders in this category.
*[Austin Czarnik's a good example. Western's captain this year is the best I've seen, though.]
You knew this was going to be in the post halfway through Saturday's game. I find it inexplicable that Lindsay Sparks ever gets scratched. He makes that line with Moffatt and Hyman so much more dangerous. Multiple times against Miami he set up excellent scoring chances by driving into the offensive zone and then pulling up to survey guys diving to the net or setting up in the slot; he also rang the post on a wrister.
Maybe he's not the greatest defensive player in the world but he's a chance generator. Against the flailing bottom sixes of the CCHA he's got to be a net positive.
Next up on "I can't believe this guy is a scratch": Mike Chiasson.
The Keith Sergott of power plays. A salute to the Miami PP, which sunk further into the depths after going 0/12 on the weekend. They dip to 13% on the year even without considering the shortie; Michigan's penalty kill is up to 16th.
Miami is now 8 of 94 on CCHA power plays.
Goal controversy. I will trade Blasi the goal they got double-reviewed Saturday for Fort Wayne, and I'll include Tayshaun Prince.
Vogelhuber. I'm little surprised "Vogelhuber" is not a rank in Vogon society.
I did mention that Michigan's bye-week fall was mostly illusory and a strong weekend would see them pop up. I didn't think it would be all the way to second, and it really isn't all the way to second: they're in a three-way tie with Mass-Lowell and UMD that sees each competitor take one comparison and lose one from the other. Michigan wins the tiebreaker by the hair on its chinny-chin-chin.
There's not a whole lot of complexity here. Michigan will win comparisons based on RPI against virtually everyone with two exceptions:
#1 BU. Michigan probably has to have BU get at most a tie out of a weekend series with Northeastern to pass them before the playoffs give people a bunch of unplanned series not accounted for in the TUC stuff.
#4 Duluth. M is going to have a hard time winning this comparison unless Duluth spits the bit down the stretch and they play very well. COP is basically Duluth's without very specific events unfolding and they have a ~1.5 game edge in TUC.
If M goes 3-1 in the next two weeks they're in great shape; 2-2 and they are probably going to drop to fourth or fifth. The margins here are very narrow, just like they are in the CCHA. Michigan is assured of nothing but has positioned itself well.
Random factoid: every game Michigan has played has been against a TUC (above .500 in RPI) save for their opening swing against Bentley, SLU, and Niagara. This will be an even more impressive statement in two weeks because both MSU and Northern are also TUCs.
So after the first 13:50 of the game, the RedHawks had had nearly eight full minutes of power play time. In that 7:57 span with Miami up a man, shots were 5-5 and goals were 1-0 in favor of the Wolverines. That is some penalty killing!
Michigan did what would have been extremely hard for them not to do by dispatching Bowling Green easily. It's business time. Let's jump right to the bullets that aren't:
MFan in Ohio's usual breakdown awaits. Miami's sweep of a better opponent and some other jostling sees the Redhawks move up into a tie for Michigan's fourth spot. Usually one-on-one ties are broken with the comparison and Michigan holds that despite getting swept by the Redhawks earlier this year, so Michigan is still nominally in possession of that last one seed.
Union was swept out of the ECAC playoffs by Colgate and won't be a threat; their RPI went from fourth to eighth and they've got no more games.
Denver swept Mankato and remains a threat but now they're in the meat of the WCHA playoffs. They get Bemidji State or UMD followed by probably North Dakota—you want UND to win that hypothetical matchup big time. By sweeping the Screaming Eagles Denver obliterated their own TUC record and now can't pass Michigan unless M loses.
UNO was swept by Bemidji State and went from threatening to take Michigan's comparison to hanging on to the last three seed. They're not a threat.
Notre Dame beat LSSU in three games, which hurts them to the point where they can't pass Michigan even with a head to head win.
It's pretty simple now. Michigan gets a one seed if they win the CCHA or if they split at the Joe and two other things happen: Not Denver wins the WCHA and Not Miami wins the CCHA. Root for anyone against Denver and you really want Notre Dame to take the first semifinal on Friday; if it's a Michigan-ND CCHA final and Denver's knocked out by whoever in the WCHA playoffs the one seed could be locked up before the final.
Dirty. Thanks to reader Peter Saul you can relive Scooter's toe drag goal from Friday in gorgeous HD:
Just BG caveats apply but quick name Michigan's best forward not named Hagelin now that Wohlberg's out. Scooter, right?
Speaking of gurrrrgh. Losing David Wohlberg for the season is a heavy blow. With Llewellyn and Fallon gone—in Fallon's case temporarily—and Wohlberg and Caporusso out, Kevin Clare was the only healthy scratch on Saturday. Caporusso is supposed to be back this weekend but his health is going to be a big question. Michigan's going to need him to be his usual moderately effective self.
Break your nose six times next week and it will be a perfect comparison. Chris Brown's recent scoring run has taken him to nine goals, tied with Treais—on a run of his own—and Caporusso for fourth on the team behind Hagelin, Wohlberg, and Scooter Dominance. He's done this mostly by being a the big ugly net presence that he was supposed to be when he got drafted in the second round, and he's developing quite a knack for deflections* a la Ryan Smyth. He coolly directed a Merrill point shot into the net this weekend, for one. Of late it's usually Brown who is the source of "ohhhhh" moments when a defenseman's shot goes close after changing direction.
*[deflections FOR GLORY!]
Which one of you should be a forward next year? Mac Bennett or Lee Moffie: fight. Moffie now has six goals in 26 games. If he'd played as much as Caporusso he'd have eight, one fewer than Louie. His first on Saturday was a shorthanded bomb that caught the iron as it went in; his second was another lethal shot from distance. Meanwhile Bennett continues to lead any rush he can.
With Michigan bringing in a couple of guys who can fill in the sixth defenseman spot, if they don't lose anyone early it might be time to Scooterize one or the other. As far as the rest of this year goes, the reason Michigan is competing for the last one seed without seeming to be that good at scoring is that the defensemen are just insane. Merrill has seven goals, Moffie six, Burlon five, and the other three guys combine for seven. I'm not sure how that ranks nationally but I've scanned almost every CCHA team's roster for preview posts at this point and I can tell you that Michigan has probably doubled up the second-best D in the league in points.
I'm going to name a caffeinated alcoholic drink after you. Just Bowling Green caveats apply, but Lindsay Sparks, yo. Two goals and an assist on the weekend, one of them a display of impressive speed on the breakaway. Even if the big leap in competition level this weekend will make it hard to replicate that performance I'm still pretty excited to see Sparks-Treais-Moffatt hit the ice. They've been effective against third and fourth lines and since Michigan gets last change all weekend Michigan can shelter them from guys like Andy Miele.
Please bury me with it. With Michigan's depth already stretched to the breaking point it's time to adopt the same strategy deployed in the tourney last year: stop rolling the fourth line. Michigan should retrieve Lynch from it, put Winnett back down there, and put that fourth line out there once or twice a period with Winnett giving occasional people a rest when they need it.
I'd put Scooter on Hagelin's wing and reform the checking-plus-Scooter-domination line as Rust-Lynch-Glendening, give them the job of shutting down top lines, and get Vaughn some of Hagelin's playmaking ability to better further his utter dominance of opponents. I don't think Red will break up combinations that seem to be working well but Vaughn is Michigan's second-best forward right now and it seems like a bit of a waste to have him out there with people other than Hagelin.
I confess that I'm mystified by how much run Winnett has gotten over the course of his career. He spent three ineffective season on the point on the power play, including plenty of time this year, despite never getting off a checking line. This year literally every defenseman on the roster has more points than him except Kevin Clare and his 0-1-1 in 12 games. I'm sure he's a dutiful checker and good defensive player but at least Lynch has shown something other than that in his career thus far.
Go time. Is now. Don't expect much out of me on Friday. With the clear relevance of the other semi and Michigan's tourney game I'm probably going to head down to Detroit to catch the Michigan game, then head over to the Joe for the double-header.
Michigan played well for about ten minutes yesterday but in those ten minutes they poured in three pointers from all over, drove to the basket with abandon, and twice turned double-digit Penn State leads into deficits. Since Darius Morris kept Michigan in contact during the other thirty and six of the ten minutes came at the end of the game that meant Michigan won.
That isn't a small feat. Penn State spent the past month cannibalizing seeds across the Big Ten by defending their home court. They beat Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan State at the Bryce-Jordan Center. On the road they were this close to enormous upsets of Ohio State (L 69-66) and Purdue (L 63-62). In a not-very-alternate universe they were cruising towards a tourney bid even if they did get crushed by Maine.
So that was a good, weird win. If you want it in a chart (chart):
The point on the graph where it drops like a stone until the end should be labeled "Hardaway kill switch engaged." Down ten and aimless with nine minutes left is when the fan packs it in and starts grumbling. In this game it's also when Tim Hardaway goes from Freshman Liability, Jr., to Just Tim Hardaway, Thanks.
In the two minutes of video above a possible future of Michigan basketball reveals itself. When UMHoops describes the Hardaway sequence above as a "coming of age" Dylan's talking about Hardaway himself, but it could be one for the team as a whole. Those things don't seem that different right now.
Everyone comes back next year, so the various bits of basketball that depend on cohesion (rotation on D, cuts and passing on O, etc.) should improve. Everyone should get incrementally better, which gets you an increment. Michigan's hopes to go from an NIT hopeful to a solid NCAA team rely on at least one guy getting so much better that twitter threatens to kill Tim Doyle again, and the erratic freshman leading Michigan in shots is the obvious candidate.
In the clips above it's not the three-pointers that set hopes to tingle. We've seen Hardaway shoot a ton of threes this year and while he's adding a couple points of shooting percentage to them is encouraging, Michigan has plenty of guys who can take shots from outside the arc. It's the two different drives to the hoop where he glides into the lane and elevates to finish. Yes, you are 6'5". Yes, you are Tim Hardaway's son. Yes, you can turn into the kind of player who's an all-around nightmare. Yes, please, by next year.
This year we expected and got that graph above, struggles punctuated by tantalizing flashes. So far we've gotten slightly more of the latter than we were banking on. Maintain that, reach the NIT, and get one guy—one guy—to make a Morris-like leap and next year Beilein's program can establish itself for real.
That's The Wolverine Blog laying out Michigan's stretch run and saying "well?" Said run, home games in bold:
Feb. 9 — vs. Northwestern — 14-8 overall (4-7 Big Ten, 3-4 road), No. 53 Sagarin, No. 76 RPI Feb. 12 — vs. Indiana — 12-12 overall (3-8 Big Ten, 0-7 road), No. 89 Sagarin, No. 148 RPI Feb. 16 — at Illinois — 15-8 overall (5-5 Big Ten, 11-1 home), No. 27 Sagarin, No. 37 RPI Feb. 19 — at Iowa — 10-13 overall (3-8 Big Ten, 7-5 home), No. 103 Sagarin, No. 130 RPI Feb. 23 — vs. Wisconsin — 17-5 overall (7-3 Big Ten, 2-4 road), No. 14 Sagarin, No. 20 RPI Feb. 26 — at Minnesota — 16-7 overall (5-6 Big Ten, 11-2 home), No. 32 Sagarin, No. 24 RPI Mar. 5 — vs. Michigan State — 13-10 overall (5-6 Big Ten, 3-6 road), No. 43 Sagarin, No. 49 RPI
Opposite the hockey devil sitting on my shoulder there's a basketball angel screaming "THIS IS TOTALLY DOABLE." There are four games on the schedule (the home games that aren't Wisconsin and @ Iowa) that look like should-wins, which gets Michigan to eight wins, and then if you squint real hard you can see Michigan picking off one of the others to get to 9-9 in the nation's toughest conference. That plus 19-12 overall could get into the new, pointlessly larger field.
There's a problem with the mind's definition of "should," though. Accrording to Kenpom Michigan's easiest game left is against Indiana. Michigan has a 69% shot to win that. Even if Kenpom is wildly pessimistic and Michigan has a 70% shot at all four of its "should-wins" that means they have just a 24% shot to win all four, and even then they'd have to pick off one of the other three, and in reality Kenpom has Michigan a slight underdog @ Iowa. Add it all up and a pretty accurate mathematical model says Michigan has a 10% chance to get to 9-9. Not so good.
Michigan really needed to pull out that Kansas game or the Ohio State game that immediately followed. Even without making the small positive adjustment in expectations that would give them a 35% chance to finish 9-9 or better and a marquee win to thrill the committee with. And at that point 8-10 might be feasible since they'd still be 19-12 overall in that scenario. If that was in play they'd have a 60-70% shot at the tourney.
As it stands they'll have to play perfectly to make it, and with all these freshmen the chances of that are slim. If I had to guess it'd say 17 or 18 wins and an NIT bid, which would be fine by me.
More evidence about the getting ahead of yourself. Michigan's still tenth in the league in efficiency margin, though said margins aren't huge and Michigan's finishing stretch is probably easier than average:
Big Ten Wonk (aka John Gasaway) dubs this "The Year Nobody Sucked" because the league's worst team is way better than LSU or DePaul or Wake Forest, all of whom are just getting hammered. So… on paper we're filing three teams with better conference efficiency margins as should-wins when we're constructing our tourney fantasies.
Also of note in the above numbers: Michigan's defense is the worst in the league. It's close; the number is still the number. This isn't hugely surprising given the fleet of underclassmen and Zach Novak's persistent inability to escape the 4, but it's a comedown from earlier in the season when the Michigan D was shockingly proficient. I think we've got an obvious route for Michigan's offense to improve, but the defense is murkier. Michigan needs Smotrycz and Hardaway to get a lot better, I think, but without numbers that's just one guy's opinion.
Very aggressive. Earlier in the year I mentioned that Morris should have more of a nose for the basket when Michigan ran the shot clock under ten and in this game he went nuts with an array of floaters in the lane, layups he'd fought for tooth and nail, and various other shots where the viewer was like "bad idea bad idea bad idea actually that looks like he got a decent shot off it went in yay."
Part of this was Penn State adopting OSU's defensive approach—stick to the shooters and force shots from the lane. It worked for OSU because they have athletic shotblockers in the post and Michigan missed a lot of short-range shots. Penn State just gave up a lot of points in the lane.
Just when I thought you couldn't possibly be any dumber, Stu Douglass, you go and do something like this... and totally redeem yourself!Consitent with Michigan's inconsistent season, Stu, who probably had his worst game of the year against Ohio State a few days ago, had his best game yet: 14 points, including 4/5 from behind the arc, 4 boards and 3 assists off the bench. I still think Stu needs to have more shot clock awareness at the 1, but he made timely 3's all game. One 3 came mid-way through the 2nd half to cut Penn States's lead from 10 to 7 when Michigan JUST started to look as if they were ready to give up. STUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU.
This doesn't happen so much anymore, but back in the day there was a point in the lifetime of any Windows installation at which the operating system was so loaded with cruft that the only thing to do was take it out back, shoot it in the head, and reinstall. During this process there was always a moment when the computer reminded you in all caps that you were about to shoot it in the head.
The moment when you hit "Y" was always slightly* thrilling. At that time you had to beat your head against extended memory to get Master of Magic to play—there was always a chance your brilliant reinstall plot would end with you banging your head against the case screaming vile things about Bill Gates's parentage. But if things worked out you'd be able to open your word processor without it automatically typing "I hate you and you are stupid."**
Watching this year's basketball team is like sitting in front of a blue screen that asks you if you'd like to format C:. Last offseason John Beilein saw that prompt and hit "Y," and how. This was not entirely voluntary, since DeShawn Sims had run out of eligibility and Manny Harris tolerance for college, but Beilein also lost Anthony Wright and Laval Lucas-Perry to smaller schools in the area—seemingly by his choice, not theirs—and fired his entire coaching staff.
As a result Michigan entered the year without five of the nine players Kenpom had individual stats for last year. Only one—seldom-used freshman Matt Vogrich—used enough possessions to escape the "limited roles" dungeon. Here's what the very bottom of Kenpom's "height and other stuff" shows when you order by average experience:
Anyone who had coached the straggling returners and a couple of redshirt freshmen was out the door as well. An entirely new coaching staff started burning up twitter with exclamation points, installing a man-to-man defense, and trying to get three pointers to fall. The Big Ten was projected to be brutal, with Michigan a speed bump. This was to be a year of banging the head upon the case without even much hope that it would amount to anything.
Eleven games in, Michigan has essentially completed the nonconference schedule. A game against 1-9 Bryant remains and Michigan bizarrely takes on Kansas in early January, but we've gotten all the information we're going to get before Michigan's brutal Welcome To The Big Ten And Kansas stretch (all numbers Kenpom):
Dec 28: #11 Purdue
Jan 2: #74 Penn State
Jan 5: #9 @ Wisconsin
Jan 9: #2 Kansas
Jan 12: #3 Ohio State
That still looks like pain, but after three bludgeonings of okay teams and one stirring comeback against Tommy Amaker's Ivy League favorites the chance Michigan swipes one of those uphill battles is something less than infinitesimal. They'll be worth watching, at least. The stretch after that is littered with teams from 15 to 81, with just two forays back into the top ten after, and with Kenpom wavering between 7-11 and 8-10 for the league record both math and your lying eyes suggest this is an NIT team.
So that's weird. Weirder still is how this is being accomplished: with fierce man to man defense. After shutting down Keith Benson Michigan is now 16th in defense, and we're getting to the point where you can't wave away the results as small sample size against poor competition. UMHoops:
Michigan’s defense held Oakland – a team that has already faced West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, and Tennessee – to their worst offensive output of the season. I’ve been hesitant to believe that Michigan’s defense is the real deal, because making bad teams look terrible only goes so far, but right now there’s no denying that Michigan is playing great defense.
On one particular possession on Saturday, Michigan did so well over 35 seconds that the crowd rose to its feet like the hockey team had just killed off a 5-on-3 power play. With the offense still bombing away from 3 (sixteenth nationally) despite not making any of them (253rd), the primary difference between this year and last year is a switch-mad man-to-man that is totally unlike anything Beilein's ever put on the court before.
That, the complete lack of seniors, and the expectation the team's best player returns. We're about to hit the stretch in the format process where the drive makes horrible noises and bad sectors pop up, but the path from here to the point where our word processor loves us again is far clearer than it was two months ago. This, too, is slightly thrilling.
*(very, very slightly)
**(Things like this actually used to happen. They were called macro viruses and I managed to get one back in the day when I shared a spreadsheet with a lab partner. I don't remember exactly what the cryptic message was, but whenever I opened Word it would type a bunch of stuff, delete it, and then type something else that might have been "ferret" but is probably just me misremembering things.)
The All-Seeing Eye. You know it's a good game when the thing that makes you wince in the second half is when the other team goes on a run to cut the lead from 20 to 10 because the all-seeing Eye of Kenpom will disapprove. Fouling and whatnot pushed Michigan's final margin out to 18, and the Great Eye is pleased—Michigan has run itself from triple digits after the UTEP game to 52nd. They've cleared Penn State and Iowa and are in a virtual dead heat with #50 Northwestern, #51 Minnesota, and #54 Indiana for the title of Sixth Best Team In The Big Ten According To Ken Pomeroy.
As far as tourney resumes go, Michigan is clearly behind Minnesota and their wins over UNC and WVU but well ahead of Northwestern (one decent win against GT and that's all) and Indiana (best win over Wright State). If the Big Ten is destined for seven bids, the last one seems up for grabs with Michigan in the conversation. I don't think the BT is going to get seven mostly because none of the three teams after Minnesota has a nonconference win that would cause the committee to sit up and notice, but Michigan could be vaguely on the bubble late this year.
Put this in your pocket. Illinois suffered a demoralizing loss to their version of Oakland, barfing up a 57-54 stinker against Illinois-Chicago. The difference is UIC isn't secretly pretty good—they're 5-7 and have already lost to Akron, Illinois State, Central Michigan, and other less than awesome teams. Here's a reason why:
When UIC took the 1-3-1 zone against us, we looked lost, and since we were unable to shoot ourselves out of it, we were flailing.
Well, then. Michigan plays the Illini only once and that's in the middle of February, so maybe this won't have a huge impact. But if Michigan pulls the 1-3-1 out against Illinois remember this post.
(Side note: Central Michigan is completely awful despite having what must be the most talented player in the MAC. Trey Zeigler and company are 2-8 and just got obliterated by Detroit. This is depressing but from the Zeiglers' perspective the only thing keeping dad around is the presence of his son so the decision makes sense.)
Doubling down. Michigan doubled Benson the instant he got the ball, which was new. They hadn't helped out their center all year even when Harvard's counterpart was tearing Morgan up; in this game they forced turnovers and kickouts from Benson all day. Morgan held up pretty well with the help.
Infectious coaching. Beilein must have gotten a tiny thrill after Jon Horford gave up an and-one to Benson in the first half when both Zack Novak and Darius Morris went over to him to demonstrate what he did wrong on the play. Novak even provided helpful "arms straight up" versus "whatever you were doing, freshman" pantomimes.
I know how you feel. The UMHoops game preview said "expect a lot more zone" and I thought "that's a really good thing to put in the preview because it's probably going to be true" and then the only zone we saw was a single possession of 1-3-1 at the end of the first half.
How Darius Morris makes the defense go. Thanks to their huge point guard, Michigan's perimeter rotation of Morris, Novak, Douglass, Hardaway, and Vogrich is all about the same size, which allows them to switch relentlessly on all screens, which goes a long way towards making up for a lack of quickness from the pastier guys in the rotation, which means teams get few opportunities to drive the lane because there's always a dude right in front of them.
Michigan's defense is now Wisconsin's: built on never fouling you, never blocking your shots, never stealing the ball, but forcing you into a wide array of not-very-good shots. Michigan is 10th in three point D, 57th in two point D, 11th in FTA/FGA, 14th in eFG%, and well down the list when it comes to forcing turnovers and getting blocks. Instead of leaving their feet they get in spots to take charges and get their hands in the air.
It's the exact opposite of the 1-3-1, which might make the 1-3-1 pretty effective if they 1) figure out how to use it, and 2) deploy it as a change up.
Michigan's game-to-game inconsistency has been the story of the season, and we got it gleefully wrapped into one package against Iowa. Of course, to truly represent the 2009-10 Michigan Wolverines it would have ended with a loss, so we're comin' out ahead already, baby. Michigan completely dominated at times, led by DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris. At other times, Cully Payne and Aaron Fuller made Wolverine fans tear their hair out by leading the Hawkeyes on runs to stay in the game. Still, past the first couple minutes, the outcome was rarely in doubt.
Michigan's ability to force turnovers was a big key, though they did get sloppy and commit some turnovers themselves. Giving it up eight times doesn't seem like too much, but considering they didn't turn it over once in the first 14 minutes, and it's clear play got a little sloppy.
Though nobody other than Manny (22 points) and Peedi (14 points) scored in double figures, Michigan got a little scoring from a few other guys, though the shooting woes of Zack Novak and Stu Douglass continued. Douglass and LLP showed a willingness to drive the ball a little bit, and if that had been available all year, this team might have been a little less disappointing. Speaking of disappointing, Darius Morris was practically invisible, and still has work to do before he can put together impressive performances every game.
Ohio State controlled the game by owning the second half in Value City Arena just a week ago, eventually emerging with a 66-55 victory. No recap since I didn't get a chance to catch the game, but all five of Michigan's starters scored in double figures, and William Buford paced the Buckeyes with 24 points. Michigan won the turnover battle, like usual, but the shooting went cold in the second half, and Ohio State managed to capitalize for the victory.
Previously, Michigan upset the Buckeyes in Crisler Arena to kick off the New Year. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims scored 52 of Michigan's 73 points. The game also brought us the beginning of VOGRIT, as the freshman led the team in offensive rebounding and made a big block in the paint. I'm skirting around a key fact here though, which is that Evan Turner - winner of several player of the year awards - missed the game with broken vertebrae (spinal injuries what what). With Turner in the lineup, Ohio State has been dominant, sharing the Big Ten crown with Purdue and Michigan State.
If you need an explanation of the stats, check out Ken Pomeroy. Also, you'd better hide the women and children before they catch a glimpse of this chart.
Michigan v. Ohio State: National Ranks
Ohio State Rank
Mich eFG% v. OSU Def eFG%
Mich Def eFG% v. OSU eFG%
Mich TO% v. OSU Def TO%
Mich Def TO% v. OSU TO%
Mich OReb% v. OSU DReb%
Mich DReb% v. OSU OReb%
Mich FTR v. OSU Opp FTR
Mich Opp FTR v. OSU FTR
Mich AdjO v. OSU AdjD
Mich AdjD v. OSU AdjO
Difference of more than 10 places in the national rankings get a 1-letter advantage, more than 100 gets a 2-letter advantage, more than 200 gets a 3-letter advantage, etc.
So, uh, thanks for the entertaining season, guys. Ohio State is clearly the superior team in nearly every category, and Michigan is going to be hard-pressed to find a way to beat the Buckeyes when they have Evan Turner in the lineup.
Michigan's defensive improvement over the course of the season is something of a silver lining, but this Ohio State team is on track for a 1- or 2-seed in the NCAA tournament for a reason. Michigan also has a bit more to play for, as Ohio State's season will carry into the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome, and the Wolverines are in a win-or-go-home situation for the rest of the year.
Kenpom likes Ohio State by 8, and Vegas makes the Buckeyes 9-point favorites. I think Michigan's sense of urgency might keep the game a little bit closer than the experts think. Still it's hard to pick against a squad that's rolling like the Buckeyes are.