So yeah, this has actually been in the works for a couple of weeks, but being the superstitious person that I apparently am when it comes to sports, I held off posting while UM kept plowing through the best teams in the country. As a result, I’ve had to completely junk sections (e.g. talking about Burke’s chances at national POY honors, lack of compelling storylines) while fleshing out others (e.g. horrible refereeing, announcers with agendas, 3-point shooting as a sustainable offensive strategy) with more information. And maybe the wounds are still too raw and fresh, but this post will be my little catharsis after going through the emotional wringer.
Best: Thank you!
This post may get a little melancholy, so up front I want to say “Thank you” to the team, the coaches, to everyone for a great season. When I caught UM in NYC just before Thanksgiving, I hadn’t seen them play in person in over a decade. But not 5 minutes into that game, I couldn’t get over how much fun it was to watch them. They played the game “the right way”, but not in the cliche way old men use it to refer to a figment of their faded memories, but in the way good basketball should be. It has been an amazing run all year, and will be a tale I tell my kids years from now when they are staring at their iPad 7s at dinner and ignoring me.
This team was fun to watch, and as a fan that is the best complement you can give a team.
Not to go all SEC and make everything about football, but does everyone remember how depressing the 2008 Michigan football season was? The team went 3-9 and wasn’t even that good, and the bowl streak ended, the team was trounced by mid-level MAC teams and freaking Illinois, and everyone was bummed? And this stink, this cloud of despair, didn’t really start to leave until Brady Hoke showed up and the team beat OSU and won the Sugar Bowl?
Well, the conventional wisdom during 2008 was that most Michigan fans had never experienced such a profound sense of national irrelevance, let alone the tangible results of a losing season, in their lifetimes, that they didn’t know how to handle it. They had expectations, and those finally did not mesh with reality. As a result, they lacked the copping mechanisms other fanbases built up over time, of seeing your best efforts end in missed bowl games and losing streaks to rivals. You get used to the teases, the down years, the unknown trials and tribulations that put pencils in your hands during preseason prognosticating when you really want pens. You can’t assume anything, which maybe makes the lows more ominous but also makes the highs that much sweeter.
People will say that UM basketball entered this circle of Hell when Steve Fisher walked out those doors, bodies sticking out from beneath the various rugs and buses strewn about Crisler. But that always felt like an easy-to-locate marker than an actual timestamp, the “official” end of an era for narrative purposes. To me, the beginning of this sports purgatory was that 1993 National Championship game. Until that point, Michigan had seemingly been on a perpetual rise. The title in 1989 felt slightly unexpected at the time but, in hindsight, kind of made sense given the talent on the team. They followed that win up with another solid season, one admittedly down year in 1991, and then the rise of the Fab Five. For a solid 5-year stretch, everything was coming up Michigan.
But then UM lost to North Carolina, and the magic was gone like that. In hindsight, it would have been gone regardless of the outcome, because expectations had been ratcheted up to unsustainable levels as soon as Chris, Jalen, Juwan, Jimmy, and Ray pulled up their black socks. 1989 was the title, but 1993 gave people the license to expect a title, and this pivot is what turns fans from 1980 US Hockey fans to 1980 USSR Hockey fans.
Duke fans feel like this, same with UNC, Kansas, IU and MSU. You want to just love your team for what it is now, but you can’t completely ignore what they were and what they should be. And that taints your view a bit; you are relieved when they squeak by a 5 seed in the second round of the NCAA tournament because it means another trip to the Sweet 16, and it leaves the possibility open for a run to the Elite 8 and to the Final Four. You feel a release not of happiness but of pressure, vicariously living through wins and loses the way you always say you won’t but inevitably ends with you screaming at the television in front of mixed company.
I guess my point is that regardless of how Monday turned out, UM basketball has returned to national relevance, and that is amazing for fans like me who tried to talk himself in Maceo Baston and Louis Bullock as saviors of the Maize and Blue cagers. John Beilein has proven to be a dynamic offensive mind and a very shrewd recruiter, who can meld teams into his image and overcome many of the deficiencies found in the college game. Even with the expected turnover, people will expect UM basketball to be back in the conference and national title hunts most years, like a national power should be. At the same time, though, the feelings of these past 4 weeks will probably never be there again, or if they are they’ll be tinged with a dread you can’t quite shake. The cloud over UM basketball has finally lifted; it may just be replaced with a far less oppressive one.
Worst: You can take the referees out of the Big 10, but you can’t take the Big 10 out of the referees
Now, I could complain about the officiating in that title game as much as anyone, but it was emblematic of a trend in college basketball that has been going on for years. Whether it be due to the byzantine and obtuse rulebook and its inconsistent enforcement, the speed and development of the players, or simply a drop in overall quality, the officiating of major college basketball has been immensely underwhelming. Offensive players are either treated as Faberge Eggs with the ball (and any impediment of their travel to the hoop treated as a class-2 misdemeanor), or running backs in the worst Oklahoma drill in the world. Defensive players seemingly have no idea what qualifies as a foul or not, so they just throw their bodies around and get handsie like they’re at the Gold Club until they hear a whistle. Blatant calls are missed while game-clock differences of .2s result in 20-minute private screenings of computer monitors.
Since players started to go directly to the NBA with little or no time spent in college, people have offered this up as evidence as to why the college game has suffered both aesthetically as well as in results. And while it is true that the overall talent of squads has been diminished, the quality of the games has been affected at least as much by the degradation of the officiating. Or maybe that’s not the right term; the enforcement of rules has become so murky that referees seemingly are making them up as they go along, creating the disjointed and error-riddled product we’ve seen for over a decade.*
And while I love complain about it as much as the next guy, I don’t think refs “pick” a team or storyline and skew the game in that direction. They don’t get paid by the outcome, and despite Tim Donaghy’s claims, I don’t think most horrible calls are part of some insidious plan to defraud the betting public. But this whole season has been a parade of poor officiating in every conference, highlighted by a B1G season in which mauling a player or punching him in the Hoosiers barely registers. UM benefitted from these calls at times, especially during the tourney, but the fact that even the CBS announcers were calling out the poor calls during the game is an indictment of the “professionals” who are supposed to be keeping the game clean for the kids playing it.
*And I’ll add that it’s not like the NBA game is some bastion of beautiful play either. People point at Heat-Thunder and act like the rest of the season plays out like that. As someone who watches Pistons-Bobcats and Timberwolves-New Orleans, lots of games are downright unbearable.
Best: Player of the year != Dickie V's/NBA Draft Express's Ranking
This was one of those sections that was in an earlier draft, before Trey Burke pulled a Triple H and took every relevant POY award for himself. But whatever, it is still relevant. I know I sound like a cranky old man and/or Skip Bayless, but it feels like the POY award criteria has devolved the past 15-20 years from "who is the best player in the country based on a spectrum of elements, including team success, boxscore stats, and quality of competition" to a big switch statement:
case "ESPN likes him";
case "Plays for Duke":
case "White guy with funny hair and/or 'tries hard'":
case "NBA teams will draft him high":
case "Plays for 'big-name' team:
case "Guy who plays basketball well":
I'm not saying this is a full-proof algorithm, but there is a trend, if you will.
But what makes his sweep so great is that he backed it up on the court in different ways, like a true player of the year should. Outside of the second halves against Kansas and Louisville, Burke could never find his rhythm shooting, so he turned on the ball-hawking defense and facilitated McGary and the shooters. He made his team better, and when they needed him to start scoring he usually did. Even in defeat, he scored 24 points in basically a half of basketball, and probably would have had more had two horrible foul calls (Hancock’s three and his block on Siva) not been made. And he did it without the top-notch supporting cast that you sometimes see at places like UNC, Duke, and Kentucky, where multiple lottery picks are peaking at the same time. Simply stated – he put his team in a position to win every game, and it was refreshing to see a POY do that in big games.
Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I’m expecting McGary, GRIII, and Stauskas to return next year. Burke will be leaving and I expect Hardaway to be gone as well, but overall this team should have some talented players returning to supplement the Irvin and Walton joining the fold next year. It will be interesting to see how the young frontcourt players respond to an offense without a POY feeding them the ball at the best places possible, but I also have faith that they will make the necessary improvements to be leader-types next season. In particular, the rebounding ceiling of this team should rise dramatically, if for no other reason than a year in the weight room (not sure if they’ll have time to be in the community) will bulk up McGary and Robinson to the point they can bang with other post presences in the conference. And while I’m not expecting Spike to replace Burke’s production or leadership, he has proven himself to be a steady enough hand (and Beilein a great molder of PGs) to be a suitable replacement next year. The team will look quite a bit different, but a dramatic fall doesn’t seem likely.
Worst: Draft Speculation
Ugh. Every year, as soon as the confetti has been swept off the court in whatever gawd-awful football stadium the NCAA selected to screw up their championship environment, the attention turns to which players will/should be declaring for the NBA draft. Until recently, of course, UM never had to worry about it. Sure, Jamal Crawford declared early and that stunk, but the NCAA seemed hell-bent on making sure he’d never play a college game again, so that wasn’t a surprise. Manny Harris and Darius Morris were slight surprises but nothing shocking, especially given the clear ceilings in their games.
But the talk surrounding GRIII and McGary seems different, in that it epitomizes the “upside-idation” of pro basketball right now. It’s no longer enough to just be a competent player who needs to improve and mature; now everyone looks at a kid and guesses how he’ll look in 2-3 years, with more muscle, better shooting and different coaching, and then tries to figure out if he’s worth a draft pick. I think both of these players will get drafted in the NBA when they finally leave, but I’ve seen nothing this season to make me believe they can be even a fringe-rotation player on a decent NBA team next season. That doesn’t seem like a smart investment for either kid to leave UM, but I’m sure the next couple of weeks will be filled with dread.
Best: Likeable Players
This is probably more a blurb than a real thought, but it was refreshing to watch a Final Four in which none of the teams featured an outwardly-villainous player. That means, no Marshall Henderson’s, no Derrick Nix’s, not even an Evan Turner-type who doesn’t do anything outwardly horrible but just seems like a jerk on the court. Maybe Triche at Syracuse, but I don’t remember people hating on him like other players in years past. I certainly wasn’t crazy about Luke Hancock as a player against UM, but him being good at basketball (and being bailed out by questionable officiating) aren’t really character flaws to the degree that old Shark Boy from Ole Miss is.
Worst: Injured Players != Special Powers
I’m sure this will be unpopular to some, but the Kevin Ware situation drove me crazy not because of the way the Louisville players responded to it, but how everyone else with a buck in the game tried to exploit it for their own gain. Shirts were made so that Adidas could make a couple more bucks, blogs flooded their site with GIFs and videos to drive traffic while joining in the faux-outrage circle jerk, proponents of paying college players held it up as a shining example of why players need to be financially compensated, and the WWL/media amplified coverage to 11 in order to push the narrative that a kid’s horrific injury meant something more than horrible luck. In short, it was what you’d expect from modern sports culture.
But the real travesty is that Ware’s injury had very little to do with, you know, basketball. He was a good player for the Cards, but they obviously were able to weather his loss on the court reasonably well. Those kids were obviously hurt and pained by watching one of their friends and teammates suffer a horrible injury, but the narrative pushed that they were going to play “hard for Kevin” completely dismisses the reality that these kids were in the Elite 8 and playing for a f’ing national title already. Their next loss would likely be the end of many of their college careers. They had enough motivation.
Yet, to listen to pundits you’d think Louisville needed to sacrifice Ware’s tibia and fibula to the Basketball Gods in order to overcome Duke, WSU, and UM. To cheapen what happened into some motivational plot device devalues the real pain and suffering that occurred. Louisville won and lost because of how they played on the court, and while I’m sure they were happy that Kevin Ware was able to watch them win the national title, I find it hard to believe that their motivation to win a title was supplemented in a meaningful way by his injury.
Worst: Looking for answers
After a loss, people always look for explanations, some fact or trend that explains how one team emerged victorious while another left in defeat. And in some games, perhaps there is a clear example – poor shooting, rebounding, defense, etc. Maybe the other team his 50% of its threes, or forced 25 TOs. But over time, you start to see that perhaps teams lose and win because, in a one-game playoff, anything can happen. UM was a mediocre rebounding unit all year, and that continued into the postseason (35.1 TREB in the regular season, 36 TREB in the tourney). They shot about 71% on FTs in the regular season, and not much worse in the tourney. The defense gambled with outside shooting all year and it usually worked out, except when it didn’t and they were blitzed by teams like IU and MSU. Nothing much changed this postseason except for the fact that UM cruised past VCU and Florida in ways that people didn’t expect. They squeezed out a win against a Kansas team that seemingly every year underperforms a bit. Syracuse was a nail-biter to the end, and Louisville could have turned on a couple of plays. UM’s profile didn’t change that much, except that when they went on those 3-pointer binges the other team usually failed to respond.
My point is that UM lost because someone had to, just like SDSU, VCU, Kansas, Florida, and Syracuse. Yes, talent tends to win out over time and that’s why regular seasons matter in terms of seeding, but the best and worst thing about the tourney is that every game feels like its own little SimCity, and sometimes the power reactor is going great, the streets are clean, and the taxes are high, and other times, well…
Best: Next Year
As much as I complained about the dangers of expectations, it is also fun to realize that for the first time in, I don’t know, decades, UM football and basketball seem to be both on the rise. I’m sure when one of these teams flames out early in the tourney I’ll feel differently, but it’s currently April 9th and everyone is still talking about UM basketball and not pining for the spring game so that we can all speculate on who’s going to be the starting right tackle. That’s pretty awesome.