I've had a heartbreaking month of college hoops. I havent buckled down into religiously watching the whole nation, but I have watched, with anticipation and hope, every single minute of Indiana and Michigan basketball since their league seasons began, coincidentally, and perhaps in foreshadowed-bad-karma fashion, against each other on New Year's Eve. They are my two favorite teams, close to my heart, after all. Neverminding any backstory required to explain how that bizarre dual fanship has formed over the years, rest assured this month has totally wrenched my gut and punched my dong. Both clubs have had tremendous moments, but they've been meted out by a bounty of near misses and snatching defeat from the arms of victory outcomes.
It hasnt been all bad. The Wolverines and Hoosiers are a combined 15-5 ATS since league play started. And, if you haven't figured it out yet, I not only like to gamble on sports, but encourage betting on your teams games. So, there's been some Maize and Blue and Cream and Crimson profit to start 2010. I didnt have either in their Saturday covers yesterday, but i went to the window nine times in favor of one of these teams during the last month and not once did it net a losing ticket. (FYI: Just about each pick was touted at the JCB, so dont miss whatever February bandwagons we Book)
Ok, so I cant bitch one bit. But it did prove revealing that I still have a true heart and that sports losses remain impactful on me in a heartfelt, idealistic fan level. I have been downright mopey in the aftermath of my teams going 3-6 straight up in "close games." They mastered the art of losing, but covering,yet with each time my spirits dimmed, drowning out the cash register rings. I could not go a stretch a a few days without one of them team bringing me to the brink of celebration only to drop me and my fan brethern on our collective heads.
Indiana chokes away a 13-point halftime lead at home and losses to Illinois. Hours later I watch the Wolverines copy that in a loss at Crisler to Northwestern, a result I still havent been able to explain. Saturday, the Wolverines are nuetered by the sudden Manny Harris suspension. Sunday, the Hoosiers get blown out at home to Iowa, a loss that caused a lot of soul searching from folks regarding the reality of the rebuilding project. The Kailon Lucas show and DeSeans lip out proved an effective 1-2 punch that knocked me out of the college hoops world for a few days earlier this week. Just when I thought it was safe to step back in the ring, Indiana losses at the buzzer to Illinois yesterday after playing brilliant for 40 minutes. It was the most exciting and nerve racking three minutes of the Tom Crean era, but a stomach punch loss nevertheless.
The result? A February with a lot less stakes on the line where the teams postseasons hopes are concerned. A little more luck and IU could all but have an NIT bid in their grasp. That equals a huge step forward after a 6-win, 1-17 Big 10 campaign a year ago. We'd be having daily posts at the JCB reminding everyone just how smart we were by predicting an IU 5-4 home record or better in Big 10 play. Instead, the Hoosiers are 2-2 in those games with a lot of hard ones ahead and a better than .500 record needed the rest of the way just to finish .500 overall. The season will close out just like the second year of Michigan's football rebuilding job did this past fall. Progress totally obscured and, in some minds, totally wiped out by a string of losses piling up to end the year.
As for Michigan, they are 1-5 overall, 0-4 in Big 10 play in games decided by 6 points or less. If they are two games better and break even in those games--and lets say the 2-game turnaround is in league games--this club is sitting at 13-8, 6-4. A good bet for 11 wins in league play, their best conference mark in wins in years. An impressive record in an a power league. A non conference slate that at least proves you tried not to duck people. Dont bomb out in the BTT, and they're probably in. Instead, they're just one game above overall and one game below .500 in Big 10 play. A brutal spot to be in as February starts.
They have two hopes. Embark on the program's longest winning streak since the 13-game run in LaVell Blanchard's senior season that helped unbury the season after an 0-7 start. Now, there were a couple cupcakes in that mix, but it also included wins over 6 Big 10 teams and Vanderbilt and UCLA. Something in the ballpark of 6 or 7 in a row could get them into some brackets by the last week of February. With the rout of Iowa yesterday--and sixth straight cover-- it's one down and an indefinite amount to go. The second option is to win the Big 10 Tournament. Both are decided longshots.
Still, I dont think its unreasonable to claim Michigan will go 7-3 in their final 10 games. They wont go worse than 6-4. Doing at least that will equal last year's league mark and put them in the NIT. I think its important for the team to keep playing, if for no other reason than for Darius Morris' sake. The freshman point guard looks to be the biggest key next season. If Michigan expects to compete for the postseason next season, Morris needs to step up his production. I think he can be a double digit scorer next year and improve his scoring from year 1 to year 2 the way fellow Big 10 guards Travon Hughes, Verdell Jones and Chris McCamey did from their freshmen to sophomore campaigns. Morris was basically the same sort of prospect coming out of high school than all of them, so I dont discount it from repeating. I expect it. And, he's the best recruit the program has brought in since they inked Harris in 2007. He almost has to be The Man next year for this team. His length and speed will spearhead another good Beilein defensive unit next year. I could see him contending for league honors in steals and assists next season generating some easy offense for Michigan. But, he needs as many reps as possible this season. A 3-4 game run in the NIT with his role continuing to expand would be an ideal table setter for a better than most people expected season next year. Beilein is 13-6 SU, 14-5 ATS in NIT games, so there will also be some investment opportunities. The Wolverines have been one of the most profitable teams the last six weeks. I think it will keep up as I predict at least a 5-2 February. I'd like to keep winning on this team as long as possible and wont mind an NIT run if it also sets a good tone for 2010-11.
So, thats where I sit with my teams as February is about to begin. Anxiously awaiting the first NIT Projections of the year (due out here tomorrow) to see where Michigan sits and how far Indiana has to go to get there. Its not ideal. But at least I have more money in my pocket.
More depression comes from the knowledge that this is the first Sunday without football. I dont count the Pro Bowl. Despite next week's Super Bowl hullaballoo, we're left with a weekly hole in our sporting calendar. It's probably a good thing. There are better pursuits after all. College basketball, however, does provide some action on Sundays and, at times, will give us enough of a buzz the next six weeks so we dont go through complete cold turkey withdrawals with the sudden football void. Today is a perfect tonic. Eight big games--all on the TV dial somewhere--that all will have an impact on how the immediate Bubble will look when February begins tomorrow. There's four weeks to go until its officially March. Check out theremainder of my post on today's game with picks at the JCB