3/30/2013 – Michigan 72, Kentucky 75 – 28-9, 15-3 Big Ten, season over
same damn shot
About three hours later, I realized I was on the same damn road, passing the same damn Indiana towns with ominous overtones in their names.
I was feeling the same damn way. I wanted the miles to evaporate faster than they were, to put all that behind me, to have a stiff drink at home. Mostly I just wanted to sit on a couch and exhale until everything had left my body and I flopped over on my side, inert, until the smell of bacon revived me in a day or a week or a year.
I kept trying to do this exhalation thing, and it was not working. I spent most of the game fearing the immaculately-coifed Kentucky fan in front of me would turn around and ask me to stop breathing so hard on her neck, whereupon I'd have to explain to her husband that yes I may be making your wife's neck uncomfortably moist but you see I am trying to expel my soul which really no that's not what I'm saying oh I see I've just been punched.
We made quite a crew in section 228: me trying to not die and not exist at the same time; the lady who is mercifully tolerant of moist neck; the XXXL Kentucky fan next to me complaining that the refs were treating Stauskas like a pretty pretty princess after every possession; the two Michigan bros a few rows in front of me taking their fashion cues from Macklemore and standing after every basket to make karma-obliterating woofing noises; and the unaffiliated mother with her family on the way to spring break trying to commiserate with me about how the Kentucky fans who made up about 90% of our section were just unreasonably into sports.
It took her a while but I think she finally put me into the unreasonable bin after the teams traded dagger three pointers with a few minutes left and the sun came through the floor of Colts Location Stadium, blasting us all with a heat only she noticed.
The boxing metaphor is inescapable. I have seen many basketball games; this one is the one that defies you to compare it to anything else. And it was specific: this was not the kind of boxing match where a Cuban with ten thousand amateur fights comes out and touches you up for twelve rounds until he's ahead on all the scorecards. This was two dudes with noses that might as well already be broken strolling out and windmilling at each other until one looks like Chernobyl… and he's the guy still standing.
Max Kellerman talks a lot about how great fighters are not like people, because when they get hit witheringly hard they don't want to dig a hole and lay down in it for a while. They instead get mad and start hammering back. This is an easy thing to feel you are capable of when not being hit witheringly hard, and pretty much the entire point of boxing is to strip this feeling from victim after victim. I have no illusions about my response to being hit like that. I will put my head in my hands, check twitter, and be nearly incapable of standing. One day I'm just going to fall over. I've made my peace with it.
Michigan—this Michigan team, this dead Michigan team—is not like that. They dug out of enough ten point holes midway through the season to demonstrate that, surely. Here every time Kentucky would threaten to pull away Stauskas would swoop into the lane or Morgan would collect a rebound and finish against Kentucky's never-ending assembly line of skyscrapers, or Robinson would nail the late momentum-shifting corner three that has become a trademark over the past month.
If Calipari had ran out to midcourt with a shovel and started whacking Morgan with it while screaming "WHY <whack> WON'T <whack> YOU <whack> DIE," this would have made total sense to everyone in attendance. Kentucky was hitting three pointers and taking zero jumpers otherwise. They rebounded 63% of their misses(!). Michigan was there, riddled with bullets but still lurching forward.
As the game went on and the temperature rose, the building knew. There is an odd shift in the dynamics of an arena once it becomes clear to everyone present that they are watching an out-and-out classic. The stakes, already astronomical, ratchet ever-higher as the imperative to not lose this game, to win this game, to have this thing in your heart forever for cold nights and funerals, reaches critical mass. I mean, what if Michigan loses in overtime to Kansas last year? It does not bear thinking about.
So Michigan executes its version of that Syracuse possession with about seven missed shots in four seconds except Jordan Morgan wills the ball in the basket with his goddamned mind, and then it's just one guy taking a bad shot that looks improbably true.
It was probably the guys tweeting that they were watching Cosmos and regretting that they were responsible adults with children instead of super high and watching Cosmos that put me in this frame of mind but on the same damn road I started thinking about how space was unfathomably large, cold, and empty.
We'd just exited what was temporarily the saddest Culver's in America, on the vanguard of a highway of silent maize-clad Michigan fans acknowledging each other with a sigh and a shrug at chain restaurants and rest stops. In the fifteen minutes it had taken to eat, the twilight had turned definitively into night. The sun down, I tried exhaling again. Still nothing.
You know, I was basically okay. I thought about Jordan Morgan and the Kentucky fans all screaming out defensive instructions to their players whenever Stauskas touched the ball and figured out the exact tenor of my sadness. I had been eroded in the presence of the sun, and was glad for it, but now that place was getting smaller and farther all the time.
We were an outbound comet, hoping, waiting for the next opportunity to feel the stellar wind blow.
Jordan Morgan. Uh…
— John Mozena (@johnmoz) March 30, 2014
I'm not actually sure I can or want to do that. Usually those kind of things are reserved for the Cazzie Russell types but these days anyone that good exits before he can… well, I kind of want to say "program icon status" but if I say "Trey Burke" one of two images pops into your head so that's not quite right. But they're awesome and gone so fast it feels a little weird putting them in the rafters. (Being a Kentucky fan these days must be the weirdest experience in sports. Entirely new team every year.)
Watching Morgan's up and down career end with a tournament run in which he was one man trying to hold back the hordes… it does make you wonder. Morgan is the embodiment of the program's straight arrow up in the Beilein era, and he is an epic twitter troll with two engineering degrees. Save a Tyler Hansborough/Russ Smith type who is awesome but has one critical flaw in his game that prevents the NBA from swooping in on him, it's hard to think there are going to be many more deserving four-year guys.
Nik Stauskas. If that was the last game, and I'm guessing it was, he went out with a bang. I think swooping layups and rim attack after rim attack against Kentucky may perk up NBA draft executives' ears.
It is kind of crap luck that the guys Beilein turns into killers are so so good that they're two or three and out these days. As Morgan demonstrated, seniors are nice to have. You're up, Caris.
Welp. Michigan was set to win this game despite getting bombed on the boards, just as it had been ordained, but Kentucky, the #249 team in the country from three, went 7/11 behind the arc on looks that were mostly contested. If you find randomness on the street, slug it in the gut and say that's from MGoBlog.
SOFT THREE-DEPENDENT BEILEIN. That's continually the line from MSU fans. Michigan from two against freakin' Kentucky: 20/39. Michigan State versus UConn: 7/17. MSU took 12 more threes than twos. Shirtless AXE bro, heal thyself.
(Two point baskets by players who will probably return to MSU next year: 1, by Dawson.)
The NCAA tournament remains great. Hunter Lochmann probably had a stroke when he realized that absolutely no piped in music would be provided. Wait until they see a February NBA game, he thought, 'I'm Gonna Make You Sweat' is gonna make YOU sweat.
Do you know what they did during TV timeouts? Nothing. They put some trivia up on the scoreboard. There was the occasional announcement. Otherwise the commercial breaks were bands playing music and nothing else. It was amazing.
No one left at halftime, muttering about how if they can't hear "Ceiling Can't Hold Us" there's no point to sports. "Why will no one direct me to make noise?" this nonexistent person asks. "Where is my kiss cam? Are you guys even having a sporting contest? GIVE ME MY HAT SHUFFLE."
Anyway, for all the commercialism the NCAA packs into their every waking moment they have really minimized it for the event itself. The tournament is a national treasure for that reason. Michigan should emulate that instead of the ECHL.
Except for PA announcer guy. It started off poorly when he called Caris LeVert "Caress" LeVert and continued for the entire two games; even when not doing that the Colts Location Stadium PA announcer sounded like a terrible parody of a smarmy PA guy instead of a PA guy. Imagine Rob Schneider doing PA guy, and then make him worse at it. Oy.
Stagger. My one problem with the tournament setup is one I'm sure everyone shares: what is up with the game stagger in the Sweet 16? There's no reason MSU and Virginia should be going down to the wire at the same time Kentucky and Louisville are melting down Colts Location Stadium. Also you have large video boards; when game action isn't going on those should be playing other games.
Basketball of the future. Michigan wanted to force Kentucky into two-point jumpers. Nope:
With that distribution it's a victory that Michigan only gave up 48% from two in the second half, and yes, Daryl Morey is subscribing to Calipari's newsletter.
Stats! This game created or cemented a few remarkable ones.
@JohnGasaway It was the highest combined offensive rebounding percentage game of the entire season among two D1 teams
— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) March 31, 2014
Moral Victory: Michigan finishes with an adj. offensive efficiency of 124.1. That's the best in the KenPom era.
— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) March 31, 2014
He doesn't care about this now, but Jordan Morgan set the Michigan record for best FG% in a season (70.0%) and a career (63.1%).
— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) March 31, 2014
70%! For a below-the-rim center. John Beilein is a genius, man. Also, best offense in 11 years (shhh, don't mention the rule changes).
Dammit. I said I wasn't going to think about McGary what ifs. Impossible not to, though. Imagine Morgan bumping down to the 4 for big chunks of this game with Mitch's crazy defensive rebounding on Dakari Johnson. On the other hand…
Michigan won the Big Ten by three games was a coinflip away from the Final Four without Burke, Hardaway, and McGary. I'd say let that sink in, but it should have been doing so for weeks now and it hasn't and it probably won't. The shots Michigan took should have had them down and out since they don't recruit at a super-elite level, but instead they blew through a conference that had three Elite Eight teams. And even though they're likely to take more NBA hits this offseason, they should enter next year as one of the conference favorites. It boggles the mind.