Another tournament week, another multi-part mailbag. This one contains the questions about/inspired by Jordan Poole's buzzer-beater. Yes, I'm as shocked as you are that I sorted them this way. Jump in!
A Free Pass
Hey Ace - Are there any statistics showing whether teams should guard the inbounder in late game situations like against Houston? On the surface, it seems like a huge mistake to let Livers inbound the ball to halfcourt so easily.
While I don't remember seeing such a study and can't find stats on it, I agree that Kelvin Sampson erred in allowing Isaiah Livers to get a clean look on the final play. An opposing staff can only scout so many games, but I'm guessing Houston's coaches didn't get to the Maryland tape.
Even though the outcome of the plays were wildly different, Michigan's game-winners against the Terps and Cougars came on nearly identical setups: Livers hitting Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman with a baseball pass from his own baseline out of a timeout. Neither opponent elected to guard the inbounder even though Livers wasn't allowed to run the baseline.
Maryland's Mark Turgeon explicitly tried to set up his defense to prevent anyone from catching a pass while running towards the Terps basket. Here's how that went:
If you forgot, MAAR nearly got all the way to the hoop, drew a foul, and drained both free throws with the ruthless calm of a serial killer.
Here was Houston's setup:
While the Cougars were more successful in preventing a long pass to a guy on a dead run, they still allowed MAAR to catch the ball a fair distance up the court without any immediate pressure, which let him get upcourt in a hurry even though they had two defenders waiting.
Houston forced a tough shot, but it was still a catch-and-shoot look from a not-entirely-unreasonable distance by a shooter who had the time and space to square up to the basket. That's not a prayer, at least if you're Jordan Poole; ideally, the defense is forcing teams into prayers in that situation.
I don't think having the extra defender back is worth whatever added coverage it provides. Again, Livers can't run the baseline in either of these cases, and he's being asked to throw accurate passes far downcourt. Stick a big man on him and that becomes a great deal more difficult to execute. A tougher pass for Livers means either MAAR has to run farther back to the ball—losing precious time and momentum—or risk never completing the pass at all on a deeper attempt. Beilein's now gushed twice this season about Livers being able to throw pinpoint baseball passes; that's a lot harder to do with a basketball when you're not getting the same amount of space as an actual baseball pitcher.
Recency and confirmation biases may be playing a factor, but I rarely find the fifth defender that stays back even comes into play that often. For the offense, the downside of having the entire court to cover can also be an upside—your players can sprint full-out, which never happens for more than a couple steps in a halfcourt situation. Even with the extra man back, it's hard to keep a team from hitting the player they want—usually after running him through a couple screens—and that can lead, as in Maryland's case, to getting a bunch of players uselessly stuck behind the play while a fast man runs past them.
Houston more productively spent their extra player on MAAR and he still had an easy pass to make because of the amount of space he had on the catch. They did a much better job on the back end than Maryland by preventing MAAR from either driving or pulling up. They still got burned. I thought everyone learned this lesson in 1992: guard the dang inbounder.
Or don't, actually. Coaches not doing that is working out pretty nicely for my life.
[Hit THE JUMP for my top-five last-shot-makers of the Beilein era, an evil question that was also the most popular, and MAAR's overlooked move.]
We live in a world that has been largely demystified. We've done a pretty good job of mapping all of the uncharted lands. We have located the Higgs Boson. We have mastered fire and sequenced the human genome. And while there are many things in our world that we do not know, we chalk less and less up to the "unknowable." We give our superheroes gritty reboots to show how they could realistically exist in the world we inhabit. Reality TV has all but replaced the scripted show. Even magic has fallen victim; instead of David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear, David Blaine sits in a glass box for a week and holds his breath for 15 minutes, as if to say, "we all know the physical parameters of this world, so watch me strain against them." The illusion of the supernatural is gone. We are left with merely the unexpected.
It is no surprise, I suppose, that sports have followed suit. We scoff at announcers and commentators who pretend that a thing called "momentum" exists as a causal force separate from the game itself. These mystics see "Team A is currently playing better than Team B" as a sign that Team A is being pushed forward by an invisible yet irresistible hand. The Skip Baylesses of the world insist there is a "clutch gene" which, based on my limited understanding of genetics, is the only gene that can spontaneously appear and disappear based on one’s athletic performance on a given night. Lebron wasn't clutch until he was. Tom Brady was clutch until he wasn't, then he was again, but now he isn't. NBA players develop reputations based on incredibly small sample sizes of high-variation events, all in the name of the almighty narrative.
We modernists see these explanations for what they are: crutches. It's much easier to attribute success to intangible forces than to either find and analyze the underlying reasons or to acknowledge the role of luck and chance. You’ll never hear a commentator say, “sometimes good players miss makeable shots” or “sometimes an average player can do something great.” That isn’t satisfying, but that’s life. We want more, but sometimes there isn’t more.
So when a game like Friday's Michigan-Kansas comes along, every fiber of my rational brain tries to tell me, "these things happen." There was no voodoo. The space-time continuum did not yield just this once to the will of Trey Burke. He took a series of low-percentage shots, and he made them. I mean, look at those four shots. Trey Burke is a 38% 3-point shooter. The odds of him making three NORMAL triples in a row are about 5%. The odds of making those four shots? A 20-foot hesitation pull-up, two 27-footers, and a 30-footer? No "will to win" or "grit" or any of the hundred other clichés you can come up with can make a player capable of reliably making those shots. He got lucky, I tell myself. It was awesome and amazing and a feat of incredible skill and talent that likely won't be repeated in the near future, but it was a fluke nonetheless. “Sometimes when you’re on” and whatnot.
But I've watched the last few minutes of regulation and the first few minutes of overtime a half-dozen times. Each time I've tried to make myself believe that this is just something that happens sometimes. And each time I have failed. At this point I’m willing to swallow the clichés. Trey Burke wanted it more. He had the will to win. He put the team on his shoulders. He made the damn Statue of Liberty disappear. Don't try to tell me how he did it, or if HE did it or whether it was just one of those things that happen. Just this once I am willing to believe my eyes. Lady Liberty is gone. All that remains is Trey Burke pointing at the empty night sky.
The rote play-by-play of those four minutes hardly does his work justice, but it is illustrative.
Burke forces a ten-second violation.
Burke penetrates, draws in Withey and dishes to McGary for an easy lay-in.
Burke hits a long 3.
Burke drives for a layup.
Burke hits The Trey.
Burke hits a long three.
Burke hits a long two.
That's 13 points, an assist, and a forced turnover in four minutes. He was good before and after that (he scored 23 in the second half and overtime), but those were really the magical minutes. And from a purely statistical standpoint, they were outstanding. But for those who watched the game, it was simultaneously more impressive and completely unsurprising. There's a reason Josh Bartelstein was celebrating when the ball was still in the air, and it is the same reason you felt so good when it left his hand. You've seen him do ridiculous things all year. You have experienced those moments where you both scoffed at his shot selection and laughed because you knew it would fall. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t shot the ball very well for the first 38 minutes, or that he was taking a contested shot from an improbable distance under impossible circumstances. When he released that ball, I’m willing to bet most of you reacted not with a prayer but with an unspoken “watch this.” Bartelstein knew. Bill Self knew. We knew.
Michigan fans also recognize this feeling because they have experienced its opposite many, many times. In the cold recesses of every Michigan fan's consciousness is that collective moment where Evan Turner and Josh Gasser and Kalin Lucas and Ben Brust hold an arm extended as they send a dagger straight into the souls of those helpless onlookers. There was the moment where you, like the audience in a Greek tragedy, knew the hero's fate before he did. You knew those shots were gonna drop. But for one day, Michigan finally had the deus ex machina on our side. By the time Trey hit that long pull-up two, all of your normal thoughts about ‘good shots’ were replaced by your inner Lou Brown telling Ricky to forget about the curveball and throw him the heater. We hastily scribbled a caveat to the “death to long twos” mandate (and all of the other strictures of proper basketball etiquette) that says, “...unless Trey is doing his thing, in which case, just… just watch this.”
Make no mistake; the game was not a one-man show. Michigan doesn't win that game if Mitch McGary doesn't play the game of his young life despite being punched in the groin for no particular reason. GRIII made an impossible layup from eleven feet under the basket and hit two huge free throws late. Stauskas and Hardaway had solid games. Even Jordan Morgan was there to challenge what would have been a game tying layup at the end of overtime. But that night will rightfully be remembered for Trey Burke. For a few brief minutes he made everyone believe he could do anything. If Michigan needed a four-pointer to tie, he would have made it happen. If the lights went out, he could bring them back up. If that impossibly large scoreboard came crashing down, you get the feeling he would simply shrug and say, "nah, that's cool, I'll carry this too."
Can everyone see this? Good. You’ll like this part(AP)
Brian is right that The Trey is going to be replayed during every NCAA tournament from now to the end of time, and rightfully so. It was one of the most remarkable single moments in recent tournament memory. But my lament is that it will be remembered simply as that moment. Everyone remembers the shots of Christian Laettner and Bryce Drew and Lorenzo Charles, but their shots are remembered in isolation. Trey Burke’s night was more than one glorious bomb. It was an individual effort that both encapsulates his season and made us feel for a brief moment that the gods were on our side.
Michigan fans have been incredibly fortunate to be able to watch Trey Burke do his thing this year, and among the many reasons I am so glad he did what he did against Kansas is that the basketball world got a taste of what we’ve been watching. On the biggest stage, Trey did what we have come to expect. He was unflappable. He was remarkably talented. He was clutch. We may have grown spoiled by this consistent excellence, and it will probably only be after Trey leaves that we will fully appreciate what we all just saw. In the meantime, though, Trey doesn’t seem to be done. He’s got a few more tricks up his sleeve, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss them.
Someone just make sure that he returns the statue before he leaves.
Every year from now until the country collapses into warring fiefdoms because of peak oil or some other nonsense, Trey Burke rising up from 30 feet over a 6'8" guy will make an appearance on someone's reel of insane NCAA tournament moments. Even after the collapse, if things go badly for you and you are captured anywhere from Topeka to Kansas City you can escape by just uttering the words "Trey Burke" and watching your captors seize helplessly. Collect their weapons and go. Once recovered they will be in a foul mood.
It's going to go in every time. You won't have that sickening lurch in your stomach as the bottom drops out of your hopes and then slowly tick-tick-ticks up the rollercoaster as the improbable trajectory seems true. Josh Bartlestein is way ahead of you on this, and you'll see Bartlestein start celebrating two beats before anyone else in the arena can figure out if they're going to live or die. This time, it'll go down. This time, every time.
Michigan wouldn't have been in this position if the rim had been kind at Ohio State, or at Wisconsin, or at home against Indiana. They'd have popped up a seed or two and avoided a team like the Jayhawks, maybe even gotten the gilded path the Buckeyes got and are determined to make look like the Bataan Death March. Thanks to a delirious two and a half minutes no one has been able to figure out yet, and probably never will, Michigan erased a ten-point deficit, and then that happened, and then Trey Burke did that twice more in overtime and Michigan's where they thought they might be when they walked into Assembly Hall the #1 team in the nation: playing a three seed for the right to go to the Final Four.
At this point I'm not sure that even matters that much. I mean, yeah, obviously it matters. But that shot is going in, over and over, for everyone, forever. It is written on cuneiform tablets found in ancient Sumeria, and a tatoo on Charles Barkley's forehead.
Ima let you block five shots Jeff Withey, but Mitch McGary is the greatest post of all time in this game. Wait, first Withey: the guy blocked a Trey Burke floater on a pick and roll, despite being a good five feet from the shooter. Boggle. Trey agrees:
He kind of surprised me the first half, once I got to the free throw line and shot. He had a piece of it. I think he was deep in the paint and he still got a piece of it.
Michigan shot 56% from two against him, boggle.
Okay, Mitch. First, inhale.
12/17 from the floor against Jeff Withey with 5 offensive rebounds and 9 defensive rebounds. Three steals. An assist. One turnover. One blocked shot and a second that was so clean in this world of "you can do anything as long as your arms aren't fouling a dude" that the sound of the whistle made me leap from my seat and cry "noooooo," Vader-style.
McGary spearheaded another blowout on the boards against Kansas, with Michigan doubling up the Jayhawks in offensive rebounds and winning the tempo-free battle 33% to 23%. He put up 25 points on 19 shot equivalents and generated at least eight extra possessions for M. He didn't pick up a foul until deep into the second half. I think we've just seen the best game of his career.
McGary has definitively arrived now. It's one thing to beat up on Juvonte Reddic and the four dwarves, entirely another to leave scattered bits of Jayhawk in your wake. The finer points of defense still elude him; that's the difference between McGary being pretty dang good next year or All American. That and free throws.
Now that we're used to the hugeness and the energy, the striking thing about McGary is how skilled he is. He hit an elbow jumper in this one and followed that up with a late turnaround from the short corner that was some Duncan business. His bunnies go down at a huge rate because he can slam them down when appropriate but also has excellent body control and the ability to shoot with both hands. Most of McGary's makes don't even touch the rim.
['shop via Ace.]
Relatedly. At halftime I made a comment about how I missed the version of Kansas that shot itself in the foot until it ran out of feet and just kept shooting, and more than one person said something about how they missed Burke. I was a little confused by this, and then the TV put up some chyron stating that he had zero points. Oh.
I didn't really feel that. Michigan had over a point per possession at halftime largely thanks to Burke getting the offense set up, and if he missed shots they often drew so much attention that GRIII or Mitch McGary was able to get a putback. Faced with the prospect of taking on Withey, he mostly got his teammates involved. Five assists is a lot of assists in a half.
I was frustrated by a thirty-foot bomb that came early in the shot clock and set up a break the other way. It felt selfish. Even that turned out to be necessary range-finding as Trey unleashed his inner Jimmer in the second half.
Win graph. Per reader request, the win graph from Kenpom:
Michigan's win probability dipped to 0.6 with 2:33 left, down ten. That was one in a hundred—one in two hundred. Trey's shot took Michigan from 10% to just over 30%.
Jordan Morgan, scrapping. Morgan only got five minutes, about which more later. This bullet is a feel-good bullet about Morgan dusting himself off and turning in two huge plays:
scrapping to the ground after Hardaway's missed three pointer and eventually getting the ball to GRIII for his acrobatic layup.
forcing Nutpunch Johnson to orbit so far around the corner that by the time he realized Hardaway wasn't leaving McLemore, anything he threw up was going off he side of the backboard.
His boxscore contributions were thin (though I guess three rebounds in five minutes is pretty good), but Michigan did need him and he did come through. Beilein lifted McGary for him on that final possession; it's hard to see McGary pushing Johnson as far outside as Morgan ended up doing. Also, Morgan eventually decided to do nothing:
"I was going to go up with (Johnson) and I saw he was looking to pass. I backed off a little bit but the angle he had wasn't necessarily the best," Morgan said. "He didn't have a good angle to put it off the backboard, so he got caught too far under and if it had been a floater, that would have been tougher than putting it off the glass."
That zen decision is not something McGary specializes in.
Karma is going to punch you in the nuts. Speaking of ol' Nutpunch Johnson, he picked up an obvious charge shortly after being assessed the flagrant one, sat, came back, picked up a cheap one on an out of bounds play, and sat yet more time. He ended up getting 20 or so minutes in the last 25; he hit some shots… and had 0 assists to 5 turnovers, not even counting the mess he made of the last play. Oh and that McGary statline. Oh and missing the front end right before Burke blew everyone's brains up.
My only regret is that Johnson is a senior—otherwise we would have a delightful couple years of competing nicknames for the guy in the blogosphere.
Spike. I don't get it. Michigan gave Albrecht 11 minutes, and I was confused by about 10 of those—Burke sat for one. In this game it seemed like Michigan badly needed post defense, especially at the four. Kevin Young, Jamari Traylor and Perry Ellis combined to go 11/14, give or take an Ellis attempt against McGary when Withey was on the bench.
At 5'11", Albrecht is not noted for his post defense. While he was perfect for the up-and-down VCU outing, having him out there for a big chunk of time right after halftime was odd. He barely touched the ball on offense, and Michigan's defense with him out there was pretty porous.
Morgan at the four seemed like the move. Robinson had a decent night on offense and added three steals of his own, but, man, 11/14. Am I crazy here?
Stauskas took it easy, man. I predicted a tough night for Stauskas. He did okay. His attempts were relatively limited, which was fine. He took only good shots, hitting all three inside the arc and 1/4 from three—the OT miss was a killer. 11 points on 9 shot equivalents is decent output; he also had three assists.
But like man, if I can scream "make a free throw" in anguish at anyone, it's Stauskas. That missed front end would have paired with the foul on McGary's block in a Jacob Marley tapdance duet if Michigan hadn't pulled their asses out of the fire.
They really need an advantage call or something. If your foul does not prevent a fast break from fast breaking, the refs should just stick their arms out wildly to indicate a foul is coming but they have chosen to let the play go because the offense is in a fast break state.
If only my predictions weren't literally taking whatever Kenpom says and repeating it because I think predicting sporting events is an incredibly foolish pastime, as last night's game amply demonstrates. By which I mean, suck it local media!
Local writers Nick Baumgardner, MLive: Kansas (66-61) Kyle Meinke, MLive: Kansas (67-61) Mark Snyder, Detroit Free Press: Kansas (67-63) Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press: Kansas (70-61) Jeff Seidel, Detroit Free Press: Kansas (72-68) Drew Sharp, Detroit Free Press: Kansas (71-65) Rod Beard, Detroit News: Kansas (72-65) Matt Charboneau, Detroit News: Kansas (74-68) John Niyo, Detroit News: Kansas (67-63) Bob Wojnowski, Detroit News: Kansas (72-68) Brian Cook, MGoBlog: Michigan (by one)
(I also expected Kansas to win in my heart of hearts.)
Kansas center Jeff Withey was asked before his team faced Michigan whether he could dominate Mitch McGary.
"Yeah, definitely," Withey said. "He's not very tall. ... We'll definitely have to try taking advantage of my height."
That got telephoned into this:
"(McGary) looked at me last night, right before we went to bed, and he said, 'Did you hear what he said about me?" said Glenn Robinson III, McGary's roommate. "'He said, 'I’m not excited about his height. I don’t think anything about his height. And I expect to dominate him.'
"I looked at him and was like, ‘Oh. We’ll show him.’"
If Withey had said his bit a couple days earlier by the time it got to McGary it would have described him as a midget toad, so Kansas actually got off easy there. Seniors hugging and such. Rapping and ancient Chinese texts. Horford is a trip yo:
there was forward Jon Horford, off in a far corner ... reading a book.
One more time: Jon Horford, 15 minutes after advancing to the Elite Eight in one his school's most exciting tournament games ever, was reading a book.
Reporter: Jon. Jon. Jon.
Still no answer.
Finally, after a shout from point guard Spike Albrecht, Horford looks up from his ruffled pages.
"Hey man, what's up?" he said, apparently ignorant to or indifferent of the fact reading a book at this time is not customary. And he wasn't exactly thumbing the pages of Sports Illustrated, either.
Horford was reading the "Tao Te Ching," an ancient Chinese text believed to have been penned between the sixth century and fourth century BC.
By ubiquitous request, we present tonight's commemorative unit of fashionable upper body apparel. (UPDATE: Those waiting on the store link to order your shirt, be patient. It's off the hook in there. UPDATE UPDATE: now working.)
It was someone's birthday. Someone who'd been really good this year. We had the grandkids over and had pizza and chicken wings. But the pizza was cold. And they forgot the wings (They usually have such great wings).
We thought about calling it a night—there will be another birthday next year—but then Trey...Trey said "Let's get subs!"
But it was far away, the place with the subs. Really far away. Like past the county line and closer to the state border than the edge of the arc. But that kid, he just went and delivered the subs. One after another: bologna and ham; three-salami and roast beef with provolone; turkey, swiss, mortadella and capacolla on cracked whole wheat, no tomato. Every order went down. And suddenly there we were…
Kids who were my age in France all grew up with this song Ce Matin, un Lapin… (this morning, a rabbit…) about a hare who turned the tables on a hunter and thus commenced the bunny revolution. The singer is a lady named Chantal Goya who spent years trying to carve out a niche in pop music by being ironically jejune, then found her calling by dropping the irony and singing kids songs on the French Disney Channel.
Kids my age who went to Michigan might remember a band called Tally Hall who have followed a similar career path. In 2005 I earned my Level 5 music cred badge by sharing a booth at a New York bar with the Atlantic Records people while Tally tried out for them. The music folk tossed around fancy adjectives like "jejune" to capture how fresh and cool it was to find a rock band that can occupy the antipode of metal the Beatles brushed with An Octopus's Garden. They signed them, but after one album the label forgot about them and that lapsed into that. Recently my best friend reported via Facebook that his three-year-old is a huge Tally Hall fan.
All this week Michigan fans shared a booth with all the really cool basketball people while they circle-talked themselves into the South Dakota State Jackrabbits as the hipster upset pick and Nate Wolters as the best point guard in the country (though you've probably never heard of him).
Nine minutes into the second half the rabbits were finally starting to lose pace with the Wolverines when Burke and LeVert* went up for a rebound and Wolters ran in to give Trey a 'Wisconsin Special' undercut hip check that sent Michigan's own pretty good guard crashing to the floor. As Burke clutched his head the panic claxons went off in yours. There was no foul (of course), the ball was awarded to the Jackrabbits (of course), and they of course went right down the court and scored.
You could imagine the Disney ending from here, a Cinderella advance amidst the cheers of Spartans in brand new turquoise tees. All it would take was 11 minutes of indifferent D, refs that hate us, threes that clang, twos that shouldn't have been shot, and Spike Albrecht running around with the ball like a mad chicken, to end the career of Michigan's greatest player since _____(?) with the prostrate pose above.
Here's how it really went:
Stauskas drove hard (NJAS!) to the basket and through hard contact to make a layup and collect a rare and-one, which he made. 52-43.
Wolters forced to take a long two, missed, rebounded by Albrecht
Albrecht does his running around thing, gets the ball to Hardaway, TIMMMAYY makes a jumpshot. 54-43.
Wolters misses a three, Horford MANBALLS the rebound out of another contestant's hands.
Trey Burke returns, drives inside collecting ALL THE DEFENSE, then kicks out to wide open Hardaway for three, buried. 57-43.
That was enough for the Wolverines to finish off the rascally rabbits, final score 71-56.
As it turns out the audience for simple cutesy catchy formulaic music is little kids, rabbits tend to lose to hunters, and Michigan is better at major sports than those guys you've probably never heard of. Who could have imagined? Also as it turns out this little game column was all a prelude to the Diary of the Week by saveferris, who looked at the performance of past 4 seeds and found, well, the higher seed you are the better your prospects for tourney success. File all of this under the kind of duh that takes occasional reminding.
Etc. Every goal from hockey's WMU sweep plus a few bad puns of blue/blew from MGoBlueline. The basketball game is at noon on Saturday so you can watch that then still make it to the Joe. LSAClassof2000 looks at run vs. pass balance over recent Big Ten history, finding Wisconsin and Ohio State run a lot. Need to get the 4th quarters and blowouts out of there though if you want to find the meat. Blockhams was drawn before Ryan was hurt, isn't funny anymore.
At my childhood home in Ann Arbor, a framed photo is propped up on the bookshelf in my brother’s old room. It shows my brother, Jack, and me with a close family friend in the cheap seats of The Palace of Auburn Hills. It was the spring of 1995, and I was seven years old. I couldn’t look more excited to be there, the smile on my face borderline cartoonish.
My father, a Detroit native and Michigan grad, had moved the family from San Francisco to Ann Arbor less than two years prior. In that time, he’d introduced me to Michigan football and Red Wings hockey; my brother and I alternated fall Saturdays with him at the Big House, and early summer evenings were reserved for watching playoff hockey in the living room. Dad was never a big basketball guy, though, so I had to look elsewhere to find an NBA rooting interest.
My father’s business partner lived in Ann Arbor at the time. Gail was a Boston native and, naturally, a Celtics fan—“The Celtics will rise again,” she’d like to say—and she also acted as a second mother to Jack and me. When my parents wanted a break from raising the two of us, we’d spend the night at Gail’s apartment. That was where she introduced us to basketball; one of my most vivid childhood memories is sitting on her bed, eating popcorn and watching J.R. Rider win the ’94 Slam Dunk Contest with his between-the-legs “East Bay Funk” dunk.
Gail also introduced us to Michael Jordan, and like most everyone of my generation, I couldn’t get enough of watching him play. He’d retired to play baseball, of course, but we’d pop in Bulls championship VHS tapes and marvel at the greatest. When I got home, I’d go to the backyard and play on the Little Tykes hoop set up on our brick patio, throwing down one-handed—and in my mind, buzzer-beating—dunks with my tongue out, just like Mike. Though I also watched the Pistons, rooted for them, collected their sports cards, I never pretended to be Grant Hill or Joe Dumars. If you’re not the best in your dreams, why have dreams?
On March 18th, 1995, I was in the midst of one of these backyard fantasy sessions. My mother rarely interrupted these except to call me in for dinner. This time, though, she walked out of the back door bearing an important message.
This was how, less than a month later, I’d be photographed at the home of the Detroit Pistons wearing a Bulls hat and Michael Jordan Birmingham Barons shirt. Jack wore a similar outfit. Gail, the Celtics fan, donned a Bulls sweatshirt. Some athletes transcend sports fandom.
My lasting memory of that night is seeing Jordan, wearing #45 and playing his way into shape, commanding the full attention of every spectator. He may not have been at the peak of his game, but the best player on the court was obvious to everyone in the building. From the cheap seats, my eyes rarely left Jordan, awestruck by his effortless greatness.
The box score shows that MJ scored 29 points that night, going 12/23 from the field while adding nine rebounds and nine assists; a great game, sure, but not one that would leave a lifelong impression on a budding sports fanatic if not for the nature by which it was achieved—with complete ease and confidence, Jordan moved through the game like he was starring in a play for which only he knew the script.
The box score also shows that Scottie Pippen had the night off, Allen Houston and Terry Mills combined to hit 10/13 three-pointers, and Joe Dumars dished out 13 assists. I remember none of these things, just watching Michael Jordan lead the Bulls to victory and going home happy.
Last Thursday, I walked past Michael Jordan’s statue and into Gate 3 ½ of the United Center, though a winding hallway adorned with photos of other Bulls greats, going by Jordan’s old locker room before finding a spot in the media workroom. Michigan’s opener in the Big Ten Tournament was the first road basketball game I’ve covered this season, so I immediately checked the seating chart—I get stressed in unfamiliar settings and wanted to know exactly where I needed to be when the game started.
As it turned out, press row at the United Center is courtside—unlike the Crisler Center, where the media is seated in the upper bowl—and I had a spot near the end of the second row. I’ve watched a lot of basketball, but this would be a new perspective. When covering games, I try to act like I’ve been there before, maintain a certain level of professional decorum, but when I got to my seat I couldn’t help but pull out my phone and snap a picture of the view:
As a blogger/fan working among full-time beat reporters, covering this year’s Michigan team has presented a challenge. The Wolverines have not just won in a way I’ve never experienced, they’ve done so while churning out the highlights; every instinct I have is to leap out of my seat and yell after each alley-oop, twisting layup, step-back three, or go-ahead jumper. This, of course, is not acceptable behavior in the working press area. I’ve been forced to perfect the subtle lean back in my seat, eyebrows arched, mouth slightly agape, reserving a slight shake of the head for the best of plays.
No player has elicited that response more than Trey Burke, for obvious reasons. On a team as talented as Michigan, his skill stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, even if he’s usually the smallest guy on the floor. While the others wear their emotions on their sleeve and struggle to consistently play their role, Burke wears the same expression as he goes about his business—calm yet intense, and utterly composed at all times.
The Look was there for the second half of Thursday’s game. Michigan came out of halftime with just a two-point lead on the lowly Nittany Lions; Burke had started slowly, just 3/9 from the field, and it felt like the rest of the team was waiting for him to take charge.
The Wolverines were now shooting on the basket directly in front of me, giving me an ideal view of the Trey Burke Experience. Three minutes into the half, Burke inbounded the ball to Tim Hardaway Jr., took the return feed, and calmly drilled a corner three, standing no more than six feet in front of me. I turned into that wide-eyed kid again, and would stay that way for the remainder of the game, as Burke poured in 13 second-half points and the Wolverines pulled away, eventually winning by 17.
One moment in particular left me shaking my head in disbelief while I suppressed every urge to go into full-on fan mode. One of Burke’s go-to moves off the pick and roll is to stop his drive on a dime at the free-throw line and rise for a quick, unguardable pull-up jumper. With just under 13 minutes left, Burke took a Jordan Morgan screen and made his way into the lane, briefly checking over his shoulder to locate his defender, PSU’s D.J. Newbill, who was trailing him after fighting over Morgan’s pick.
In the moment that Burke peered over his shoulder, Penn State center Sasa Borovnjak—who’d been cautiously ceding ground—stepped up hard. At 6’9”, Borovnjak gave Burke, listed at a generous 6’0”, a sudden and tall obstacle. Normally, Burke likes to shoot that pull-up jumper like Chauncey Billups shoots his free throws—on a line, drilling that spot on the back of the rim that great shooters always seem to find. This time, however, that trajectory was no longer an option.
It’s barely perceptible on film, but what Burke did next is what separates him from the rest of the country—and every Michigan player I’ve had the opportunity to watch play. With an ever-so-subtle double-clutch, Burke shifted his right hand an inch or so to the underside of the basketball, then released a high-arcing shot that barely eluded Borovnjak’s outstretched fingers. The ball hit nothing but twine.
Burke momentarily held his shooting pose, as if to show the world that it's really as simple as this. For him, at least, it is.
The crowd reacted as they had for most of Burke’s baskets: with polite applause. This is what we’ve come to expect from him. We're jaded by a 20-year-old sophomore.
Burke would hit two strikingly similar shots later in the half, each recalling the one before but noticeably different in execution. I’ve included his highlights from the game in the above video. What strikes me the most isn’t Burke’s skill in shooting, passing, dribbling, or even on-ball defense, a part of his game that’s seemingly come out of nowhere in the latter half of the season. It’s Gus Johnson—that Gus Johnson—barely changing the inflection of his voice as he relays Burke’s latest masterpiece to the television audience.
The next afternoon, Burke couldn’t will Michigan to a victory over Wisconsin, though not for lack of trying. With the Wolverines down ten points with just over five minutes left, Burke almost single-handedly pulled the team back within four, recording a steal, two free throws on the ensuing foul, two more baskets, and even a block in the next 2 ½ minutes—his only miss in that span led directly to a Mitch McGary putback. The comeback stalled there as the defense faltered, but in an otherwise dreadful game Burke once again reminded everyone why he should be the national player of the year.
Burke put up 19 points and seven assists in that game, almost exactly matching his season average for both categories. This season, the question has ceased to be whether he’ll produce—he’s scored 15 points or more in every Big Ten game—but how hard he’d have to work to get there and if he’d have sufficient help along way. The Badgers made it a struggle—Burke took 22 shots, making only eight—and even then Burke’s misses were just barely off the mark. Left with no margin for error, it felt like Burke was mere inches away from dragging his team to victory anyway.
Much like the peripheral players faded from that night at Auburn Hills, eventually my memories of the Wisconsin loss, the late-season swoon, the crappy perimeter defense, they’ll all be lost to time, or at least need to be jarred into clarity by a Google search. What will stick is Trey Burke, expressionless, pulling up for that right-hand floater, each one nearly identical yet perceptibly different.
Incidentally, Michigan returns to the scene of my dalliance with sports bigamy on Thursday. I will not be there, having intentionally missed the deadline to apply for a credential. I want to experience Burke’s (likely) final games as a Wolverine as my seven-year-old self did Michael Jordan’s comeback: free to wear my team’s colors, leap out of my seat, and holler when a rare talent pulls off moves most of us save for backyard dreams.
After plum forgetting to rank the gifs the last time out, that feature is back just in time to attempt to pick a top moment from Sunday's triumph against Michigan State. I'm sure that won't be hard at all. It's clearly that Burke stealthat other Burke stealthe floor slappingthe other floor slappingHardaway trolling IzzoMcGary's magnificent pump fake oh god help me.
This is not the number one gif of the game—you'll have to hit the jump to find that out—but this totally unaltered look at the interaction between Tim Hardaway Jr. and Tom Izzo is, again, totally unaltered and completely true to life in every way:
Good to see that when Hardaway's shot isn't falling, he's finding other ways to help the team win. Or, at the very least, trolling Izzo on national TV.
[Hit THE JUMP for the top ten gifs from the game, plus several honorable mentions because I'm terrible at making difficult decisions.]
Sports are hard, and even great players usually succumb to their hardness. When the hockey team had TJ Hensick, when they were tied or trailing late I spent all moments with Hensick on the bench pining for his next shift, and mostly was disappointed when nothing happened. I mean… Denard Robinson. That guy was so great that he ran through two Ohio State defenders and teleported to the endzone, and yet that first sentence is a large chunk of his Michigan career epitaph.
There's a reason Wikipedia describes Casey at the Bat like so:
For a relatively short poem apparently dashed off quickly (and denied by its author for years), "Casey at the Bat" had a profound effect on American popular culture. It has been recited, re-enacted, adapted, dissected, parodied and subjected to just about every other treatment one could imagine.
Probability is an implacable thing. When we turn our lonely eyes to hero du jour in our time of need, the odds are stacked against us. If you're great you move that needle only slightly. Your brain is all like
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that -
They'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.
Your brain is kind of dumb, and Casey at the Bat is great at telling you that. Your brain listens but does not hear.
My dumb brain was contemplating a blown ten-point lead against Michigan State on the heels of a blown 15-point lead to Penn State and had decided basketball was a pudding and the universe a fake. Michigan State had the ball, the game was tied, and the shot clock was no longer relevant. Earlier in the year Michigan had lost when a no-hoper went in, and my dumb brain was assuming that would always happen forever.
Burke did this.
The thing about this is that Burke developed that move midway through the season and now deploys it a few times a game. He really ramped it up after his first game against Aaron Craft, seemingly because Craft just pissed him off. A few times a game Burke will muster his energy, hike up his shorts, and go looking for trouble on defense. That's part of his ever-expanding game.
That breakway layup off the from-behind steal is a thing I can see him gearing up for now, and I saw it then, and because my brain is dumb it'll burn that into my memory and not the other times when Casey struck out.
It'll go there next to Braylonfest and Mario Manningham and Ernest Shazor killing that guy and Phil Brabbs and that one time I turned on a basketball game with Michigan down 15 to Wisconsin with six minutes left and saw Daniel Horton eat that deficit into nothingness. It'll probably be the first thing anyone involved with this rivalry thinks about when Trey Burke is brought up. It was the kind of thing that's the first thing on the highlight reel when they put your number in the rafters.
That he followed it up by robbing Michigan State of a chance to respond is icing on the cake. After Ben Brust, any shot in the air with a chance to beat Michigan is going to be two seconds of awful anticipation no matter how likely it is to go in. Trey Burke is both awesome at basketball and extremely protective of my emotions. He curls his lip and tilts his head and probably says "damn" and takes basketballs away from people who should not have them after 38 minutes of carrying twelve teammates and 12-thousand-some people in Crisler on his back.
Dawgs. This program has had a couple of nasty dudes at point guard the past few years. I hope Derrick Walton can inherit that.
Your excuses are lame. Both Izzo and Appling claimed that there was some sort of confusion about timeouts before Burke picked Appling's pocket, which is a pretty weak explanation since Appling has clearly decided no TO is coming when he spins and moves to the center of the court. Y'all got robbed straight up.
Life is strange. Michigan loses to Penn State, then beats Michigan State despite going 0/12 from three. I quiver at the thought of playing Purdue. Everyone will turn into crows and play crowhockey, or something.
Obligatory video review complaint. Nik Stauskas got busted open by a wild Branden Dawson elbow, required 12 stitches and was not able to return—probably because he was concussed—and no foul was assessed after an interminable break. It looked like this:
If that's the way you're going to call it, fine. It was inadvertent. But then stop with the interminable reviews. Apparently nothing is a flagrant foul, so stop looking for them.
It's strange how different sports legislate themselves. If hockey was reffed under basketball rules, every post-whistle scrum would come with two ejections, but in basketball you can crush a guy's face and as long as you weren't looking at him it's cool. That's some sort of penalty in the other two sports where elbows get involved, hockey and soccer, and probably a red card/major. In basketball, nope… but only one sport stops the game incessantly to look at these sorts of incidents. I don't get it man.
Morgan defense watch. After Dan Dakich pointed out that Nix always-always goes over his right shoulder when making post moves it's been something that's stood out to me as I watch MSU play, and in this one it was obvious. In that tendency you could see where Morgan is a superior on-ball defender to McGary.
Against Morgan, Nix put up a bunch of contested shots on which Morgan positioned himself such that Nix would take a bump as he tried to go up. In scattered matchups against McGary it was clear McGary had not absorbed the scouting report; Nix got him for a bucket by threatening to go to the middle of the lane and then spinning over his right shoulder like he always does. Morgan, on the floor at the same time, was visibly irritated at McGary—he probably said something along the lines of "he ALWAYS turns over his right shoulder" or "RTFSR*."
Despite that make the difference in Nix's efficacy was dramatic. Morgan played nine minutes in the first game; Nix went 6 of 9 from the floor and had 3 assists to no turnovers. Morgan had 24 in this one; Nix went 2 of 9 with 2 assists and six turnovers, with one of those makes the aforementioned bucket against McGary. Morgan's absence in the first game was definitely a contributing factor to the ugliness therein.
*["Read the frondling scouting report."]
Mocking floor slap for the win. State did the team floor slap thing in the previous game, and did it in this one, and Big Tough Mr. Men got an alley-oop on their face this time, whereupon Michigan responded with sports sarcasm:
Sports sarcasm is the best. You can tell it is mocking because 1) everyone knows MSU's about to call a TO, and Trey does it twice. I enjoyed that.
McGary FTs. Having Mitch McGary receive the inbounds pass at the end was clearly not the best idea, but Michigan put themselves in a situation where that was possible by using up all their timeouts early. When MSU tripled Burke it was a scramble off the make and the other options were Horford and a covered LeVert.
1) Dump basketball timeouts. End game situations are more chaotic and fun without them.
2) Don't call all of them, especially when you're just setting up a play instead of preserving a possession.
McGary other game. A mixed bag. Like the rest of the bigs he shares in the issues rebounding. One DREB in 21 minutes is Nnanna Egwu level output. He was efficient offensively, going 4/6 from the floor and hitting 3/5 FTs, and he generated a few of those shots himself with two-bounce drives and a nice short corner turnaround. He's showing things that should lead to an increased offensive role as he develops.
Paging Caris Levert. (Upchurch @ right) With Stauskas knocked out four minutes in, Caris LeVert got starters minutes. He did okay with them, scoring eight points on 4/8 shooting from two, missing three attempts from deep, and getting a couple steals. He was mostly guarding Gary Harris; Harris had an eh day with 16 points on 16 shot equivalents.
As long as Stauskas isn't suffering ill effects from the concussion I don't think he'll see his playing time cut much if at all… as long as he's not doing the things that caused Beilein to explode at him in the Penn State game. Competition for that spot will improve it, and if Caris is reliable enough to get him 16 minutes instead of eight Michigan can rest Tim Hardaway a bit more.
Statistical extremes. Take your pick as to which was more of an anomaly: Michigan going 0-fer from three or MSU coughing up 18 turnovers to Michigan's 7. I'll take the former since Michigan is a notoriously low-turnover team and MSU has had their share of issues. Also in the anomaly bucket: MSU rebounded half their misses. While not entirely unexpected, that is extreme.
Speaking of the rebounding. Hammered. Michigan went with the dual-big lineup for nine minutes; it didn't help much. As mentioned, McGary just had 1 DREB. Morgan had four, Horford none in four minutes. If the ball wasn't bouncing to a guard chances are Michigan did not get it.
Michigan's rebounding is reverting after another nonconference season in which they found themselves top-ten. After entering Big Ten play #2 in DREB they're down to 45th. They're fifth in Big Ten play, still a major step up from last year's ninth but not an earth-shaking paradigm change.
Burke fall down make fast break. Michigan State exploited a couple of things to get some early fast break opportunities off of makes: 1) Burke falls down a lot after he tries layups and 2) he never gets a call on this even if someone has bashed him to the ground. You'd like to see him keep his feet, but it's hard to see how in a lot of these situations.
Drinkin' your milkshake part 2. Drake Harris visited last weekend. This weekend…
Devin Gardner changes his twitter handle like every two weeks.
I hear tell he's supposed to be back next weekend, too? Dios mio, man.
Trey Burke's legs were failing him. He'd just missed a jumper, and on the ensuing Michigan State fast break he couldn't get back to close out on Gary Harris—while Harris missed the open three, Michigan's discombobulated defense couldn't keep Derrick Nix from hitting the putback.
The basket cut the Wolverine lead to four with just over six minutes to play, and the only Wolverine to consistently produce offensively appeared to be running on fumes.
On the very next possession, Burke found a way past MSU's Keith Appling for another layup. He'd score six more points to close out the game, and of course came up with two steals to seal a classic nailbiter against Michigan's chief basketball rival. The only Wolverine with more than four made field goals, Burke ground his way to 21 points on 8/17 shooting with eight assists, two turnovers, and five(!) steals. As if that wasn't enough, he held Appling to nine points on nine shots.
The lasting images of this game will be Burke's pickpocketing of Appling at midcourt, subsequent breakaway dunk, his jubilant—and yes, just a bit mocking—slapping of the floor (left, Upchurch), and his final swipe of Gary Harris to end the game. For me, though, it will be him trying, and failing, to get back on Harris, only to dig into the deepest recesses of his soul and find the energy to pull out the win.
Michigan's chances to win took a huge blow just four minutes into the game, when an errant elbow from Branden Dawson caught Nik Stauskas flush above the eye, opening up a nasty cut that required 12 stitches and left the Wolverines without their best outside shooter. Not coincidentally, Michigan missed all 12 of their three-point attempts in the game. Miraculously, this didn't spell their demise.
That had much to do with Michigan's much-maligned big men. Jordan Morgan, who barely played in the first contest between these two, hounded Spartan forward Derrick Nix into six turnovers with stellar on-ball defense and several drawn charges. Mitch McGary scored 11 points off the bench (4/6 from the field) with three offensive rebounds, bringing the team much-needed energy and even hitting a couple clutch free throws down the stretch (yes, he also missed the front end of a one-and-one and had a critical late turnover, though it appeared the latter was a botched call, by no means the only one in this game).
With Stauskas absent, Caris LeVert was forced to take on a big role and came through as well as one could ask of a rail-thin freshman in a tight, physical contest. While he missed all three of his shots from downtown, he hit 4/8 two-pointers—including a pretty up-and-under at the first half buzzer to cut Michigan's halftime deficit to three—and played solid perimeter defense. Fellow freshman Glenn Robinson III chipped in eight points (4/6 field goals), and unlike the first game the Spartans couldn't take advantage of his interior defense, in large part because John Beilein did his best to play two bigs when Nix and Adreian Payne were both on the floor.
There were struggles, of course. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored just six points on 3/12 shooting and had three turnovers, looking like the scuffling Hardaway of last year. In the first half, the Spartans rebounded ten of their 20 missed shots, and the Wolverines' inability to keep them off the glass opened up the perimeter—State took advantage by hitting 5/11 first-half threes. A late five-point possession for MSU featured an and-one and two offensive rebounds, cutting a ten-point lead in half when it appeared the Wolverines could cruise to victory.
In the end, though, it was Burke's day. Even with the gas tank perilously close to empty, Burke staked his claim as the best player in the country. In doing so, he not only kept the Wolverines from going into a tailspin, but propelled them to second place in the Big Ten, with an outside—but very real—chance that next Sunday's game against Indiana will be for a share of the conference crown.
The final stat line may not be as gaudy as some of his others, but this was Trey Burke's entry into Michigan basketball lore. Slap the floor—the Wolverines aren't done defending their Big Ten title.