40 Minutes of Hell

Submitted by Ace on January 23rd, 2012 at 4:08 PM

If you wanted to concoct the most painful possible basketball game to watch, at least when it comes to mid-January non-conference road games, Saturday's 66-64 heartbreaker at Arkansas was about as bad as it gets from a fan perspective. We saw:

  • The end of the Kentucky game go long, causing most fans—including myself—to miss at least the first few minutes of the game.
  • Arkansas hit their first 11 shots from the field en route to opening up a 20-point lead.
  • Michigan turn the ball over five times in the first ten minutes as they looked entirely unprepared to handle the Razorbacks's "40 Minutes of Hell" full-court press.
  • The Wolverines embark on a lengthy comeback run, only Arkansas kept Michigan at arms-length until Zack Novak cut the deficit to two points with just 3:48 left.
  • A four-minute stretch during that span in which neither team scored a point.
  • Zack Novak almost kill a guy.
  • Trey Burke's final shot go halfway down then cruelly bounce out as the buzzer sounded.

That was not fun. At all. The most joy I got from that game was watching Novak stick it to the Arkansas crowd by sinking clutch three after clutch three, only I felt guilty doing so because I'm pretty sure Novak should've been ejected. Yes, he made an effort to block the shot, but nailing an airborne player in the head with your forearm while running at full speed is pretty damn dangerous.

That's besides the point, though. The point is that Michigan could never quite put it all together, dropping a very winnable game and leaving the Wolverines still lacking a true road win this season. If M lands on the bubble come tournament time, this is going to be the "what if?" game that could come back to haunt them.

The key was that press, spearheaded by a deep Arkansas rotation that kept fresh legs on the floor while Michigan's fairly-thin core group of players tried to keep pace. The Wolverines looked blindsided by the press early on, and instead of slowing the game down and playing at their tempo, they sped up. I don't have video of the opening minutes, but the sequence that led to Novak's flagrant foul is pretty indicative:

I'm pretty sure that play violated Rush the Court's first three rules for breaking the Arkansas press. Even when Michigan was able to get through, settling down into their half-court offense was another issue entirely.

Other than Jordan Morgan, who scored 16 points on 7-11 shooting and had eight straight to key Michigan's second-half surge, no Wolverine had an all-around solid game statistically. Trey Burke dished out six assists to just two turnovers and grabbed seven (!) rebounds, but his 13 points came on 6-19 shooting and he was just 1-6 from deep. Novak led the team with 17 points and connected on 5-7 three-pointers, but he turned the ball over four times and struggled to keep pace defensively. Nobody else cracked double-digits in the scoring column, and it took the still-slumping Tim Hardaway Jr. eight shots to score nine points.

Michigan will look to move on from this game quickly, but the remaining stretch is brutal. The Wolverines head to Purdue tomorrow night (KenPom: 35% win probability), then play at Ohio State (5%), at home vs. Indiana (43%), and at Michigan State (13%) over the next two weeks. In fact, going by KenPom, the Wolverines are projected to win just four of their remaining 11 games. While that would give the team a 20-11 record (10-8 B1G), almost assuredly locking up a spot in the tournament, the team could be looking at another uphill battle to even reach the second day, let alone the Sweet Sixteen.

While that would still satisfy expectations, we all know from experience that life on the bubble is a stressful existence. With Hardaway struggling, Smotrycz disappearing, and the team leaning heavily on a freshman point guard, something is going to have to change—and soon—if Michigan wants to avoid a late-season swoon. I trust John Beilein to make the necessary adjustments, but once again, the burden will be placed on a group of mostly-inexperienced players to pull through.

And yet, Michigan remains tied atop the Big Ten standings. Please don't ask me to explain what's going on this year. It's probably best to strap yourself in, because it's going to be one hell of a ride from this point forward.


house that caz…

January 23rd, 2012 at 4:16 PM ^

Weird day for Novak. Missed a block out on a FT and a defensive rotation on a pick and roll, both within the last minute. He shot the ball well, but the little things that you can normally count on him to do were just not there (ie coughing the ball up 4 times).


January 23rd, 2012 at 4:28 PM ^

I thought it was maybe a little more than "just" a flagrant foul but maybe not quite ejection-able.  But if he'd have been ejected I would have totally understood.

He's not a bad kid, but that was a bad foul.


January 23rd, 2012 at 4:29 PM ^

Have to disagree on the Novak "should have been ejected," comment. If you watch the play closely, it looks to me like the Arkansas play does what amounts to a stiff arm on Novak as he attempts to block the shot. This causes Novak to not be able to get high enough to hit the guy on the arm or block the shot, and basically causes Novak to hit him in the head.

I thought the same thing when I saw the play initially, but when I saw the replays, I thought that had a big part in Novak doing what he did.

The game itself was gutwrenching. I wish Burke would have gotten to the rack, but that shot was so close to being down it wasn't funny. Here's hoping we find a way to pull it off at Purdue tomorrow night.


January 23rd, 2012 at 4:34 PM ^

A FF? Of course. No problem with that. But there was no intent. And if we're supposed to just let layups and dunks go, I'm not sure I want to watch basketball anymore.  Have we gotten that soft? What have we turned basketball into, anyway?



January 23rd, 2012 at 5:04 PM ^

I thought in real time that Novak obviously tried to block the shot but missed b/c he's only 6'4" and not an outstanding leaper .  I also thought that the Arkansas kid shouldn't have tried to dunk the basketball if he didn't want to risk getting hit like that.  Novak's play was nothing more or less than Big Ten basketball. 

As to the schizoid nature of Michigan's season, it seems best explained with the hypothesis that Michigan is much, much better at home than they are on the road.   And let's not forgot that a lot of teams - like Arkansas - are much better at home too.  Michigan doesn't play in a vacuum. 

One more thing: I'm not usually an optimist, but I think that this team hasn't played its best basketball yet.  There is still time to improve.


January 23rd, 2012 at 5:16 PM ^

Saturday wasn't joy inducing, and the schedule skews tougher later than it has the past few years, but haven't we seen this before with Beilein?  People range from out for his head to worried (depending on how the year is going) in December and January, and then by late February into March, they're making their run and playing their best basketball.  Maybe this team is different, but I've learned the last few years that worry this early is wasted breath, because Beilein knows that what counts is what happens in March.

Now, if you think this team has a legit shot at the Big Ten title, rather than just taking the step from good to really good, then yeah, I can see the problems being worrisome.  But with holes up front and a freshman PG, I didn't think this team was ready to make that leap. But are they improving, and looking a lot better than I thought they would when the NBA stole their experienced PG? Yes.  Next year will be the year to make real noise.


January 24th, 2012 at 10:18 AM ^

It was not basketball at all.  It became clear 16 seconds prior to Novak's attempted "block" that he was going to get no where near the ball.  The play was very out of character for Novak, who plays incredibly hard but typically clean, but it was a flagrant foul and he should have been ejected.  Good kids make poor judgments, frustration can lead to split second decisions that can have serious consequences.  The play did not redefine Novak as a dirty player nor should his legacy(if you will) be altered by the split second decision that resulted in that act, but it takes a lot more than maize and blue colored glasses to see that as anything other than what it was.  Novak might be my favorite Michigan player ever, but he should be sitting out tonight.  Aforethought does not require prolonged consideration while reading an encyclopedia with thick rimmed reading glasses, it is simply a matter of deciding to take action and then acting on it (i.e this not Gholston-like with "malice" but certainly Bertuzzi-like with disregard for outcome).  The second after he did it he wished he hadn't, but that does not take away the fact the made the decision and acted on it.  He was not ejected from that game because the referees did not want him to have done what he did any more than Bill Raftery did.  That was a dangerous and unacceptable play and I don't think there is any other way to see it.


January 23rd, 2012 at 5:21 PM ^

I grew up on the bad boys, my hero growing up  was I. Thomas and all of my basketball coaches would have benched my ass had I not contested that layup.   To call for his ejection just seems nuts to me.  He went for the ball and he missed and hit the guy in the head.  So Novak should be ejected because he is unathletic?  No.

Maybe it's a generational thing and like football they'll rule out trying to stop a layup eventually , but that was a good defensive play and until they rule it out that was the correct play.






January 23rd, 2012 at 6:57 PM ^

Eh, in my mind you're not only responsible for the intent, you're responsible for the result. That was a really reckless play that had a high possibility of injuring the other guy. It's Novak's responsibility to go in in a way that's not highly likely to injure the other player. Contest it, sure, but you can't go in at that angle and make contact high on the body when the guy is off the floor. I thought an ejection would have been warranted, if a bit harsh, definitely a flagrant. Can't see a suspension, though, because there was nothing premeditated or clearly intended to injure (ala Gholston).


January 23rd, 2012 at 4:30 PM ^

The start of that game was a nightmare.  Before you could blink, we were down 17-5.  Pretty close to the game at Iowa where we started down 11-3.  As painful as this was, the Iowa game made me more angry.  Those guys got killed by Creighton, Campbell, Northern Iowa and Clemson.  Yet, we couldn't even stay close with them.  And there's no return trip to Crisler so we can't get revenge on them either unless we meet in the conference tournament.

The Arkansas game, much like the Indiana game, I liked that we could come back and make it close.  There's fight in this team.  I just wish we could start games on the road better and not have to spend the rest of the game trying to dig out of a hole. 

I'm dreading those games at MSU and OSU.  Those teams are a hell of alot better than Iowa and Arkansas.


January 23rd, 2012 at 4:54 PM ^

Good write-up Ace. I just disagree with a point or two; one is more opinion based, not calling it wrong.

Novak's foul was a harsh one; very dangerous play. But I half disagreed with the actual call on the floor. I agree with the above poster, that if were in an age where we just concede lay-ups and dunks, I'll pass on the sport; save the concessions for the NBA. Again the play was dangerous and I am glad the Arkansas player is okay. He, himself however, put himself at risk for that play. He could have played safe, not gone for the fancy dunk, and jump-stopped for a "safe" lay-up. I know that whole scenario sounds absurd to some, but my point is Zach Novak isn't just going to let a player take that dunk/lay-up as a freebie. He wasn't intending to harm the player and it was accidental that he did end up hurt/near hurt, ergo, no ejection need be as it was a play On The Ball. Basketball is a physical sport, plays like this will happen but legitimate efforts with no harm intended need not be punished. End rant!

Second, I'll simply say I had fun watching the game. Once tuned in from the Kentucky-Bama game, saw we Michigan was down ~15(?) pts. I was glued to the set and in my ecstatic "Let's-mount-a-comeback" mode. Yes, there was some poor play at times and was frustrating to watch, as I know those boys are better than they played at times. But the overall effort they displayed and how they responded to Beilien's challenge to go win that un-winnable game, was somewhat inspiring. I was realistic but was definitely in the mindset that they were going to have a chance to pull that win off; they damn near did at the hands of a savvy true freshman point guard. It is true, if this team wants to win the Big Ten or make a run in the NCAA tourney, certain players will need to come alive and Beilein will need to change/try some new things. Regardless, it'll be fun watching his team play out the rest of the season with heart they showed Saturday afternoon.


January 23rd, 2012 at 5:09 PM ^

Basketball is a contact sport.  (Football is a collision sport).  We JUST beat MSU, not because we shot better, or ran things more smoothly, but because we out-toughed them.  Beat them at their own game.  For too long people knew if they pushed Michigan around, we'd back down.  Novak has almost single-handedly changed that.  As the Pistons used to say about Reggie Miller "if he wants to beat us, he's going to have to take off his dress first."  Reggie eventually did, and his team started being really good.  Michigan basketball is not only getting more talented, better coached, and more skilled, but they're not getting pushed around anymore. I damn well don't want Novak's lack of hops to make us shy to do it again. If you don't want to get hit, pull up for the jumper. He's not required to...but we're not required to turn our basket into a lay-up drill either.

As much as my slightly tongue-in-cheek video says otherwise, I'm not talking dirty. He was going for the ball, hard, with body. He didn't get up enough, and got some head. But it was obvious he wasn't GOING for his head. The refs got it right. A flagrent, because he popped the guy (even if by accident), but not intentional, so no ejection.

People got upset over the MSU stuff, and it's falsely pointed out as hypocrisy by Sparty fans, but really, in that game it's most like the slam of Denard.  Hard and nasty, but football. The punch isn't football, but I understand it happening, and don't vilify him for it.  The Big Ten set the standard that  punch is a suspension, so it is, and was.  The one outside the bounds was the head twist on a defenseless guy in a pile.  There's nothing about football in that.  And that's NOTHING like what Novak did. And he wasn't even suspended for that....so the idea that Novak should be is just strange to me.

Glad to see basketball hasn't turned into two hand touch for a new generation, and it's more a matter of opinion.


January 23rd, 2012 at 5:08 PM ^

I also disagree that Novak should have been ejected.  He was obviously going for the ball and it was unintentional that he hit the guy in the head.  Flagrant, yes, but it was not ejection worthy, unless Novak having "white guy" hops is a crime.  I had different thoughts following the game:  While I was disappointed with the loss, I'm convinced that this Michigan team is tough and can play with anyone.  The thing that is holding them back from being elite is depth, especially at point guard.  I think Michigan has a shot to do something special this year, and nothing about traveling all the way to Arkansas in the middle of BIG season and coming up just short is going to change my mind.


January 23rd, 2012 at 5:19 PM ^

I found the game extremely entertaining.  Is there some sort of MGoCode that says an author has to be exceedingly negative? 

This was a loss, but not a particularly damaging or painful one.  I admit I turned in a little late and started with the notion that M was going to get blown out, but I found the comeback effort to be very exciting.  Arkansas plays an aggressive, interesting style.  Watching Michigan react to the press was interesting.  Yes, we lost, and yes, Arkansas helped with all their missed free throws, but Burke's shot was half-way down.  If it goes in, you consider it an instant classic comeback right?

I was very impressed with the team's determination in this one.  I thought it was a tremendous effort by Morgan especially.


January 23rd, 2012 at 7:23 PM ^

Battling back from a massive deficit in the face of mediocre Michigan shooting and outstanding Arkansas shooting was tough but entertaining. The outcome was disappointing, because this team is so close to being able to win games where they get in to a big hole early and battle back to near-equality. It's frustrating but it's life.


January 24th, 2012 at 12:16 PM ^

Michigan was playing a 2 pm non-conference road game in the middle of the conference schedule, just four days after beating their rival.  I'm impressed that they recovered from their understandably slow start and think it's best not to draw any negative conclusions from that sort of game.