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Archive for the ‘Opinion/Editorial’ Category

History says Michigan’s “Harbaughfense” will be more explosive in Year 2

Thursday, September 1st, 2016


Last week we looked at how Don Brown’s scheme might affect Michigan’s defense. We learned that while it is indeed very aggressive, it is not a high-risk defense. I surmised that we can expect Michigan’s defense to eliminate roughly one big play allowed per game, which would theoretically result in three to seven points fewer per game, potentially taking an already very good Michigan defense into the elite stratosphere.

So of course this got me thinking about how Jim Harbaugh’s offense might develop from Year 1 to Year 2. Sadly, CFBStats does not have big play stats prior to 2010 so I couldn’t compare all of his Stanford teams. But we can still look at the 2010 team, or FULL Harbaugh as I’m going to call it, because it was his fourth season there and he had fully implemented his system with mostly his players. For good measure, and to give us a better idea of year to year progress, I also looked at his first two years in San Francisco and the year prior to his arrival.

Here is what I came up with.

The 2010 Stanford Cardinal offense averaged 5.8 big run plays per game (27th nationally) and 3.7 big pass plays per game (18th) for a total of 9.5 big plays per game (21st). The Cardinal’s big play percentage (total big plays divided by total offensive plays) was 13 percent, which was good for 22nd nationally. Not bad for something that looks like an offense from 1973, eh Joey Galloway? Oh, and by the way, Stanford went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl that season, dominating Virginia Tech 40-12 — the most points the Hokies allowed all season.

Stanford’s 2010 toxic differential (big plays for, minus big plays against, plus turnover margin) was 3.5 on a per game basis, which was good for 16th nationally. The BCS title game participants that year, Oregon and Auburn, were tied for second in toxic differential at 6.1. Teams that are around at the end tend to rank highly in this metric.

Obviously, these numbers don’t give us much context on year to year improvement without comparing them to his earlier years at Stanford but I’ll go out on a limb and say he made significant improvements across the board from 2006 (pre-Harbaugh) to 2010.

Now on to his San Francisco years. Disclaimer: The stats I will use here consider big runs as 10 or more yards, as we’ve already used, however they use 25 or more yards for big pass plays as that is what the NFL stats consider big pass plays. I also understand that comparing college to NFL is not an insignificant factor but it will illustrate my point just the same: Harbaugh’s teams get drastically better Year 1 to Year 2 and beyond. No, this is not an unheard of concept, but people like Paul Finebaum didn’t get the memo. I assume he’s an avid reader of this blog.

Side note: I did not break these stats down into per game as I did with the college stats as all NFL teams play the same amount of regular season games.

The season before Harbaugh arrived, the 49ers had 40 big run plays (24th in the league) and 36 big pass plays (5th) for a total of 76 big plays (17th) with a big play percentage of 8.04 percent (15th). In other words, the running game did not generate many big plays but the passing game did. Overall, the Niners were a very middle of the road team in terms of generating big plays.

Enter James Joseph Harbaugh. The 2011 49ers had 56 big run plays (9th) and 28 big pass plays (19th) for a total of 84 big plays (13th) with a big play percentage of 8.46 percent (12th). A massive improvement in the run category, a regression in the passing game, but overall it was a jump up just outside the top third of the league.

Year 2 of Harbaugh — 2012 — saw the 49ers break out with 81 big run plays (2nd) and 33 big pass plays (11th) for a total of 114 big plays (2nd) with a big play percentage of 11.76 percent, also good for 2nd best in the league. Year 2 saw another big improvement in the run game as well as the pass game.

To recap, from 2010 (pre-Harbaugh) to 2012, our guy took San Francisco from 24th in big run plays to 2nd in just two seasons. The passing game saw a dip from 5th to 19th before recovering back to 11th. And the overall big play percentage went from a middling 15th to a whopping 2nd. If that’s what a 1973 offense looked like, I’ll take that any day!

Standard caveats apply, but let’s look at San Francisco’s toxic differential from that time period too. In case you forgot, toxic differential is big plays for minus big plays against plus turnover margin — a useful measure to help further see the big picture.

Harbaugh’s first three seasons in San Francisco
Year Toxic Diff. Big Play Diff. T/O Margin Result
2010* 11 (9th)* +12* -1* Missed playoffs*
2011 56 (1st) +28 +28 NFC Championship Game
2012 72 (1st) +63 +9 Super Bowl Appearance
*Pre-Harbaugh, no playoff appearances in 9 seasons before Harbaugh arrived

I’m no rocket scientist but I think those numbers and results are pretty solid.

What does all this mean for Michigan? A few things. First, it means that Michigan’s offense is very likely to improve in the big play stat categories. Here’s a look at their 2015 offensive big play stats.

In 2015, Michigan had 3.6 big run plays per game (118th) and 3.7 big pass plays per game (40th) for a total of 7.3 big plays per game (100th) with a big play percentage of 10.49 percent (98th). Big plays in the passing game were solid but big plays in the running game and overall left much to be desired.

It won’t be hard to improve upon the pedestrian rushing and overall numbers, but I’m not so sure we can expect significant jumps, especially in the running category. Why not? For as much as I like De’Veon Smith he is not an elite running back. No one will confuse him with Toby Gerhart or Stepfan Taylor and most definitely not Frank Gore. I do think we will see improvement (only eleven teams had fewer big run plays per game than Michigan last year) but I don’t think they’ll crack the top 50. But as I said last week, an improvement of one big play more per game could, in theory, yield more points.

In conclusion, as if we didn’t already know, Jim Harbaugh’s teams get much better (what a novel concept) year to year. Now while I don’t expect this to be an explosive offense I fully expect the man who attacks each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind to take his offense to the next level. Combine that with a high-pressure, low-risk defense, and it backs up the expectation that Michigan could be in for a very special season.

Is Don Brown’s defense high-risk? The numbers say no

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Don Brown(Melanie Maxwell,

Recently, I was having a conversation with someone about the impact that Don Brown will have on the defense. He was saying with an extra aggressive scheme Michigan will probably force more turnovers but they’ll also end up giving up more big plays and that could cause them to regress and be even more susceptible to high powered offenses like Ohio State.

I hadn’t thought about it that way before — though I have heard the high risk/high reward narrative before — but it got me really thinking about it and I started looking into the stats from Don Brown’s previous defenses to see what Boston College did with this aggressive scheme and whether it really is a high risk one. Spoiler: it’s not.

““High risk? No. We don’t just throw this stuff against the wall … take it and say throw in this,” Brown said on Monday. “Come on. We’re not doing that. We look at the formations, the personnel groups. We lean to be on the aggressive side. Whether you’re running or passing the ball, we’re going to have the ability when we dictate to come. That’s what it’s all about.”

During my research one unfamiliar term came up several times: toxic differential, which measures big plays for/against, combined with turnover margin. So I dug deeper to compare what Boston College’s defense did the past few years versus what Michigan’s did and how Don Brown will impact Michigan’s defense this year and going forward.

But first a brief primer on toxic differential. We all know if you win the turnover battle you’re more likely to win the game and we all know that you would like your defense to prevent big plays. But until recently, I’ve never seen a metric that combined both turnover margin and big plays for/against ratio.

So what defines a big play? The NFL seems to regard any play gaining 20-plus yards as a big play, but it does not differentiate between rush and pass plays. I didn’t like that as it values runs and passes equally. Then Pete Carroll gave me what I was looking for. He regards big plays as 12 or more yards rushing and 16 or more yards passing. This is probably a much better measure of big plays.

Unfortunately, that data is not readily available for college stats, so for our purposes we will consider big plays to be any rush of 10 or more yards and any pass of 20 or more yards. What toxic differential seems to give us is a very intriguing look into how successful teams are successful.

Before we get to Brown’s defenses, let’s take a quick look at the playoff teams from both the past two seasons to see how those team ranked in this metric. Last year, Oklahoma ranked 12th, Clemson 16th, and Alabama 19th in toxic differential on a per game basis. (Note: I found that using a per-game number better illustrated these stats as some teams played only 12 games while most others play 13-14). So three of the final four ranked in the top 20 in toxic differential. Michigan State was the outlier at 45th, but when looking deeper you find that they were 10th in turnovers forced and fourth in turnover margin, so that explains that. And so does a lucky win at Michigan.

The season before that — 2014 — shows a very similar picture with national champion Ohio State ranking first, runner-up Oregon eighth and perennial top-5 team Alabama 11th. Three of the four playoff teams ranked in the top 11. Florida State was an extreme outlier at 77th — worse than even Michigan, which was 58th. Even stranger, and further proving stats do not tell all, FSU was 104th in turnover margin at minus-6. Let’s chalk it up to the Jameis Winston effect or something.

Now the fun stuff.

Don Brown defensive stats compared to Michigan in 2015
Year Big Run plays (rank) Big Pass plays (rank) Total Big plays (rank) Toxic Differential (rank)
2013 BC 4.6 (38th) 3.6 (87th) 8.2 (59th)
2014 BC 3.3 (5th) 2.8 (34th) 6.1 (6th)
2015 BC 3.5 (8th) 2.4 (13th) 5.9 (6th) 24 (33rd)
2015 UM 4.8 (56th) 2.4 (13th) 7.2 (25th) -3 (77th)

In 2015, the Boston College defense gave up 3.5 big run plays and 2.4 big pass plays per game, which was good for eighth and 13th fewest in the nation, respectively. Of all the plays in 2015, they gave up a big play (either pass or run) 9.47 percent of the time, which was good for 11th-best. BC gave up an average of 5.9 total big plays per game, good for sixth nationally. They came up plus-3 in turnover margin and their big play differential (percentage of big plays for minus percentage of big plays against) came in at 2.78 percent, good for 28th overall. Their total toxic differential was 24. On a per game basis this ranked them 33rd nationally.

Great, so what does that all mean? In a nutshell it means that Don Brown’s super aggressive scheme is not a high risk/high reward defense. In fact, the stats show that if anything this defense actually helps prevent big plays (sixth fewest big plays given up per game in the country). Brown himself calls his defense calculated, bringing different kinds of pressure from different spots depending not only on down and distance but also based on their scouting report of specific opponents.

Nov. 30, 2013 - Syracuse, New York, USA - November 30, 2013: Boston College Eagles defensive coordinator Don Brown calls a play during the first half of an NCAA Football game between the Boston College Eagles and the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse defeated Boston College 34-31. Rich Barnes/CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

Don Brown turned BC’s defense into one of the nation’s best despite a 17-21 record in three seasons (Rich Barnes, Cal Sport Media)

Michigan had a top tier defense as well last year, so one might assume their numbers would be as good, if not better than BC’s. It turns out they weren’t. The Wolverines gave up an average of 4.8 big run plays per game (aided by an absent Ryan Glasgow against IU and OSU due to injury) and 2.4 big pass plays per game, good for 56th and 13th nationally. Based on total number of plays Michigan gave up a big play 11.49 percent of the time, 59th nationally. All told, Michigan gave up 7.2 big plays per game, good for 25th nationally, very good but just over one big play more per game than BC surrendered.

Turnover margin left a lot to be desired for Michigan at minus-4 and their big play differential came in at -1.01 percent, 88th nationally. That means that they gave up a higher percentage of big plays than they produced, despite averaging an almost identical 7.3 big plays for and 7.2 plays against. Where they really got hurt was their inability to force turnovers. Michigan ranked near the bottom of the country in forced turnovers. To put in perspective just how few turnovers Michigan actually forced, only six teams in the country forced less turnovers than Michigan did last year.

Michigan’s toxic differential total was minus-3, ranking them 77th on a per game basis. All but one metric — big pass plays against — was worse than BC’s ratings, and in that one they tied with 2.4 big pass plays given up per game.

Michigan’s defensive coordinator last season, D.J. Durkin, was not known as a blitz-crazed maniac and his defense only surrendered 2.4 big pass plays per game, which was very respectable. Don Brown, or Dr. Blitz as he has been called, brings pressure on a self-described 85 percent of his play calls. Yet, his defense gave up the exact same number of big pass plays and less big run plays per game.

Going back two Brown’s first two seasons at Boston College, there was a significant improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 and then 2015 maintained that success. In his first season in Chestnut Hill, Brown’s defense ranked 38th nationally with 4.6 big runs allowed per game — an improvement by one big run per game from the previous season –, 87th with 3.6 big pass plays allowed per game, and 59th with 8.2 total big plays allowed per game. In 2014, those numbers increased dramatically. The Eagles ranked fifth with 3.3 big runs allowed per game, 34th with 2.8 big pass plays allowed per game, and sixth with 6.1 total big plays allowed per game.

It seems reasonable to expect a moderate decrease in big plays allowed per game over Michigan’s totals from last year due to the superior athletes they have at their disposal (and incredible depth at defensive line) compared to the talent Brown had at BC. Keep in mind that BC’s two play decrease from 8.2 total big plays given up per game in 2013 to their 6.1 in 2015 was a percentile jump of 53 spots. So by moderate I think we should look for about one less big play per game.

While that may not seem like much, according to Pete Carroll, each drive in which a team has at least one big play they are about 75 percent more likely to score. It stands to reason then that eliminating just one big play per game could result in giving up three to seven fewer points. For a defense like Michigan’s, which only gave up 16.4 points per game in 2015, that could mean the difference between very good defense and one of the best ever. Dare I say, Don Brown’s defense this fall could give the 1997 squad a run for their money?

The conclusion I draw here is that Don Brown’s super aggressive defense is actually a low risk/high reward scheme. Michigan was a very good defense last year and they might be even better this year.

Satellite camp ban shines light on SEC’s, NCAA’s self-serving interests

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Mark Emmert(LM Otero, AP)

Last fall, I posted up in the Starbucks on State and Liberty for a full day of interviews. In search of new writers for Maize and Go Blue I spoke with several current Michigan students — aspiring journalists with The Michigan Daily and engineering majors who enjoy writing alike — and alums interested in voicing their opinion on Michigan athletics.

I did the same in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, and when all was said and done I brought three new writers aboard. I considered it a success. Not only did I improve my team, but I also gave three college students a chance to cover their favorite team. A chance that comes with media credentials and insider access only a small percentage get.

As I was planning to make this fall’s hiring trip bigger and better, the fat cats at MGoBlog petitioned the World Wide Web to ban blogs from doing so. MGoBlog, of course, can sit back and wait for great writers to approach them, while blogs like us, Maize ‘n Brew, Maize ‘n Blue Nation, and Maize and Blue News have to get creative in order to find good writers. They reasoned that they shouldn’t have to work harder to draw elite writers from their own territory of students and alums.

On Friday, the WWW approved a proposal that would require blogs to “hire only via the comments section on their own website or on websites normally used for blog hiring (Craigslist).”

The above scenario sounds completely absurd, doesn’t it? And while it’s completely fictitious, it’s exactly what happened with the NCAA’s banning of satellite camps last Friday. It’s not a perfect analogy given that student-athletes and prospective student-athletes aren’t employees. But that’s where the NCAA’s ruling is even more absurd than the fictitious blog scenario above.

The NCAA’s stated description is “a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletics.” One of the NCAA’s seven core values is “an inclusive culture that fosters equitable participation for student-athletes and career opportunities for coaches and administrators from diverse backgrounds.” One of the main pillars of the NCAA’s web page is opportunity, with a description that reads, in part, “More than 1,100 member schools are united around one goal: creating opportunities for college athletes.”

Every one of the items listed above is a direct contradiction to the NCAA’s ruling to ban satellite camps. Rather than inclusive, opportunity-creating camps that help the pave the way for student-athlete well-being and lifelong success, the NCAA issued a self-serving, opportunity-limiting decree inclusive of only a select few.

The outcry from both high school and college athletes since Friday describing the opportunities that satellite camps created for them to be seen by a wider audience of coaches, and thus, broaden their opportunities has been backed by other college coaches as well.

“Those are the only two reasons, to selfishly guard your recruiting base — and that’s the major motive — or laziness,” said Washington State head coach Mike Leach. “OK, so we’re going to elevate those over the interests of, in particular, low-income student-athletes and providing them an opportunity? It’s by far one of the most absurd things ever. If we’re even close to who we say we are, this idealistic sport, student-athlete, college football — if we’re even remotely close to what we say we are, that needs to be overturned immediately.”

Leach also questioned the supposed vote that saw his conference, the Pac-12, along with the SEC, Big 12, ACC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt, approve of the ban. According to Leach, “the vast majority of the schools in our conference were in favor of the satellite camps.”

Jim Harbaugh, whose publicity of his own satellite camps led to the ban, has yet to publicly comment about the vote. But rest assured he has something up his sleeve to counter it.

“In my America, you’re allowed to cross the state borders. That’s the America I know,” Harbaugh said last June amid criticism of his Summer Swarm satellite camp tour.

The fact that a select few can get a rule changed simply because someone else’s ingenuity was threatening their cozy spot atop the landscape is deeply troubling. But even more so due to the fact that it flies in the face of what their profession pretends to serve. And it shines a large spotlight on what NCAA president Mark Emmert, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, ACC commissioner John Swofford, and others truly serve: themselves.

Height of sincerity: A defense of John Beilein

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Beilein and Spike(Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)

Earlier this week, the University of Michigan announced that Spike Albrecht, fresh off a senior year in which he was only able to play nine games and thus was granted a redshirt, would transfer out of Ann Arbor to play basketball elsewhere next season. With that came the official end of the 2012 recruiting class’s “Fresh Five” era at Michigan, and a collective sigh across the Michigan fan base.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that not a single player from that touted class will play a full college career at Michigan, as Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Mitch McGary left early, Caris LeVert played the equivalent of only two conference seasons, and Albrecht will transfer. That’s an even worse hit rate than the famed Fab Five, which saw two players – Jimmy King and Ray Jackson – play four full seasons in Ann Arbor and two more – Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose – complete their junior years.)

All seemed well and good until it was pointed out that the Big Ten restricts graduate transfers from playing immediately at another member institution. Shortly after that, it was revealed that Michigan coach John Beilein would restrict Albrecht from not only transferring within the Big Ten conference, but also to any other opponent on Michigan’s schedule in the next two seasons, according to MLive’s Brendan Quinn.

From there, all hell broke loose. Talks of Albrecht being a victim of an archaic NCAA system flooded social media, and critics of the restriction policies pointed out once again that the millionaire coaches have all the power while the peasant players – the ones who actually create the product that lines the pockets of coaches and administrators across the country with cash – are merely pawns of the system.

Perhaps the most outspoken of all the voices heard was Yahoo!’s Pat Forde, who presented Albrecht’s situation as the “height of hypocrisy” in a scathing column attacking both Beilein and the college basketball system as a whole.

Before I address these arguments, however, I wanted to make one point clear: every college basketball player seeking a transfer is doing so for his own reasons. To throw every single transfer into a basket and cover it with a single blanket is to ignore the uniqueness of each individual’s situation. So while I will defend Beilein’s reasoning to a certain extent in this case, I am not saying he is infallible when it comes to transfers; in fact, I was quite outspoken myself in his refusal to allow former Wolverine Max Bielfeldt back for a fifth season in Ann Arbor while also trying to prevent him from transferring to certain schools.

Now, on to this individual case. Instead of responding to Forde’s column with a winding essay of my own, I decided to break his arguments down into three points and address them one-by-one.

From my perspective, Forde’s issues boil down to the following:

1. Not allowing Albrecht to transfer within the Big Ten is “massively hypocritical” on Michigan’s part
2. Spike was “recruited over” and “has been told there is no scholarship for him at Michigan”
3. Rich, greedy coaches are allowed to move about freely from school to school without consequence while poor players are restricted from choosing where they wish to play

I’ll respond to these in order.

1. The supposed hypocrisy

Beilein and Spike 2(Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

Oh, the hypocrisy!

Let’s get Forde’s smelliest garbage – the idea that Michigan and John Beilein are being hypocritical by restricting Albrecht’s options because Jake Rudock just led the Wolverines’ football team to a solid season in his fifth year after transferring from Iowa – out of the way first. Yes, it’s true that Rudock left Iowa for Michigan and had a mostly excellent season as quarterback of the Maize and Blue, in what just so happens to be the most important position on the field. But according to my records — and, you know, Michigan’s schedule — the Wolverines did not play Iowa in Rudock’s lone season in Ann Arbor, so Iowa was never harmed by the transfer.

Now, it might take the intellect of a first grader to realize this, but as far as I know, Beilein does not run the football program at Michigan. To blame Beilein for being hypocritical when he was not even involved in one end of the equation is like blaming an eighth grade algebra teacher for a seventh grader failing biology. Sure, go ahead and argue that the conference is acting hypocritically, but don’t blame the coach that has never signed, and to my knowledge never even pursued, a transfer from another Big Ten university while at Michigan.

Even then, though, the Big Ten is not changing any policy. Rudock and Bielfeldt – who ended up playing his fifth season of basketball at Indiana – had to apply for a special waiver through the conference.

Furthermore, while it’s clear that Beilein has attempted to block his former players from transferring within the conference or to other future opponents, he has never fought extensively to prevent it after that waiver was granted. Indeed, the coach has lost two former players to future conference opponents in Evan Smotrycz (Maryland) and Bielfeldt, and a third, Laval Lucas-Perry, to a team on Michigan’s upcoming schedule (Oakland).

It’s also worth noting that this is not exactly a new issue. Beilein has made his policy very clear in the past – a policy that, according to Quinn, Albrecht was fully aware of – and is far from being alone in trying to avoid playing against athletes to whom he has spent years coaching up and teaching his intricate system. In fact, it was just a few seasons ago when Bo Ryan vehemently fought to prevent his redshirt freshman Jarrod Uthoff from transferring to Iowa, where the future star hailed from.

2. Spike’s scholarship was effectively pulled out from under him

Beilein and Spike 3(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

While Forde’s ridiculous argument regarding hypocrisy is exactly that, this argument is even more outrageous to me. Let’s first forget about the fact that Forde never even interviewed Albrecht for his hot take laden article, but rather relied on a single second-hand source in the form of Spike’s father for all his information.

To say that Albrecht was “recruited over” shows a complete lack of understanding of the situation, so I will do my best to recap. Throughout his junior season, Albrecht played through pain in both of his hips, opting to withhold surgery until the offseason. Once the offseason came around, the rising senior from Crown Point, Ind. immediately underwent surgery on both of his hips to correct issues that his father has also experienced. Doctors and the Michigan basketball program alike, from Beilein to Albrecht himself, seemed confident that, with some intense rehab, Albrecht would be ready to go by the start of his senior year (approximately eight months after surgery).

Unfortunately, all did not go according to plan. Albrecht’s pain affected his play in a major way, and soreness and stiffness reportedly followed him around like a Stage Five Clinger. During halftime of Michigan’s game at SMU, Albrecht informed coaches that he did not feel well enough to return in the second half, and a decision was made soon thereafter to shut it down for the remainder of the season.

At the time, Michigan announced that Albrecht was “retiring”, but there always seemed to be an underlying sense that he could return if things progressed positively. Fast forward to earlier this week, and Albrecht’s competitive attitude led him to extend his college career.

By all accounts, there was simply no way for Beilein to anticipate this situation. Seeing the developing state of his roster heading into this past season, Beilein went ahead last year and recruited a point guard by the name of Xavier Simpson to come in with the class of 2016 to presumably back up a senior Derrick Walton. At the time Simpson committed to Michigan on September 9 and later signed his Letter of Intent to play at Michigan on November 11, all parties expected Albrecht to play out his career in Ann Arbor. That, of course, changed in the following weeks, but by no means was Albrecht deliberately “recruited over”.

Additionally, there’s strong reason to believe that Albrecht himself did not even directly inquire about the possibility of returning to Ann Arbor for his redshirt senior season. In one report from Quinn on, Albrecht said “I know there’s a slim shot of a spot opening up” and that his conversation with Beilein was “tough on both of us” and “difficult” for Beilein. He went on to say that Beilein would consider bringing him back if an additional scholarship opened up, but that Albrecht wanted to get his name out on the transfer circuit with spots starting to emerge elsewhere. In a similar report from The Michigan Daily, Albrecht was quoted as saying “I know the scholarship situation I’m going to be in and that there’s probably not a likelihood of me being able to come back” to Beilein.

To me, that sounds like the decision to transfer was 100 percent Albrecht’s call. Beilein did not force Spike out like he arguably did with Bielfeldt before. He even presumably agreed to assist Albrecht in acquiring an extra year of eligibility by preserving his redshirt. Whether Albrecht is transferring due to concerns over playing time next season or for other unknown reasons is beside the point here, as it appears pretty clear that Albrecht was never explicitly told that he would not be able to return to Michigan.

It’s also widely known that Albrecht is a favorite of Beilein’s despite being undersized and outmatched athletically by nearly every opponent – something that has seemed to fly under the radar as people pile on Beilein for being a monster.

3. Coaches are rich and powerful, players are powerless peasants

Beilein and Spike 4(Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

I’ll agree with the basic argument Forde (in solidarity with many other pundits) presents here. It’s true – big-time college basketball coaches make millions of dollars on the backs of their players while the players get nothing more than a free education, free coaching, gear, and a stipend in return (no, we will not be getting into the drawn-out amateurism argument here). Coaches are also free to pick up and change schools or retire on a whim, while players are often restricted from transferring to certain schools or forced to sit out a season in order to adhere to NCAA rules.

But let’s discuss a couple facts that are not pointed out in Forde’s article. The example that Forde gives to embody this argument is that if Beilein retired and Tom Izzo decided to take over as head coach at Michigan, “(Izzo) would be welcomed with open arms in about 30 seconds” without restrictions or having to sit out a season. Besides this being maybe the worst example ever given in the history of mankind, it also fails to acknowledge that players and signed recruits are almost always given a no-holds-barred release from their “contract” if a coach leaves his post. If Beilein were to retire or unexpectedly take a different job next year, his players and recruits would be allowed to leave Michigan – and even follow him to his new destination if desired.

This argument also fails to address another crucial fact. Sure, the player in this situation is being restricted from going anywhere in the country, and thus one could argue that he is hurt by the inability to transfer to the school that offers him the best opportunity. But what about his former teammates? In this case, if Albrecht were allowed to transfer to another Big Ten school or a different future opponent, does that not hurt Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, and company? What happens if Albrecht went to Indiana and provided a full scouting report to his new coach and teammates, complete with inside information on Beilein’s system and certain tendencies of his former teammates? Is that not inhibiting Michigan’s current players from having a fair shake?

Now yes, every team scouts its opponents extensively, and Tom Crean is very familiar with Beilein’s system by now. A former college basketball player argued with me that even if Albrecht were able to provide play names to his new Big Ten team, conference opponents would have already scouted Michigan enough to know certain plays and individual tendencies. But in my book, any bit of an advantage helps, and allowing one player the chance to provide a full scouting report against his former team seems a bit one-sided to me.

And though Beilein’s comments have been largely dismissed, I’ll put forth his argument again: Does it really hurt a player that bad if he only has 330-some different schools to transfer to as opposed to 350 schools? Albrecht can still play for any number of big time programs throughout the country. He can still finish his college career in the tropics (Hawaii, Florida Gulf Coast) or in the tundra (UW-Green Bay, Maine). He can choose to play close to home for a highly respected program (Notre Dame, Butler) or far away for a program on the rise (Southern California). He can continue his education at an outstanding academic institution (Stanford) or take it easy on the books (IUPUI). Heck, if he’s feeling up for it, Spike could even play for any of the four teams left standing that we’ll all be watching this weekend.

That doesn’t sound so bad to me.

The 10 best moments of Michigan’s season (so far)

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

(Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports)

It has been a long ride for the 2015-16 Michigan basketball team, one with many highs but an unexpected number of lows. John Beilein’s team fought through injuries, shooting slumps and far too many defensive lapses to ultimately land right where it wanted to be: The NCAA Tournament.

The Wolverines certainly didn’t take the traditional route to the Dance. Up until the moment the official bracket leaked on Twitter, it looked like Michigan’s odds of playing in the tournament were only slightly better than 50-50.

Most importantly, Michigan is one of 66 teams that still have a non-zero chance to win it all. But before we turn our attention fully to the NCAA Tournament, let’s take a look back at the top moments that landed the Wolverines in this position.

10. Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht honored on Senior Night

Okay, so Senior Night wasn’t exactly what Michigan envisioned at the beginning of the season. For one, neither LeVert nor Albrecht scored a single point for the Wolverines in 2016 due to injury. The seniors didn’t play on Senior Night, instead watching their teammates get trounced by an Iowa team that arrived on a four-game losing streak.

But it wouldn’t seem right leaving Senior Night completely out of the top 10. Michigan hasn’t had a truly meaningful Senior Night since Zack Novak and Stu Douglass said their goodbyes, and LeVert and Spike at least gave Beilein two great seasons.

Spike also held up his framed jersey the wrong way when saluting the crowd, a cherry on top of an endlessly entertaining college career.

LeVert and Albrecht were added to the Fresh Five as afterthoughts, joining Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas in a loaded recruiting class. But Albrecht turned into a solid backup point guard in his freshman year and exploded for 17 points in the school’s biggest game in over a decade. LeVert, on the other hand, became the team’s best all-around player for an Elite 8 run and will continue his career in the NBA.

The last two years have been frustrating, but Michigan still got more than it could have hoped for out of the two lightly-recruited guards. Good luck, fellas.

9. John Beilein wears a ChadTough T-shirt during game

Since Beilein took over as the top dog in Ann Arbor nearly 10 years ago, he’s stuck to his two-trick wardrobe combinations: Shirt and tie — or polo — and dressy pants. But he made an exception on Feb. 13, sauntering out of the Blavin Tunnel with his maize ChadTough Foundation T-shirt.

It was the final push for Beilein to win the Coaches Charity Challenge and raise $100,000 for the ChadTough Foundation, an announcement that came the very morning Michigan was named to the NCAA Tournament field.

Beilein has since reverted to his business casual ways, but the T-shirt game did happen, coach. We have pictures.

8. Mark Donnal drops 26 points (yes, twenty-six) at Illinois

6, 6, 0, 0, 7, 4, 0, 2, 0, 0, 11, 0, 7

If I asked you to pick the outlier in the group of numbers above, you respond with something like, “Well, 11 sure is quite a bit higher than the rest of those numbers.”

You would be correct. Mark Donnal had quite an explosion against Northern Kentucky, scoring 11 points and grabbing two rebounds. It was by far his best performance in Michigan’s first 13 games of the season.

Then on Dec. 30 Donnal embarrassed Illinois’ weak defensive front court and made 11 of 15 field goal attempts for 26 points. He also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots.

Oh yeah, and he didn’t even start. Ricky Doyle did.

There was not a full moon on Dec. 30, 2015. I checked. And it wasn’t Donnal’s birthday, either. He was born in May. The only explanation for his stat line is that college basketball is amazing and pretty much anything can happen any time two teams hit the court.

For Michigan, Donnal’s outburst halted the revolving door at center and cemented the sophomore as the team’s starter. Doyle and Donnal went back and forth a bit during the first half of the year, but at the turn of the calendar, it was Donnal all the way for Beilein.

7. MAAR gets new life, and runs with it

At the beginning of the season, one had to wonder if Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman would be in the Maize and Blue for much longer. He was planted firmly behind Derrick Walton, Albrecht and LeVert in the guard rotation and even lost some minutes to the Duncan Robinson-Aubrey Dawkins duo early.

With such a loaded group of guards and Xavier Simpson set to join the team for 2016-17, it looked like MAAR’s minutes would take a massive hit, despite his excellent contributions down the stretch in 2015.

But then a hobbled Albrecht called it a career and LeVert went down with the secretest injury in Michigan history and the door of opportunity swung open for Abdur-Rahkman.

It didn’t take long for MAAR to lock up the fifth starting spot. In his second game filling in for LeVert in the back court, Abdur-Rahkman scored 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting in West Lafayette and almost single-handedly kept Michigan alive for 30 minutes against a heavily-favored Purdue team. He scored from beyond the arc, he scored from the free throw line, and most importantly, he scored off the dribble, giving Michigan a legitimate attacking threat in the paint.

Here we are, two months later, and he’s still the team’s best offensive player off the dribble. Instead of watching from the (albeit extremely comfortable-looking) folding chairs on the sideline, Abdul-Rahkman could be an integral part of the NCAA Tournament.

6. Caris LeVert makes his return! Well, sort of

It seems cruelly ironic to look back on LeVert’s return to the court and think, “That was actually the beginning of the end.”

After game after game after game (11, to be exact) of LeVert being ruled out following ‘game-time decisions,’ he actually participated in warmups on Feb. 13 and caused quite a buzz in Ann Arbor.

The team as a whole wasn’t giving fans much to be excited about. After losing back-to-back home games by half a hundred and nearly blowing a huge lead to winless Minnesota, the Wolverines returned to a less-than-optimistic crowd at the Crisler Center to battle an enormous Purdue team that won the previous meeting by 17 points.

I remember looking around before tipoff and wondering how the stands could be so empty with a top 20 team in the building. Sure, the ChadTough T-shirts generated a bit of excitement in the Maize Rage, but the overall feeling of the fanbase was one of defeat.

Then Caris jogged out of the tunnel and joined the layup lines. You’d think he shot himself out of a cannon and landed at midcourt after a perfect flip by the cheer that ran through the crowd.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but for the first time since halftime of the Indiana debacle, fans around Crisler perked up.

When the game started, LeVert was on the bench, when Beilein pointed at him and he ripped off his warmup, the crowd really did erupt. He took only shot — a shot-clock hurried jumper near the elbow — and didn’t score in the game, but his return energized the fans and the team.

Nobody knew that would be the last time they’d see Caris LeVert play in a Michigan uniform. At that time, it was just great to see the team’s leader in nearly every major category back with the ball in his hands.

5. Zak Irvin’s elbow jumper saves Michigan in overtime

The No. 1 moment on this list will get most of the credit for sending the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament, but that might not have even happened if not for Zak Irvin’s dagger with three seconds left in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

After clawing and scratching their way to overtime, Michigan managed to earn itself a chance to take the last shot in a tie game. Beilein called on the team’s streakiest player, Irvin, to take a contested jumper off the dribble.

It worked. Irvin pulled up just beyond the right elbow and nailed the go-ahead jumper. Northwestern got another crack at a last-second prayer (two cracks, actually), but in the end, it was Irvin’s shot that sealed the deal and kept Michigan’s bleak NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

4. Wolverines return to the NCAA Tournament

When Michigan failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in 2015, it was a disappointing, but understandable pill to swallow.

LeVert, Walton and Albrecht were all injured. Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman were leading the team as unknown freshmen and Beilein had just lost a small army of players to the NBA draft.

But in a year when the Wolverines began ranked in the Top 25, with players like Walton and Robinson added to the rotation, missing the 2016 tournament would have been a much bigger blow for the program to swallow. Sure, LeVert and Albrecht missed the most meaningful half of the season, but for a program that was trending toward elite in 2014, two straight absences in March Madness seemed unacceptable.

Luckily, those concerns were squashed for good Sunday. Contrary to what many of the ‘bracketology experts’ predicted, Michigan got into the Big Dance. The big wins were there, the bad losses were not, and the Wolverines got what they deserved: An outside chance to make some noise.

Some might argue that Michigan’s season won’t be a success unless it gets past the First Four. To you I say, “Rubbish!” The First Four isn’t a 16 versus 16 play-in game like it used to be. Plenty of teams have made runs after winning in Dayton, including a Tennessee team that nearly knocked Michigan out of the Sweet 16 in 2014.

When Michigan was flirting with another tournament-less season, the program seemed to be trending sharply downwards. But now that Beilein has his players back on the national stage, it’s a step in the right direction.

3. Michigan uses 11-0 run in final 3 minutes to beat Purdue

As we make our way through the top three moments of the season, keep in mind that Michigan needed EVERY single one of its four top 30 wins to get into the NCAA Tournament. Even with those wins, and no bad losses, Michigan just barely slipped into the Field of 68.

Perhaps the most unlikely of those three victories came against a team that presents the worst matchup problems for Michigan in the Big Ten. Purdue came into Ann Arbor with its top three players flourishing near the rim.

A.J. Hammons (7 feet tall) led the charge and fellow center Isaac Haas (7-foot-2) and dynamic freshman Caleb Swanigan (6-foot-9) weren’t far behind. The trio posed the greatest inside threat in the conference and figured to dominate a Michigan team that tries to make due inside with a pair of 6-foot-9 forwards.

For most of the game, Purdue was like a high school senior holding the charging freshman back with a hand on his forehead. Michigan would close to within five points, and Purdue would push back, keeping the game from getting within a possession.

It wasn’t until the final 2:45 of the game, when Irvin nailed a triple on the left wing, that Michigan really sent the building into a frenzy. Then Walton made a fast-break layup. Then Irvin hit another shot, and Michigan was in front.

Four Walton free throws later, Michigan polished off an improbable win with an 11-0 run to close out the game. With such a tough week in the rearview mirror, and an even more brutal stretch ahead, it was a win the program sorely needed.

2. Michigan upsets No. 3 Maryland

Remember when Maryland was one of the best teams in the country?

At one point, the Terps were 15-1 and ranked in the top five in both major polls. Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone were looking like one of the best duos in the country and Michigan hadn’t stayed within 14 points of a ranked team all season.

Needless to say, it looked like it would be a rout.

Instead, Michigan completely shut down Trimble and Irvin was the star of the show. He scored 22 points on 8-14 shooting and Walton added a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) as Michigan led for almost the entire first 30 minutes.

Maryland erased a couple of 10-point deficits in the second half and tied the game at 54 with 7:37 left. Michigan called timeout, but two possessions later, the Terps took a one-point lead on the heels of Stone’s and-one layup.

The Wolverines wouldn’t be denied that night, and buckets from Donnal, Robinson and Walton stretched the lead back out to five. An Irvin three-pointer with 3:08 left all but sealed the deal.

With Dickie V screaming “That’s a big time three, baby!” Michigan rode to its first ranked win of the season.

1. “It’s good! At the buzzer! Meeeeechigan wins!”

You don’t have to go back very far to find Michigan’s top moment of the season. With everything — An NCAA Tournament bid, a chance to advance in the conference tournament and a win over the Big Ten champions — on the line, Kam Chatman found the ball in his hands with the clock racing toward zeroes.

Some members on the team reportedly thought it was Aubrey Dawkins standing in the corner with the ball. I bet they were surprised when the shot went up with his left hand.

Chatman buried the contested corner triple, sending the bench into a frenzy and vaulting the Wolverines into the NCAA Tournament. It came after Michigan trailed by five with two minutes left. It came after MAAR fouled out of the game, allowing Chatman to check in.

It came after almost everyone had buried the Wolverines, who were forgotten on the wrong side of the bubble.

Michigan went 19 minutes without a three-pointer in the second half, but Robinson and Chatman hit two of the biggest triples of the season in that final minute. That’s why Michigan is playing tonight. That’s why they made the Dance.

Going forward

Almost every big play Michigan makes going forward will be worthy of this list, as everything is magnified in the NCAA Tournament. But with 34 games in the books, and more ups and downs than most tournament teams experience in a season, Michigan has already given fans a year to remember.

Evaluating Michigan’s tourney chances: a Q&A with 1-3-1 Sports

Friday, March 4th, 2016

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Joe Cook from 1-3-1 Sports is a good friend of mine, a friend of the blog, a Michigan grad and fan, and a bracketologist that you need to know. Since starting his NCAA Tournament projections in the 2011-12 season, Joe has been one of the best bracketologists (who project both which teams gets in and what seed they will receive) anywhere in the world – hands down (and forget about Lunardi and Palm, as you’ll see below).

Today, Joe has graciously agreed to answer a few questions for Maize & Go Blue about Michigan’s chances of Dancing later this month with just one more regular season game to go, how the Selection Committee works, Michigan fans’ rooting interests down the stretch, and much more.

Q: Joe, let’s get right to the people’s question: What needs to happen for Michigan to make the field of 68 on March 13? Do the Wolverines still control their own destiny?

Answering this question has become a little tricky with Iowa’s recent slide. The Hawkeyes have lost four in a row, and holding court against them in Ann Arbor will no longer carry the weight we thought it would two weeks ago. It’s hard for me to sit here and say that a win on Saturday night locks up an at-large bid for Michigan, because that’s misleading.

In the hypothetical scenario where UM beats Iowa and loses in the first round of the Big Ten tourney, they would ruin the one pristine portion of their resume remaining – no bad losses. If we see this unfold, I believe Michigan is roughly a coin flip to make the field on Selection Sunday. If it happens that Michigan loses to the Hawkeyes, and wins one game in the B10 Tournament before bowing out, I believe they’ll have about a 1 in 4 chance of making the field. In any scenario where Michigan wins at least two more games, they will not be left out of the tournament. Similarly, in the event that Michigan loses two straight to close the season, they can make plans to host some NIT games.

Michigan’s NCAA Tournament scenarios
Scenario Beat Iowa and win 1st Big Ten Tournament game Beat Iowa, lose 1st Big Ten Tournament game Lose to Iowa, win 1st Big Ten Tournament game Lose to Iowa and 1st Big Ten Tournament game
Tournament Odds In 50% 25% Out

Q: As it stands today, where does Michigan land in your projections? What are the chances John Beilein’s squad will have to play an extra game in Dayton?

I currently have the Wolverines as an 11-seed and one of my last four at-large teams in the field, slotted for a play-in game against Cincinnati. Piggybacking off of my answer above, I believe that the only scenario that is likely to put Michigan in Dayton on Selection Sunday is the one where they beat the Hawkeyes and lose in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. My hunch is that the Wolverines will be on the outside looking in if they only garner one more mediocre win. Lose twice in a row, and they’ll be in Ann Arbor; win twice or more, and they shouldn’t have to deal with the extra game.

Q: Who are the four or five teams that Michigan fans should really be pulling for down the stretch and the four or five teams that Michigan would really like to see flounder late?

Down the stretch, Michigan fans really need to pull for any team that Johnny B. and company have played already, as this will improve their RPI and SOS. In particular, Michigan fans should root for NC State, Penn State, Texas, and Maryland.

Rooting Interests
Root for Root against
N.C. State St. Bonaventure
Penn State Butler
Texas VCU
Maryland Tulsa
St. Mary’s Temple
Wichita State

NC State (116) and Penn State (111) closing the season well could potentially boost their RPIs into the top 100, giving Michigan three more “solid” wins on their tournament team sheet. Texas finishing strong could show the committee that Michigan is capable of beating a top 25 team on a neutral court (though they need to forget the part where this was in November and Michigan had Caris LeVert for this particular game). If Maryland can climb their way up to a 2-seed come Selection Sunday, that would “add” a win over a true powerhouse to Michigan’s resume.

Furthermore, cheering for teams like St. Mary’s and Wichita State to win their conference tournaments to avoid bid stealing is also important. In terms of teams to cheer against, it would help Michigan most to see fellow bubble teams struggle. This list is chock-full of mid-majors, including St. Bonaventure, Butler, VCU, Tulsa, and Temple.

Q: The Big Ten has clearly been one of the top, if not the best, conferences in college basketball for a couple years running, but this season we’ve heard all sorts of conjecture and debate about which conference is king. Based on your bracketology and your formulas, what conference do you see getting the most teams into the NCAA Tournament and which conference do you think has everyone else looking up to it this year? How many teams do you expect the Big Ten to get in?

I honestly believe this is the most balanced I’ve seen power conferences spread since I’ve started my bracketology work. In my most recent bracket, released today (Friday, March 4th), there are seven teams apiece coming from the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, and the Pac-12… how’s that for balance!? Barring some miraculous conference tournament run by an underdog, I don’t see any of these conferences getting any more than seven in the final field, so I think a three- or four-way tie is the most likely scenario. With six locks to make the tournament (Michigan State, Maryland, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, and Wisconsin), Michigan will be the deciding factor on whether or not the Big Ten can get half of its teams in the field.

Q: I don’t want you to give away all of your prized secrets and formulas, but can you give us an idea of what your models take into account when projecting the field and their seed lines?

In years past, I was relatively busy with credentialing tasks related to furthering my career as an actuary, so I didn’t have as much time to watch college basketball as I would have liked. In those days, I used some simple linear regression models involving RPI, SOS, KenPom, etc. to develop a baseline for projecting the seeding of teams. Now that I’m at a point where I have a little more free time, I’ve used it to add in a lot more of my own “eye test” to really balance the qualitative analysis of a team with the quantitative analysis. Nonetheless, I want to make it clear that as a bracketologist, I’m not seeding teams based on my own personal judgment of the team’s merits; rather, my goal involves trying to go inside the minds of the committee members to attempt to analyze the teams the way the committee has in the past.

Q: Speaking of Committee members, from your research and experience, what does the Selection Committee factor into their decisions when filling out the bracket? And if you could, would you change anything about that process?

When you take a look at the list of the people who make up the Selection Committee, you’ll realize that they are some busy folks who probably don’t watch that much college basketball. Thus, it’s totally understandable for them to rely heavily on rating metrics to analyze and distinguish the teams they’ve had little exposure to during the season. That being said, I believe the committee is a dinosaur in that they still rely way too much on the outmoded rating system that is the RPI rankings. Ken Pomeroy, Jeff Sagarin, and Kenneth Massey have all come up with ranking and rating systems for college basketball that are far more nuanced and indicative of the quality of a team; it would be nice if the committee focused more on these metrics.

Q: Obviously there are many factors that the Selection Committee weighs when deciding the field, but what would you say is the single best indicator of whether a team will make the Tournament? And what do you think should be the best indicator?

I believe the single best indicator of whether or not a team will make the tournament is whether or not they win their conference tournament. All jokes aside, including a degree from Ohio State, the single best indicator, unfortunately and without a doubt, is a team’s RPI ranking. The general rule of thumb is that a team outside the RPI top-60 should not be considered for an at-large bid. It is noteworthy that Michigan is currently ranked 58th in the RPI rankings. In a perfect world, the selection process would be one big eye test, where a group of unbiased college basketball aficionados gather together and hash it out to determine the NCAA Tournament field.


Q: We’ll be going head-to-head in our bracket picks again this year, but I want a little bit of an advantage after you’ve beaten me the past two years, so can you tell us one or two teams that you are really looking to perform well later this month?

I’m still looking forward to those rounds of golf you are now indebted to me! This year, I’m going to be doing a rather in-depth statistical analysis to create a model for projecting a team’s tournament success. This model will be based on factors that are correlated to the success of past tournament teams. The model is near completion, but some final tweaking needs to be performed before I input this year’s information. Thus, I’ll be relying solely on the basketball I’ve watched this year to make my picks.

I believe Kansas will be a tough out, despite Bill Self’s occasional ineptitude in March. Oklahoma’s offense built around Buddy Hield is explosive, but Lon Kruger’s 16-16 record in the NCAA Tournament makes me shy away from wholeheartedly suggesting the Sooners. I think that if the bracket shakes out right, North Carolina and Michigan State could make it a rematch of the 2009 championship game, and I doubt the Spartans would get completely housed this time around.

Q: We all see Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm on TV as we get closer and closer to Selection Sunday, and I think too many people take these guys’ word as gold because they have such a large platform, but just how good are the national bracketologists and how well have your projections matched up with theirs in the past? Are there are any national pundits that seem to stand out as doing very well or very poorly when compared to the Bracket Matrix?

In the bracketologist rankings on the Bracket Matrix website, in terms of the bracket veterans (bracketologists who have been releasing projections for three or more years), Lunardi is ranked 36th of 89 and Jerry Palm is ranked 56th of 89 in terms of accuracy. As for how my projections stack up…I’ll just say they stack up very well. The Bracket Matrix website aggregates the projections of all the bracketologists across the internet, and creates composite projections, while also ranking the bracketologists for accuracy. The blurb at the top of the rankings page explains the scoring and ranking process. Looking at the results, I have been the second most accurate bracketologist over the past four years, and the most accurate over the past three years. If this year goes as planned, I’ll be able to move into the top overall spot in the rankings and never look back!

SEC, ACC hypocrisy on display in race to stop Harbaugh

Friday, February 12th, 2016


Alabama may have put the Southeastern Conference back atop the college football world last month, but Jim Harbaugh isn’t backing down. The Michigan head coach has captured headlines since returning to his alma mater less than 14 months ago and his most recent ploy has shone a light on the hypocrisy of southern schools.

Harbaugh announced following Michigan’s Signing of the Stars event on Feb. 3 that he would be taking the team south for Spring Break to practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. But just like his Summer Swarm football camp tour of the south and west coast last summer, the move is drawing the ire of SEC and ACC brass.

“Our primary reaction [is] that, in the face of the time-demand conversations, we’ve got one program taking what has been ‘free time’ away,” said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey on Tuesday. “Let’s draw a line and say, ‘That’s not appropriate.'”

In other words, Jim Harbaugh is doing something within the rules but we don’t like it so let’s change the rules so he can’t do it anymore.

He continued:

“This seems completely counter to the dialogue,” Sankey said. “We have work to do on [giving athletes a] day off. We have work to do on, how do you provide a postseason break? It seems where this is one where reasonable people could say we just shouldn’t be in this space.”

One of Harbaugh’s stated reasons for the Spring Break trip is to give the student athletes two weeks off — discretionary weeks as he called them — to focus on finals, which start April 20. By starting spring practice in late February and utilizing Spring Break for outdoor practice, team bonding, and yes, visibility to recruits, Michigan can close spring practice with two weeks off to focus on academics.

“We’re going to have swim meets, we’re going to have putt-putt golf, we’re going to have football meetings, we’re going to have practice,” Harbaugh said. “I think it gives us a chance to win on a lot of different levels. We’ll be outside, we’ll be in Florida, we’ll go to the beach. It will be a good time for our team to connect and be together. That’s a lot of levels right there to win on, so I’m very much looking forward to it.”

Sankey, of course, didn’t address that fact because it didn’t fit his narrative. Think of the kids, he said. Meanwhile, Ole Miss has been charged with 28 NCAA violations, 13 of which have come from the football team, and Tennessee is facing a lawsuit from six women who claim that the university — and its football program in particular — create a culture that enables sexual assault by student athletes. Guess who has been silent about thinking of the kids in these situations thus far? You guessed it, Sankey.

Greg Sankey

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey petitioned the NCAA to ban spring break trips (Mark Humphrey, Times Free Press)

The conference that Sankey inherited from Mike Slive a year ago, and has been a part of for over 13 years, has faced numerous major infractions in the past six years, but hasn’t received more than a slap on the wrist since Mississippi State was stripped of scholarships and banned from postseason play in 2004. Sankey, coincidentally, serves on the NCAA Committee on Infractions, which he has chaired since 2014.

But the disagreements with Harbaugh’s Spring Break trip aren’t limited to the SEC. Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford joined the fray on a Thursday interview on Sirius XM College Sports.

“It is creative,” Swofford said. “It’s kind of like we’re going to take you on vacation but you’ve got to practice while we’re on vacation … it’s a huge intrusion on a college student’s life and taking his ability to have a break out of his hands. I guess it depends on how you look at it.”

All of a sudden the commissioners of the two conferences that make up the southeastern United States — where a large portion of the nation’s top recruits year in and year out reside — are worried about student athletes. Yet Swoffod’s conference has been littered with NCAA sanctions in recent years from Miami to North Carolina to Georgia Tech to Florida State to Syracuse basketball, and most recently, Louisville basketball.

“I’m not concerned about the league’s image,” he said.

Well as long as the league’s image is intact, who cares that Jameis Winston’s actions were swept under the rug while he lead the Seminoles to a national championship? Who cares that over 1,000 student athletes from the North Carolina football and basketball programs received extra benefits and were involved in academic fraud? It’s all about the kids, remember?

Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford speaks at the Atlantic Coast Conference NCAA college basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford speaks at the Atlantic Coast Conference NCAA college basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

College basketball teams regularly travel to holiday tournaments in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Bahamas during winter break. College baseball, softball, golf, swimming, and gymnastics teams regularly travel south in the spring to open their seasons in the sun. And college football itself eschews winter break in favor of traveling south or west for a week of practice culminating with a bowl game. The student athletes’ winter breaks were further consumed by football when college football expanded to the College Football Playoff in 2014. Where were Sankey’s and Swofford’s protests when Florida State and Alabama student athletes missed out on a week of a break before spring semester began?

Just last month, Clemson, a school from Swofford’s conference, was granted an NCAA waiver to practice more than the 20-hour a week limit. Why? Because their opponent, Alabama, hadn’t yet begun spring semester and thus, wasn’t bound by the practice limits. Where were Sankey’s and Swofford’s concern for the students’ time then?

The argument for the welfare of the kids is the easy one, the political one, to make. Because it gives the appearance — even if dishonest — that his main concern is based on academics. But it’s not the real one. While Sankey denies that he’s trying to protect his conference’s built-in competitive advantage of most of the nation’s top recruits residing in their schools’ back yards, that’s exactly what his argument is about. The reality is that Harbaugh is out-thinking and out-working his coaches and he doesn’t want to be caught flat footed.

Harbaugh often turns to Twitter to issue quotes and thoughts of the day that give a glimpse into his line of thought. An old Irish proverb comes to mind for this situation.

You will never plough a field if you only turn it over in your mind.

It’s possible that Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney have had ideas similar to the Summer Swarm tour or Signing of the Stars or destination spring practices. Whether they have or not, they haven’t put them into practice. In just over a year on the job, Harbaugh has, and it’s allowing him to quickly make up ground on his counterparts.

He took a sinking, 5-7 team and doubled its win total, culminating with a 41-7 thrashing of SEC East champion, Florida. He followed that up by signing a top-five recruiting class that includes the top overall player in the nation, Rashan Gary, who included Clemson and Alabama among his final choices. The roster Harbaugh inherited in 2015 was the least talented he will have during his tenure in Ann Arbor, and his continued success on the field will breed success on the recruiting trail. Snakey, Swofford, and the coaches of the schools they preside over want to do everything they can to preserve their own success.

Harbaugh hasn’t broken the rules. He’s just a step ahead of the rest and forcing them to try to change the rules in order to keep up. And soon enough it will pay off, which is why, not only is he the target of commissioners pleading the NCAA to slow him down, but also other coaches spreading rumors about him to recruits and their families. Gary’s mother, Jennifer Coney, said as much after her son picked Michigan.

“That was a turn off,” Coney said of the negative recruiting. “Bring your program up. Tell me about all the good things that your program, your school, and the people on your staff do. Don’t kick this person in the back.  Nobody likes Michigan. Nooobody likes Michigan.  When Rashan picked Michigan, my phone stopped ringing. It was a blessing.”

Fellow defensive tackle commit Michael Dwumfor, who flipped from Penn State to Michigan in late January, agreed.

“When I was at Penn State, I heard jokes about Harbaugh and stuff like that,” Dwumfour said. “In the back of my head, I’m thinking ‘What he’s doing is working, obviously. Instead of criticizing him, you might want to take some of his techniques to try and help yourself out and get some recruits.’”

The SEC, ACC, and coaches within his own conference — who, not-so-coincidentally, came from the SEC — can say all they want, but Harbaugh will continue pushing the limits within the rule book to succeed in the cutthroat world of college football. And if they don’t match his enthusiasm, work ethic, and imagination, it won’t be long before they are dethroned.

That brings another Irish proverb to mind.

It is not the same to go to the king’s house as to come from it.

After a horrid week for Michigan hoops, is it time to panic?

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Beilein vs MSU(Dustin Johnson, UM Hoops)

I didn’t write about Michigan’s two basketball games this past week; I simply couldn’t bring myself to. We all know what happened – Michigan got romped twice in their own gym and looked lifeless outside of about five minutes against Indiana and a few moments when the Wolverines’ bench warmers made some brutal losses look just a little better on the final stat sheet.

I’ve never tried to hide that I’m a very passionate Michigan basketball fan first and a Michigan basketball blogger second. After all, I used to be the president of the Maize Rage and have been going to games at Crisler since some time around the turn of the century.

So when the Wolverines suffer a gut-wrenching loss (think Josh Gasser’s banked three at the buzzer in 2011 or Evan Turner’s last second heave in the 2010 Big Ten Tournament) or get their asses flattened like pancakes pounded by a spatula after being removed from the griddle (think, well, both those “games” last week), I usually struggle to bring myself to settle my emotions enough to bring fingers to keyboard.

But I thought I should ramble a little about how I feel now after digesting those losses, throwing them up, and taking some antacid.

By the way, the final deficits against Indiana and Michigan State were 13 and 16, respectively, but probably would have more accurately reflected the nature of the games if those numbers were doubled.

Hopefully the Selection Committee takes a look at the final score of each game and says “well those are bad losses but not that bad!” and then proceeds to put Michigan somewhere other than Dayton, Spokane, or Oklahoma City (if they make it, I’m hoping to go to their first round game, but I would rather it not actually be a First Round game, if you know what I mean).

In reality, we all know that those losses were that bad. Like really that bad.

As Rafiki says, however, “it doesn’t matter, it’s in the past!” Michigan can’t change the disaster that happened last week, but they can hopefully learn a bit from them and pave the way for a brighter future.

So what’s to learn about those two games that people are certainly, definitely, NOT AT ALL panicking about?

Well, let’s rationalize a bit to begin. Indiana and Michigan State are two very good teams that played excellent games (I’m not going to reference many stats in this column because of how skewed the numbers are over the stretch, but any time two teams combine to make 56 percent of their shots in a given week, that’s some good play). They have combined to win 81.3 percent of their matchups so far this season and have beaten some good teams. They are both shoo-ins for the Big Dance, and they’ll probably embarrass a couple other teams not named Michigan going forward (do not pay any attention to Indiana’s game at Penn State).

For those rough games, Michigan still does not have a bad loss to show on their record – and I honestly don’t expect margin of defeat to come into play on Selection Sunday. They also have a couple very good wins on their resume and could add to their two top-100 RPI wins with victories they have already acquired earlier this season, should Penn State or North Carolina State climb up a few spots. For now, the Wolverines still look like relatively safe bets to make the Tournament.

If you are one of the many Michigan fans teetering on the edge right now, please take a step back, then another. It’s not time to panic just yet. If Michigan comes home from Minneapolis with a loss on Ash Wednesday, though, I give you full permission to run forward and jump.

Bench vs MSU(Dustin Johnson, UM Hoops)

Anyway, about those games.

The Wolverines actually came out looking very good against Indiana last Tuesday, jumping out to an early 11-point lead and threatening to run away from the Hoosiers. Things quickly erupted though, and before the halftime horn mercifully blew in a dead silent Crisler Center, Michigan found itself on the wrong end of a 25-0 run and a 21-point deficit.

Before they could throw a counter punch, the Wolverines were knocked out by a savage Indiana offense. So what happened? Ultimately, the Hoosiers took advantage of Michigan’s poor transition defense, the Wolverines panicked and began turning the ball over and missing ill-advised shots so bad that they may as well also have been turnovers, and by halftime, the Wolverines were in a complete state of shock. Effectively, it was game over. To rub salt in the already gaping wound that caused the knockout, Tom Crean quickly mentioned former Michigan player Max Bielfeldt as a reason for Indiana’s terrific play. That, of course, was mostly garbage – Bielfeldt finished with just five points on 2-of-8 shooting (the worst percentage for any Hoosier that attempted a shot) in 18 minutes – but stung nonetheless. The stated reason Crean praised Bielfeldt was for his excellent first half plus/minus rating, which was absolutely comical given that just about every Indiana player had a through-the-roof first half plus/minus.

As soon as that panic set in, Michigan’s offense – which, again, came out firing on all cylinders – devolved into what looked like a typical eighth grade offense, with guys trying to play hero ball and failing miserably. Indiana capitalized, with six of their buckets (good for 15 points) down the stretch in the first half coming within 10 seconds of a Michigan miss or turnover, and a couple others coming off of terrible looks or turnovers as well.

Michigan is simply not good enough to overcome a shocking run like that, and Indiana simply could not miss for quite a long stretch. Further, the Wolverines are lacking their best individual playmaker, their primary facilitator, and their presumed leader. That recipe, combined with a seeming lack of confidence once things get bad for the Maize and Blue, is a recipe for disaster, and disaster is what descended upon Ann Arbor. In my opinion, it was one of those games where you almost have to say “it happens” and move on. Obviously it was a poor, poor result and an even worse performance, but I don’t place too much blame on the coaching staff.

I can’t say the same for the Michigan State loss. Coming off the tough-pill-to-swallow beatdown against Indiana, Michigan was certainly going to be a bit wary and perhaps high-strung or nervous with their in-state rivals coming to town playing much better than them (as an aside, players will never admit to paying close attention to other teams, or to keeping track of their ranking, or to listening to talking heads’ opinion of their team, but they absolutely do).

Unfortunately, I do not believe the coaching staff put the Wolverines in position to win.

Now don’t get me wrong. Michigan State is a very good team, and has been for many seasons. They are a tough, physical team, and perhaps not the best matchup for a Michigan team that usually plays with more finesse than physicality.

But the Spartans are also fairly easy to gameplan for in my opinion. This year, Michigan State has one guy who can do it all on offense and is dangerous any time he’s on the floor. That player, of course is Denzel Valentine. He’s an All-Everything senior that is a phenomenal passer, a very good shooter, and an excellent rebounder for his size as well. There is one other player, Eron Harris, who is fairly multi-dimensional, with the ability to drive, pass, shoot, get fouled, etc. But Harris is also prone to fits of erraticism and is not quite the shooter, finisher, or passer that Valentine is, and turns the ball over more than Valentine while handling the ball less.

Meanwhile, the Spartans also boast some excellent offensive complementary pieces that, while key to their success, are a little more one-dimensional. Bryn Forbes is an outstanding spot-up shooter that doesn’t do much more than shoot the three-ball. Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis are a load to handle down low, but neither is a threat to score from more than 12 feet away. Matt McQuaid is a plus shooter but does not shoot much while big men Kenny Goins and Gavin Schilling are basically the same players as Costello and Davis but both significant downgrades.

How do you beat, or at least challenge, the Spartans then? If Valentine proves too difficult to handle, so be it – you have to grin and bear it. He’s one of the best players in the country and can break down any defense. If Harris drives his way into some fouls and knocks down a couple deep shots, shrug your shoulders. But you absolutely CANNOT let Bryn Forbes get wide open and kill you from deep.

And that’s exactly what happened. Forbes had 23 points – seven triples and another long two – by halftime to Michigan’s 28 total. Of his eight makes, Forbes may have had a Wolverine within three feet of him once or twice.

Bryn Forbes(Dustin Johnson, UM Hoops)

That is a lack of effort, a lack of effective defense, and also a lack of a competent defensive gameplan. Michigan came out in a soft man defense that showed little urgency in sticking with Forbes – again, one of the more lethal shooters in the country – and paid dearly for it. Duncan Robinson was a primary culprit, running under screens and getting completely stone-walled by picks, but the coaching staff deserves equal blame for allowing Michigan State to come out and drain 10 very mildly contested threes in a single half.

About midway through the first half, when it was clear that the Wolverines had completely missed the mark on the scouting report, Beilein switched to a 1-3-1 zone in an attempt to keep another game spiraling quickly out of control within striking distance.

It was fine for a change of pace, and it even managed to flummox the Spartans into making a couple dumb mistakes. But Michigan went back to it after those couple mistakes, which Michigan State was ecstatic to see. The Spartans promptly drained a triple, and when the Wolverines inexplicably went back to the zone yet again, they made another. And another. And another.

I have never seen Beilein look so helpless, but the answer in slowing Michigan State’s offense was never going to come by playing zone for an extended period of time. Michigan State is simply too good of a shooting team to fall prey.

Perhaps most frustrating about the decision to play zone for so long is that the 1-3-1 zone is not designed to limit shooting whatsoever. Rather, it’s designed to confuse the offense, create turnovers, and prevent easy driving buckets. Michigan State was not killing Michigan with easy buckets at the hoop; they were killing the Wolverines from beyond the arc. So instead of switching up the gameplan and sticking the best perimeter defender Michigan has – probably Derrick Walton at this point – onto Forbes and instructing him to not let the senior transfer touch the ball, Beilein inexplicably switched to a zone that is prone to giving up wide open shots from deep. And give up shots the zone did.

By the time halftime arrived – again again by the grace of God – Michigan was pretty much out of the picture and sapped of any confidence that once existed. Of course, the Wolverines moved to a more aggressive man defense in the second half, with Walton face-guarding Forbes, to open the second half. But it was too late. The lack of a first half adjustment failed the team.

In the aftermath of the second straight embarrassment at home, Michigan fans across the blogosphere at Twittersphere began (yet again) calling for Beilein’s head.

To that, I merely say this: stop it. Yes, Michigan got beat bad twice in a row. And yes, perhaps it could have been mitigated by some better coaching decisions.

But if you want people to take you seriously, you must first think and act rationally. John Beilein is one of the best things to happen to the Michigan basketball program in quite a long time. I don’t need to run through his list of accolades and accomplishments since taking over the program in the 2007-’08 season.

So I pray that many of those calling for his firing are uninformed tweens that have known nothing but success over the majority of Beilein’s tenure in Ann Arbor, and expect Michigan to be dominant each year. Unfortunately, those are unrealistic expectations for all but a few fan bases in the country.

It’s even more unrealistic to expect that when a team is missing their unquestioned best player and a key secondary piece. Both of those guys, of course, are seniors – Michigan’s only seniors heading into this season. And if you don’t understand the value of seniors in this day of overhyped freshmen in college basketball, I suggest you listen to what Tom Izzo had to say after his team’s triumphant victory on Saturday.

Take a look at any top team in the country and you’ll likely find that a senior (or two or three) is the driving force behind the success. Guys like Buddy Hield, Isaiah Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Jared Uthoff, Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jake Layman, Perry Ellis, Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez, and so many more are guys that make teams tick.

Michigan’s two seniors are currently watching from the bench. Hopefully they get one of them back soon, but in the meantime, patience and understanding are highly advised.

Crappy performances happen in college basketball. Shots fall and don’t fall, players make mistakes and lose confidence. Teams lose, sometimes badly, and coaches make mistakes too.

Still, Michigan is probably going to be okay. They had a couple big hiccups and they have some recovering and rebounding to do, but it’s not the end of the world, and it’s certainly not time to overreact after losing two games in which the projected outcomes were pretty much coin flips.

There are more opportunities on the way, and I believe that John Beilein will have an answer.

I, at least, have a good feeling about the two games this week.

The past is over. Let’s play on.

The top ten moments from Signing of the Stars

Friday, February 5th, 2016

It’s been more than 24 hours since Jim Harbaugh and Michigan took over National Signing Day. The Wolverines got started at 8:13 a.m., when Nate Johnson reaffirmed his commitment to the Maize and Blue, and went nonstop until Devin Asiasi pulled out the block M cap at 3:32 p.m.

That’s seven hours and 19 minutes of Michigan football on full blast, and it’s nowhere near the start of the season.

Now that we’ve had a chance to catch our breath, let’s take a look back at the event that highlighted it all: The Signing of the Stars. Whether you love it or hate it, you know Harbaugh hit the ball out of the park on Wednesday. All eyes were on Ann Arbor as the Wolverines pulled in virtually every single signing day target on their board.

I’ll count down what I thought were the top 10 moments of the first (of many) Signing of the Stars.

10. Celebrities call in to hype up Michigan football

Big Sean

When it seems like the stage can’t get any bigger, Jim Harbaugh finds a way to blow it out of the water. Sure, there were more than 20 well-known celebrities in Hill Auditorium, but why stop there?

The Signing of the Stars featured video call-ins from the likes of Owen Wilson, Big Sean, and even Verne Troyer. Seriously, Verne Troyer? Somehow, Harbaugh convinced the 2-foot-8 comedian to congratulate the incoming class while his entire head was drowned in a Winged Helmet.

Then Owen Wilson, who’s connection to the university was that he “played a character that had a Michigan degree once,” popped onto the screen and played the fight song on his cellphone. Future generations won’t remember Wilson as the actor from Wedding Crashers or The Internship. They’ll hear his name and say “Hey, isn’t that the guy from Signing of the Stars?”

But even Troyer and Wilson couldn’t top Big Sean. The world-famous rapper jumped onto the screen completely draped in Maize and Blue gear. While the rest of us were staring at the block M on his hat and jacket, Big Sean introduced a recruit from his own hometown: Michael Onwenu. How cool is it that a kid who chose Michigan over MSU got to be introduced by one of the city’s most famous living hometown heroes? Coincidence? Obviously not. It’s just another recruiting tool that Harbaugh can use during future in-state recruiting wars.

9. Quinn Nordin calls in with his family

Quinn Nordin

For months Michigan fans have heard the name Quinn Nordin thrown around on message boards and social media. Even when the four-star kicker (that’s right, a four-star kicker!) was committed to Penn State, it was almost a given that he would end up donning the Maize and Blue.

On Wednesday, just hours after making his decision official, Nordin joined the Signing of the Stars on screen with his entire family to introduce himself to the Michigan faithful. This marked the end of the recruiting journey that gave us round one of Harbaugh vs. James Franklin and the unforgettable post-dead-period sleepover.

Jim Harbaugh wanted this kicker, so Jim Harbaugh got this kicker. Boot ’em straight, Quinn.

8. Denard Robinson and Jake Rudock team up on stage

Denard Robinson and Jake Rudock

Harbaugh brought a whole host of former Michigan players to participate on Wednesday, but no duo better captured the moment that former quarterbacks Robinson and Rudock.

Denard Robinson, who played in one of the most all-around disappointing eras in Michigan football history, made the Wolverines watchable during his four years on the field. The hyper-athletic, just-go-out-and-play makeup of Robinson made him an easy player to root for and endeared him to a fanbase that hasn’t seen many dual threat quarterbacks.

On Wednesday, Robinson took the podium with a player who, not unlike himself, helped carry an offense that would’ve otherwise been mediocre (or completely lost, in Robinson’s case) without him. Rudock only spent one season with Michigan, but his improvement from Week 1 to the end of the season was so great it can’t be described in a paragraph of socially-acceptable length as the No. 8 ranking in a list.

Robinson kept a reeling football program afloat and Rudock helped steer it back on track. Watching them introduce a whole new group of Michigan men brought the last decade full circle.

7. “Who’s got it better than us?”

Harbaugh %22Go Blue%22

In his short 13 months in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh has offered no end of quirky quotes. He told us that artificial sweeteners are not, in fact, safe. And that he would run for president of the United States with Wale as his partner. He even revealed that worms with machine guns (assuming they are loaded) would no longer be afraid of birds.

All of those comments are just Harbaugh-isms. You can’t hope to understand them, you can only bask in their pure glory and absurdity. But when Harbaugh asks, “Who’s got it better than us?” he’s in a really, really good mood.

That was the case on Wednesday as he stood in front of some 3,000 Michigan die-hards and asked his favorite question. The responding “Nooooooobody!” echoed around Hill Auditorium as one of the country’s top recruiting class fell into place.

It’s only been 13 months, but Harbaugh’s already got his trademark punchline. Luckily, Michigan Nation loves it.

6. Ric Flair reveals his deep Michigan loyalty

Ric Flair

The whole bizarre, out-of-nowhere professional wrestling fascination evolving from Harbaugh’s declaration that he would love to have Wrestle Mania in the Big House hit a peak Wednesday when Ric Flair professed his love for the University of Michigan.

Flair got the crowd fired up as only he could, yelling about Michigan football and releasing one of his trademark “WOOO”s after saying he’d never wanted to leave Ann Arbor. But his best quote of the speech, and one of the funniest moments of the event, came near the end of his time on stage.

“I’m BLUE baby,” Flair shouted into the microphone. “I can’t STAND Ohio State. Ain’t got no TIME for Michigan State.”

We wanted Ric Flair, and we got Ric Flair. It wouldn’t be a speech from a professional wrestler without an unprompted shot at the common enemy in the room. It only makes it funnier that his jibe came while Columbus and East Lansing were grinding their teeth at how much attention Michigan was garnering.

Oh the disrespekt.

5. Derek Jeter and Tom Brady share the same couch

Jeter and Brady

Am I the only one who noticed how much athletic greatness was shoved onto that one couch? I mean, Derek Jeter is one of the greatest infielders of all time and he was only the second-best athlete sitting on that piece of black leather.

With more than half a cushion available, there were still 3,465 hits, 1,923 runs scored, 1,311 RBI, 260 home runs, 58,028 passing yards and 445 total touchdowns on that couch. Between the two, Jeter and Brady own 10 major sports championships (five World Series titles, four Super Bowl rings and a college football national title).

Watching the early enrollees as Jeter and Brady talked about sports right in front of them was a cool sight, and Harbaugh will place that into his already-loaded recruiting arsenal.

4. Devin Gardner leads The Victors


Devin Gardner was probably one of the most unfairly treated players in recent Michigan history during his time on the field. When he had some semblance of a team around him in the second half of 2012, he looked like a pretty strong quarterback. But when the 2012 class graduated and left Gardner with a sieve of an offensive line and a head coach on his way out, the odds were stacked heavily against him.

Despite all of the boos and criticism he received as a player, Gardner is always around the Michigan program. He attends all the events and voices his support of a school that waited until after he left to become the most exciting sports landing spot on the planet.

So it makes sense that when Gardner took the stage on Wednesday, he did so with a huge smile on his face and forced the full audience, including notorious Notre Dame slappy Lou Holtz, to sing The Victors. Some of the guests were clearly uncomfortable on stage, but Gardner was a proud representative of the school and his simple gesture turned into one of the best moments of the night.

3. Jim Harbaugh discreetly learns Rashan Gary’s decision

The Signing of the Stars was great, securing commitments from Nordin, Washington, Devin Asiasi and Lavert Hill was great, but the biggest story of the day was always No. 1 recruit Rashan Gary’s decision.

Harbaugh couldn’t say anything about Gary during the party because of NCAA rules, but that almost made the whole process even more entertaining. Video of Harbaugh watching the decision go down on Mike Tirico’s smart phone and then calmly fist pumping and waltzing back onto the stage is priceless. The guy had just secured perhaps the highest-ranked recruit in Michigan history and he had to just go sit quietly on a couch.

Sure, everybody knew what happened, and Harbaugh even disclosed that he “got some good news backstage,” but watching one of the most enthusiastic men on the planet sit quietly after hearing the most exciting news of his college coaching career was pretty awesome.

A moment that didn’t get captured on camera while Todd McShay was breaking down film of running back commit Kareem Walker, Harbaugh walked back onto the stage and whispered to his assembled early-enrollees and gave them all fist bumps. The crowd of course picked up on this and their cheer that seemed random on the live stream now makes sense.

2. Dabbing

Jim Leyland dab

As it tends to do at all headline sporting events nowadays, dabbing played a major role in the Signing of the Stars.

First, wide receiver Ahmir Mitchell hit a perfect dab on stage after being called up to discuss his first few weeks in Ann Arbor. Mitchell is one of the most outspoken recruits in the class, so making a move in the spotlight was right up his alley.

Then, in an internet-shattering meeting between crusty MLB manager and trendy hip hop group, Jim Leyland turned the world on its head by hitting a well-rehearsed dab with his new buddies Quavo and Takeoff cheering him on. Was it the most beautiful dab in the world? No. Did it almost look like a well-timed sneeze? Yes. But Jim Leyland dabbed with two rap artists and nobody can take that away from him.

Lou Holtz’s dab was just as beautiful, even if it wasn’t as earth-shattering. After stumbling out to the middle of the stage to ensure everyone he’d sang the Michigan fight song, Holtz dabbed with Harbaugh to the glee of six nearby 18-year-old future Michigan football players.

What a time to be alive.

1. Chad Tough tribute

Harbaugh-Chad Carr

One of the underlying benefits of Signing of the Stars is that it raised money for the ChadTough Foundation. The event was not held to be a fundraiser, but to honor Michigan’s nearly 30 new football players. That being said, the tribute to Chad and the persevering cause dedicated in his name turned into perhaps the best moment of the night.

There are many who’ve criticized Michigan for involving the charity in Wednesday’s proceedings. They say Michigan used the charity to deflect criticism of the event. To be blunt, those people are being very stupid.

The ChadTough tribute at the end of the Signing of the Stars capped off a festive day in which Michigan celebrated its stars old and new. I thought it came off as genuine and gave a platform to an issue that’s trying desperately to raise awareness.

Michigan never advertised the Signing of the Stars as a charity event. No, Harbaugh was clear that Wednesday was a day to celebrate Michigan’s new recruiting class. The fact that over $100,000 was also raised toward the cause was just icing on the cake.

Chad’s story puts things in perspective, especially on a day when thousands of people came together to celebrate teenagers committing to a football team. Sure it sounds strange, but it was a slam dunk for Harbaugh, who not only brought great exposure to the program but also gave recruits another reason to consider the Maize and Blue.

Dozens of young men were honored during the Signing of the Stars, none more important than young Chad Carr.

Signing of the Stars shines spotlight on Michigan football

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Signing of the Stars(

Dense fog blanketing Interstate-94 from Chicago to Ann Arbor in the wee hours of Wednesday morning provided an apt metaphor for the current state of Michigan football. I knew the destination was ahead, but could only see a few feet at a time. As long as I stayed the course I would get to where I was going, despite the vast unseen in between.

By Wednesday afternoon, a good portion of the fog separating the Michigan program from where it stands now to where it wants to be had been lifted as Jim Harbaugh polished off a top-five recruiting class in style with a star-studded event in Hill Auditorium. The one-of-a-kind Signing of the Stars event was streamed live via The Players’ Tribune, drawing a large audience and making Michigan the talk of the college football world on National Signing Day.

During the two hour event seven early-enrollees were introduced by duos of celebrities, resembling an awards show like the ESPYs or the Oscars. Each player walked up onto the stage to applause from the audience, similar to NFL Draft day. Their highlight reels were then broken down by a panel of experts made up of ESPN analyst Todd McShay, former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz, and former Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan.

“That was originally Harbaugh’s idea,” said Matthew Mills, the founder and executive producer of Spacestation, the New York-based production agency that produced the event. “We were told that they wanted something that felt like a combination of NFL Draft day, College GameDay, and an awards show. And I think we delivered that.”

The members of the 2016 recruiting class that were on hand to be celebrated for the night agreed.

Carlo Kemp(

“It felt like NFL Draft day, sitting in your seat and waiting to hear your name called to go say your two lines and stand up there with Coach Harbaugh,” said defensive end Carlo Kemp, who enrolled a month ago. “It was like waiting to get drafted.”

Former Michigan quarterback and current Jacksonville Jaguars running back Denard Robinson, who along with fellow former Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock, was among the day’s presenters, echoed that sentiment.

“It was crazy because during the pre-runs for the whole thing it was kind of funny looking and you’re like ‘how’s this going to set up, how’s it going to be?’ and now you see it and it’s like ‘wow!’ It’s a great idea,” Robinson said. “It’s almost like draft day. You’ve got guys announcing you, you’ve got guys breaking down your highlights, it’s like getting drafted. You come to Michigan for things like this and to get drafted because a lot of people get drafted from this school.”

Per Mills, as Michigan worked to confirm celebrity attendees, who ranged from Tom Brady and Derek Jeter to Josh Gracin and Migos, other celebrities were “coming out of the woodwork” to ask to participate. So much so that Mills and Michigan couldn’t fit them all into the program. Instead, they filmed video montages of Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Robert Patrick, Dick Enberg, Verne Troyer and many more congratulating the recruiting class.

“Usually (coaches) sit by the fax machine and the coach stands up and talks and usually says the same kind of things, so I wanted to do something different, wanted to do something awesome,” Harbaugh said after the event.


Although he was traveling across the country, climbing trees, sleeping at recruits’ homes, and attending classes with them, Harbaugh was involved with the planning throughout the process, said Mills.

“He contributed a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We took our cue from him in that regard. He said ‘make this bold and give people something unique’, and I think we gave them that. He was very involved in the process and the creative process. We were giving him briefs about ‘we’d like to do this, we’d like to do that’ and he would say yea or nay or he would amplify something. He was very collaborative and we just had a blast working with him.”

It was a grand spectacle that provided water cooler talk in offices nationwide, some good and some who thought it was over the top. But those who will take notice the most are still in high school and Harbaugh will be battling for their commitments in the years to come.

“Sixteen and 17 year old kids are going to love this,” Kemp said. “I mean, if I knew this was going to happen I probably would have committed even earlier. It’s awesome, it was great. I’m glad to be a part of it and I’ll remember February 3, 2016 for the rest of my life.”

Robinson, who was drafted in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, concurred.

“I think it’s a big deal. It’s going to put us back on the map a little bit. This was a great idea to have guys come out like this. We’ve had so many celebrities come out, actually announcing these guys, so it’s big. I mean as an 18-year old you’ve got Derek Jeter announcing you, Tom Brady announcing you, Ric Flair, Desmond Howard. They get to announce you when you’re 18 years old. It means everything and coming to Michigan is going to be a great opportunity.”

But in addition to celebrating a top five recruiting class, the purpose of the event was to raise awareness and money for pediatric cancer, an issue that has gripped the Michigan family since last year. Chad Carr, the grandson of former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr passed away on Nov. 23 after a battle with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Giloma (DIPG).

Harbaugh-Chad Carr

While Harbaugh’s recruiting tactics have drawn criticism from rival coaches, players, and fans, there was no more telling moment than shortly after 1pm. As the nation’s consensus top recruit, Rashan Gary, whom Harbaugh and his staff had been courting for over a year, was announcing his commitment to Michigan over Clemson live on ESPNU, Harbaugh wasn’t glued to a television set or a smartphone. He wasn’t backstage working the phones. He wasn’t eagerly awaiting a text message or a call or a tweet.

No, he was standing on stage, flanked by his wife Sarah to his right and Tammi Carr to his left. He was telling the 3,500 fans in attendance and the rest of the country watching the live stream the importance of a five year old kid, urging them to visit and donate to help fund research that may someday save other kids like Chad who suffer from DIPG.

Word of Gary’s commitment spread through the Hill Auditorium crowd as they wiped their damp eyes — a poignant reminder of what matters most.