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Archive for the ‘Opinion/Editorial’ Category

The recipe for winning the Legends Division

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

Michigan’s surprising loss to Penn State has all but removed the team from competing for the 2013 National Championship, but the Maize and Blue still have eyes on the conference title. Thankfully, the Legends Division is still winnable.

Northwestern is out of contention with its 0-3 conference start, and both Iowa and Minnesota are long shots to compete with two losses and tough future schedules. Three teams are seemingly competing for one spot in the title game in Indianapolis: Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska.

Because of the loss in Happy Valley, Michigan currently sits behind undefeated Michigan State and Nebraska. The race has just begun, though, because all three teams have yet to play each other.

Michigan State has been an extremely interesting team to follow thus far. Despite scoring just over 28 points per game, the Spartans are 6-1 overall and have won all six by 12 or more points. The 3-0 conference record is thanks in large part to the weak teams they have faced to this point. Iowa, Indiana and Purdue have a combined record of 8-12, and all three games were within one possession in the fourth quarter against the Spartans.

Although these wins haven’t been impressive, Mark Dantonio’s defense gives this team a chance to win on any given Saturday. Having allowed just 13.6 points per game, the Spartans rank fourth in the country on defense. But considering the strength of the offensive units Michigan State has faced, those numbers seem largely unproven.

The path to the Legends Division title goes through East Lansing (Rey Del Rio, MSU Athletic Communications)

Of the six FBS teams that have faced Michigan State this season, only one (Indiana) ranks in the top 70 in the nation in scoring. In fact, South Florida (120th), Western Michigan (121st) and Purdue (122nd) are three of the worst scoring teams in the entire country. Notre Dame (83rd) and Iowa (72nd) combined for just 27 points against Michigan State, but neither team has been explosive on offense all season.

In comparison, Michigan’s defense gives up almost twice as many points per game as Michigan State (26.7). While the Hoosiers scored 28 points on the vaunted Spartan defense, they dropped 47 on Michigan in the Big House. While Michigan State’s competition has clearly been much weaker than Michigan’s and the Wolverine offense doesn’t control the clock well enough to keep the defense off the field, the Spartans still hold the defensive edge.

The real difference between the in-state rivals comes on the offensive side of the ball, where the Wolverines are tied with Indiana for 11th in the country with 42.4 points per game. Michigan State has scored over 30 points just once against an FBS opponent this season: a 42-point outburst against one of the worst defenses in the country, Indiana – the same one Michigan just put up 63 on.

Michigan’s similarity to Indiana in offensive numbers predicts that the Spartans will have to score 30 points again to win the Paul Bunyan Trophy, as the Hoosiers scored 28 points in East Lansing. Overall, a slight edge seems to favor Michigan in this game.

Nebraska has even more questions than Michigan State, as the only winning team they’ve beaten is the 4-3 Wyoming Cowboys. When No. 16 UCLA came to visit on September 14, Nebraska laid an egg in the second half and got blown out 41-21. The 2-0 Big Ten record is due to a schedule that started with Illinois and Purdue.

Michigan’s greatest advantage over Nebraska is in the style of the Cornhusker offense. Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah have one of the most potent rushing attacks in the country, but the passing game hasn’t been quite as crisp. Michigan’s inability to defend the pass was exploited during the shootout with Indiana, but if Nebraska can’t attack through the air then the matchup works in Greg Mattison’s favor.

Michigan also gets to host this game in the Big House, where head coach Brady Hoke hasn’t lost in three years. Ann Arbor has seen the Wolverines win some games they had no business winning under Hoke, including the famous 2011 night game against Notre Dame and the 2012 prayer to Roy Roundtree against Northwestern.

All things considered, the Wolverines could realistically win both games against division rivals, but the major handicap to advancing to Indianapolis is that Michigan is the only of the three that has to play Ohio State.

While the Buckeyes are clearly the class of the Big Ten, conference opponents have proven that the gap isn’t as large as it appeared in late September. Ohio State has won three conference games by an average of nine points, beating Wisconsin and Iowa in Columbus and fighting off Northwestern in Evanston.

Nebraska has beaten just one winning team so far this season (Scott Bruhn, NU Media Relations)

Now that the Wildcats have fallen apart, the Buckeyes appear virtually untested on the road, and won’t have a true test away from home until the matchup in Ann Arbor. Ohio State’s four road opponents before The Game (California, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue) have a combined conference record of 0-12. Michigan’s home winning streak looms large in this matchup.

If the Wolverines do falter in the final regular season game, there is still hope. For the sake of the argument let’s assume they beat both Michigan State and Nebraska but lose to Ohio State. The winner of the Nebraska vs. Michigan State game would have to lose another Big Ten game to propel Michigan to Indianapolis.

Michigan State’s other three games are at Illinois, at Northwestern and against Minnesota. Though the Wildcats looked like contenders early in the year, Michigan State will likely win all of those games.

Nebraska has a manageable schedule as well: with home games against Northwestern and Iowa sandwiching a trip to Happy Valley.

The most likely upset of these six games has to be Michigan State’s trip to Northwestern. If Pat Fitzgerald can find some semblance of the success the team had in September, they might be able to overcome the Spartan defense. That would mean Michigan State would need to win in Nebraska for Michigan to win the division.

In a year with a relatively weak slate of Big Ten teams, Michigan’s slip-up against Penn State could really cost the team a shot at the conference championship. To ensure a trip to Indianapolis, the Wolverines will likely have to win all five remaining games. With three of those battles on the road and both home games against ranked opponents, the rest of the year will be a grind.

If Devin Gardner can take care of the ball and Raymon Taylor can keep receivers in front of him then winning out is a possibility for Michigan, but it sure won’t be easy.

A close loss to the Buckeyes and a 10-2 record would likely give Michigan a shot to compete in a BCS bowl game in the final season before the new playoff system begins. With so many top teams falling last weekend, the nation is really a tossup in the rankings from No. 8-20. Michigan no longer needs to worry about looking good every weekend, it just needs to find a way to escape with victories.

Thirty games in, where does Hoke stand?

Friday, September 27th, 2013


Last Saturday marked the 30th game of Brady Hoke’s tenure at Michigan, and while it wasn’t pretty it resulted in a win. As we conclude the first of two bye weeks for Hoke’s squad this season it’s the perfect time to examine his first 30 games and how they stack up against the other coaches in Michigan history. First, let’s take a look at wins.

Hoke has won 77 percent of his games so far and 75 percent of his Big Ten contests. His 23 wins are the fourth most during that time span, behind Fielding Yost’s 29, Bo Schembechler’s 26, and Gary Moeller and Fritz Crisler’s 24. It is one ahead of Lloyd Carr’s 22 and ten better than his predecessor Rich Rodriguez.

Digging even further, we find that Hoke’s four wins over the three main rivals – Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame – are third only to Fritz Crisler’s seven and Gary Moeller’s five. Lloyd Carr and Bennie Oosterbaan each also won four games over the three main rivals in their first 30 games.

Yost obviously coached in a far different era, his first season being 110 years before Hoke took over. Schembechler and Crisler can be the most comparable to Hoke’s situation, having both taken over teams that had two losing seasons in the previous four. In Bo’s case, it was a program that had really been struggling for the previous decade. That he was able to have such immediate success, going to two Rose Bowls in his first three seasons, is a major reason why Bo is so revered. Moeller took over from Bo and had been on his staff for the majority of Bo’s tenure, so his first three seasons were mostly just an extension of his predecessor.

While Hoke has one more victory in his first 30 games than Carr, it is important to note that Carr won his next seven and the national championship, so unless Hoke does the same, he will fall behind Carr in the near future. Another item worth noting is that Hoke is the only coach other than Yost to not lose a single home game in his first 30 games. Schembechler lost just one – a 40-17 loss to 13th-ranked Missouri. Hoke is currently 17-0 in Michigan Stadium.

Now that we have established that Hoke ranks up there with the greats in Michigan history in victories through his first 30 games, let’s take a look at one of the areas Michigan has been struggling with this season: turnovers.


Turnover records don’t go far enough to compare turnovers from the Schembechler era backwards, but we can compare Hoke to the previous three regimes. As you can see above, Hoke’s teams have turned the ball over 61 times – just over two per game – which is second most behind the 66 given up during Rich Rodriguez’s first 30 games. Carr’s teams were better at taking care of the football, but Hoke still won one more game, while Moeller’s gave it up 16 percent fewer times.

One hypothesis as to why Hoke’s teams have turned it over more than Moeller’s and Carr’s is that he has many of the same players that Rodriguez’s staff recruited and coached. But Hoke’s first season wasn’t bad with 22 giveaways (16 interceptions and six fumbles). By comparison, Carr’s first two seasons had 23 turnovers each. Last season the number ballooned to 27 and this season Michigan is on pace for 36. The pace isn’t likely to continue, but unless they improve drastically the rest of the season it will be another large season total.

I think, rather than blaming it on Rodriguez’s recruits/players, the type of quarterback Michigan has had the past few years is the main culprit. Hoke has talked several times about Devin Gardner’s athleticism being both a strength and a weakness because it can create big plays out of nothing but also lead to mistakes that shouldn’t be made simply because other quarterbacks wouldn’t have been able to make them. The same can be said for Denard Robinson.

Hoke's first 30 games are right on par but if Gardner's turnover woes don't improve he could fall behind (David Butler II, USA Today)

Of Michigan’s 12 turnovers this season nine have been interceptions. Of the 61 turnovers under Hoke, 44 have been interceptions and just 17 have been fumbles. Conversely, of the 55 under Carr, 28 were interceptions and 27 were fumbles, while of the 51 under Moeller, 27 were interceptions and 24 were fumbles. In other words, the quarterbacks – Elvis Grbac, Todd Collins, Brian Griese, and Scott Dreisbach – were more traditional quarterbacks who took better care of the ball.

In addition, the disparity can’t be chalked up to more passing and less running. Moeller’s teams averaged 290 passes and 565 runs in his first three seasons, while Carr’s averaged 343 passes and 557 runs and Hoke’s have averaged 308 passes and 521 runs.

Fumbles are an odd thing in football. Just because a player fumbles it doesn’t mean it results in a turnover. Carr’s teams fumbled 59 times but only 27 of those (46 percent) were turnovers. Moeller’s fumbled 41 times and 24 (58 percent) were recovered by the opponent. Hoke’s teams so far have fumbled 44 times and 17 (39 percent) have been turnovers. So the ball has bounced Michigan’s way under Hoke, but the quarterbacks have been more careless with the ball.

It’s also important to go back and look at Hoke’s turnover record at his previous head coaching stops, Ball State (2003-08) and San Diego State (2009-10). Over the course of those eight seasons Hoke’s teams averaged just 18.25 turnovers per season, which is right on par with Moeller’s years at Michigan.

So what can we make of all of this? Although Hoke’s teams have turned the ball over more than Carr’s, he has one more win to show for it at this point. But nobody is going to argue that this team is as talented as Carr’s 1997 squad. Fumbles are largely a random event, and in this case, the luck has been mostly on Hoke’s side, but the quarterbacks Hoke has had are different types of quarterbacks than those that Carr and Moeller had. And Hoke’s history is one of fundamentals and taking care of the football, so it’s not likely that the current turnover woes will continue much longer.

Last Saturday was Gardner’s ninth career start, which means he’s still essentially a first year signal caller. As he continues to mature and get more experience under his belt his decision making will improve and he’ll learn that sometimes simply throwing the ball away is better than trying to be Superman. He has two-thirds of a season remaining in 2013 and a full year in 2014, and any bit of improvement in ball security will significantly improve Hoke’s chances of winning more games before the Wolverines return to the same type of quarterback Moeller and Carr had: less risk, less reward, but more consistent.

Gardner is a very smart kid and despite his recent struggles he will bounce back and provide far more thrilling moments than bad ones, so sit back and enjoy the ride. Michigan is in good hands under Hoke and he’ll help guide Gardner through his woes.

4,500 tickets, 3,000 seats: Former Maize Rage President’s take on new basketball student ticket policy

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013


A week ago, Derick shared his view on the athletic department’s announcement about the new process for basketball student tickets this season. As Superfan, whose role is to lead the chants at the front of the Maize Rage, his view was essentially that it was a net positive because it would result in more seats being full and many of the nation’s top basketball programs already use a similar system.

Now, in the interest of fairness and lending a voice to both sides of the argument, Sam would like to express his differing view. As a former president of the Maize Rage, Sam is certainly a credible voice in the discussion having presided over the student section and involved with it during the resurgence of the program.

(Eric Bronson, U-M Photo Services)

The 2013-14 school year has already proven to be a controversial one for University of Michigan student and Athletic Department relations. First, over the summer, the Athletic Department announced an overhaul of the football student section to first-come, first-serve seating. Seniors were outraged after the realization that, after working their way down the stadium stairs for three years, they would be given no priority for watching games at the Big House.

The move was an understandable one, a result of extremely poor student attendance at the onset of games in the recent past. Athletic Director David Brandon had hinted time and again that some sort of change would be needed, and a change in policy certainly came.

In the past, all students could show up at any time, whether 30 minutes prior to kickoff or midway through the second quarter, and claim their assigned seat – the more credits, the better the seat – without consequence. With the change, the athletic department has forced students into a quasi-ultimatum. Either skip the pre-game festivities and get in line, or sit in the nosebleeds.

Against Central Michigan and Notre Dame, the student section was noticeably packed by the time the ball was kicked, and Brandon’s policy seemed to be doing what it was meant to. Then Akron came to the Big House, and the student section appeared to be about 75 percent empty at the start of the game. In the case of football seating, only time will bring a verdict.

Fast forward to the fall. Michigan’s football team is off to a shaky 4-0 start and, like magic, another new ticket policy has been thrown at Michigan students – this time for basketball.

After selling some 4,500 student basketball season ticket packages, easily a new record, on the heels of a Final Four run, the Athletic Department realized they had made a big mistake.

The students have thrown their support behind John Beilein who has elevated the program out of its lean years (Lon Horwedel, AnnArbor.com)

No, it’s not that the $200 charged to each student wasn’t enough, or that students weren’t showing up on time, but rather that season tickets were oversold – by a long shot.

In an email to student season ticket holders last week, the AD announced that the Crisler Center only has room for about 3,000 students per game, and record purchasing numbers had necessitated a seemingly unforeseen change in policy. From now on, students were told that they would have to claim their tickets to each game days or weeks in advance on a first-come, first-serve basis and that after the 3,000 ticket allotment was claimed, all other student season ticket holders were out of luck – no passing go, no refund, no seat.

Surprisingly, most of the reaction I have heard from the core of the Maize Rage, the most dedicated season ticket holders, has been neutral or even positive. Even our own Derick, the Maize Rage’s Superfan, wrote an article preaching how this policy was needed and that the only students being punished are the “lazy” ones.

I, however, am utterly appalled by the actions of the Athletic Department on multiple levels.

My first issue with this new policy is the apparent ineptitude of the Athletic Department in failing to foresee an issue long before this over-selling came about.

When I was a freshman just six seasons ago, I was one of approximately 400 students who paid $99 for student basketball tickets. On top of the countless gift cards, pizzas, and shirts thrown at us by the Athletic Department for coming to games, we enjoyed an incredible season that included a home win over Duke and the end to Michigan’s NCAA Tournament drought. As the team started to show that it was for real, other students caught on and wanted to join in on the fun, and the Athletic Department was happy to oblige by giving these students free tickets at the door for just about every home game of the season.

The next year, some 1,500 students bought season tickets in anticipation of another great team, and despite a 15-17 finish that year, the team was sure to bounce back, and by the time I was the President of the Maize Rage my senior year in 2011, 2,500 students purchased season tickets. Last year, around 3,000 tickets were sold.

There is a clear theme here: the better the team, the more students want to come. Michigan has lost just two home games over the last two seasons, and after this March’s run to the championship game, the excitement of the team and the fun to be had at Crisler are no longer secrets; kids want to go to games.

With a little bit of forecasting work, the Athletic Department should have anticipated the heightened demand for student tickets and acted accordingly at a more appropriate date. Instead of guaranteeing tickets for every single game for every returning student who wanted in on the action back in April, perhaps a policy should have been put in place to prevent this disaster from happening.

AD Dave Brandon has made several controversial moves over the last few years (AnnArbor.com)

Instead, the Athletic Department was either completely oblivious to what would eventually happen or was so money-thirsty that nothing was done. The only guarantee students are given by the same Athletic Department now is their money back in exchange for their season tickets if they want to help the Athletic Department with their damage control.

Coming up with a policy much earlier would have been quite a bit easier. First, guarantee tickets for every student who has attended at least 80 percent of the home games over the past two seasons, 95 percent of the home games last season, or is a freshman. This would give the most dedicated, passionate, loyal, and, most likely, raucous, students the first chance to order basketball tickets while not punishing those freshmen who have not yet had the chance to prove their fandom. At the same time, it would punish those “lazy” students who have either failed to prove their dedication to the team by continually missing home games, or those who have jumped on the bandwagon.

After these qualified students had the chance to buy tickets, the remaining returning students would then have had the opportunity to purchase as many tickets as were left. If only 3,000 seats can truly be given to students, at least there would be no need to take tickets away from students who already paid full price to have the right to go to every home game. Better yet, you could still have students claim the tickets they want beforehand, and for those tickets not claimed, the students who were not able to purchase season tickets in the first place would have an opportunity to attend a few games.

Instead of this policy, which would have given priority to students who will almost assuredly be at games while also guaranteeing a full student section on a nightly basis, 4,500 students were allowed to purchase tickets in the first place just to be told that 33 percent of those students with a “ticket”, because now a “ticket” is not actually a ticket, would not be able to attend every single game.

As it stands now, there is no distinction or reward given to the dedicated basketball fans that the Athletic Department has feigned preference for, no punishment doled out to the lazy fans that the Athletic Department has pointed to as the reason for implementing this new policy, and certainly no effort to work toward a solution that would see the right fans at Crisler on a nightly basis. And yet somehow, the Athletic Department has convinced the dedicated students that deserve to be at Crisler every night, sans claiming tickets at 8:30am on a weekday five times throughout the season, that this policy was the only solution. The more you think about it, the more clear it becomes that this policy is a money grab by the Athletic Department and nothing more. By giving students the opportunity to sell their tickets back, they absolve themselves of all legal issues, but will still likely be able to collect money for about 1,000 “tickets” that are unusable.

4,500 students bought tickets to enter through this gate, but only up to 3,000 will be able to (Emilio Collavino)

Ultimately, I truly do understand that something had to be done, but I wish it would have been done much earlier and in a much different way. In a perfect world, every student who wants to buy basketball tickets should be able to and should have a seat at Crisler for every game. Furthermore, more than 30 percent of the students need to be in the lower deck (as it stands now, the bleachers and section 130 next to the band seat about 900 students while the rest are thrown in the upper bowl, where it is much more difficult to get fully-involved in the action; this, of course, is so that the AD can continue to collect giant donations from and charge ludicrous prices to the general public for the premium lower bowl seats that really should be going to the students if the AD truly cared about the game day atmosphere), but that is a story for another day.

If the AD honestly failed to foresee a student ticket demand too high for supply and had no other way out, they need to at the very least apologize for the mistake on their part and take away a more reasonable number of tickets, say 500, suck up the slight money loss, expand the student section to the necessary amount, and sell fewer seats to the general public on a nightly basis to make this a possibility. Even then, if more tickets were claimed than were available, the money should be refunded to all those students looking to claim a ticket that they rightly paid for but are not able to receive due to the over-selling.

Instead, students are now stuck with a policy that will see servers crash as they make a virtual mad dash to claim tickets, hoping against hope that 3,000 others don’t claim their games beforehand. More time will be wasted claiming tickets when the students should be in class, studying, or making posters for the next basketball game. And all the while, the AD will laugh while rolling in the money from a broken policy.

What happens when 3,500 students claim a ticket for the home opener against UMass-Lowell? Don’t ask me. Call the Athletic Department and see how the damage control looks now.

Two games in, is Michigan a national title contender?

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

When Stephon Tuitt grabbed Devin Gardner’s pass to nobody in the Michigan end zone to bring Notre Dame within one possession of the Wolverines on Saturday night, the entire season could have changed for the home team. Michigan had been up by 14 points with the ball in the fourth quarter and were well on their way to running their rivals right out of the biggest stadium in the country. Tuitt’s interception was followed by a poor punt and a Notre Dame field goal to make the score 34-30 as the game continued to get shakier for the home team.

Then Gardner turned things around for good. The 75-yard touchdown drive essentially finished the Fighting Irish and gave Michigan the 2-0 start to the season they needed to be considered a national contender.

But is Michigan a real contender?

It’s obviously much too early in the season to know which teams can really battle for the BCS National Championship, but isn’t that the fun of the pre-conference schedule? While the Wolverines remain undefeated, it’s not unreasonable to look ahead and think about what could be a magical year.

Let’s dig a little deeper into Michigan’s future.

Jeremy Gallon has become one of the top playmakers in the Big Ten (MGoBlue.com)

Based on what teams have shown so far this season, the Maize and Blue have a very realistic opportunity to be 7-0 going into East Lansing the first Saturday in November. Games against Akron, Minnesota and Indiana should be automatic victories for a team that hasn’t lost at home under Brady Hoke, and the first road test against Connecticut seems like a cupcake after the Huskies’ opening loss to FCS opponent Towson.

Penn State is the only legitimate worry for Hoke during this span, as the atmosphere in Happy Valley always proves unwelcoming for visiting teams. Penn State has won their first two games against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, and has a freshman quarterback that has looked impressive in non-conference play. The Nittany Lions will be the first real challenge away from the Big House, but assuming Michigan takes care of business beforehand, they should be heavily favored to start 7-0.

Michigan State always provides a challenge, especially in East Lansing. From a talent standpoint, though, Michigan is far superior to their neighbors. The Spartan offense is nothing short of anemic, and has mustered just two touchdowns against extremely weak opponents. The reason this team is dangerous is the elite defense, which has not only held opponents to just 9.5 points per game so far, but also scored four touchdowns. If Michigan State can’t move the ball, Michigan should win this rivalry fairly easily, but the Spartans always seem to show up for this game so expect 8-0 to be a real battle.

Of the final four games, Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State may be the toughest three games of the season. Nebraska and Northwestern will be battling for the top of the Legends Division, and though Michigan should be favored in both contests, neither of these games will be easy. Northwestern appears to be especially dangerous, having defeated two power conference teams fairly easy thus far and owning the luxury of hosting the game in Chicago. This game should be circled on Brady Hoke’s calendar as the game that could really end the undefeated run.

Should the Wolverines get through those two games, Iowa, who has already lost to Northern Illinois, will be a victory in Kinnick Stadium.

Ultimately, if Michigan can avoid a letdown, they could go into The Game with a record of 11-0. Ohio State is obviously the best team on the schedule, and it would be a tall order to ask this Michigan team to beat them two weeks in a row.

This schedule, while difficult, is manageable for the team fans saw on Saturday night.

Defensively, Michigan gave up too many points, but looking past the bare statistics offers hope for Greg Mattison’s unit. Through two games, the relatively young defensive line has given up only 162 yards rushing, which is crucial during Big Ten play. Opposing quarterbacks have also felt some pressure, resulting in five sacks through two games in Ann Arbor.

The defense sat back and forced Tommy Rees to make plays, but will need to get more pass rush to be a contender (MGoBlue.com)

Mattison has earned the trust of fans on the defensive end, but the real reason that Michigan is 2-0 is the successful implementation of the pro-style offense. Gardner has been terrific early in the season, despite the three interceptions. He is much more comfortable in the pocket than Denard Robinson was during his tenure as starting quarterback, and uses his mobility to avoid pressure and extend plays to find receivers downfield. The redshirt junior has been accurate with his passes, and picks his spots in the running game. In fact, Gardner has shown how comfortable he is in the scrambling game, converting several third-and-longs with his legs with no other options.

Luckily, he almost always has an option with Jeremy Gallon on the field. Gallon broke out with 184 receiving yard on eight catches and three touchdowns against Notre Dame, and showed that he is one of the top playmakers in the country. Though he isn’t the biggest or fastest receiver in the conference, the senior showcased the ability to break tackles, beat defenders off the line and catch the ball in traffic against a Notre Dame defense less than a year removed from a trip to the National Championship game. The ease with which Michigan moved the ball against one of the better defensive opponents on the schedule proves that Gardner has enough help to score against any team in the country.

Gardner is also the team’s leading rusher, something that needs to change if the Wolverines are to reach their maximum potential. Fitzgerald Toussaint has been decent out of the backfield, but his 3.6 yards per carry need to improve to give the offense shorter second and third downs. Freshman Derrick Green looked strong against Central Michigan, but got only one carry in the night game. The loss of backup Drake Johnson for the season means the rest of the group will have to pick up the slack and give Borges a running threat beyond the scrambling abilities of his starting quarterback.

Michigan’s national outlook won’t change for the next several weeks unless they suffer a loss to a weak team on their schedule. If the Wolverines can take care of business, they will have a great opportunity to play in a BCS bowl in the final year before the college football playoff is introduced.

It may be too early to think about January, but after a huge win against #14 Notre Dame, it sure is fun.

A Michigan-Ohio State rematch: Good or bad?

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013


When Maryland and Rutgers join the Big Ten in 2014, the conference will switch its divisions from Legends and Leaders to East and West. Not only are the names changing, but the teams that compose each division will be realigned as well. The realignment puts both Michigan and Ohio State in the East, meaning only one of the two will be able to compete for the Big Ten title each season. That means this season is the last opportunity for the rivals to play back-to-back games – the regularly scheduled final game of the season and then the Big Ten Championship game a week later. Would that be a good thing or not? Sam and Justin debate.

Why do we love sports?

It’s a question that seems incredibly easy to answer, yet is extremely thought-provoking if pondered on a deeper scale.

Sure, we love football Saturdays for the big hits, baseball during the dog days of summer for the relaxation, and basketball for the purity of the game, but ultimately sports are nothing more than men and women kicking, throwing, shooting, and doing other seemingly silly tasks with balls or other objects.

There has to be more to it than a simple “love of the game” that pre-dates meaning.

On the surface many people do love playing just for fun, but watch one game on TV and it becomes instantly clear that there is more at stake than fun. Sports rule people’s lives, create lifelong friendships, tear couples apart, and have a lot more sway than they probably should.

And there’s a reason for this – winning and losing.

It is not instinctual for humans to love sports, but it most certainly is instinctual for humans to love power, to love prestige, and to love superiority. From the beginnings of time, animals, and thus men, have fought to survive by being bigger, faster, and stronger than their counterparts. Today, with abundant quantities of human necessities, man typically no longer has to fight tooth and nail to survive. But we still have that urge to be better than everyone else. And so we have, and love, sports.

Two games means two opportunities for iconic moments like this

The vast majority of sports fans will never have first-hand experience of playing at the college level, but we still rabidly support our teams and schools with a passion that is rare away from the field. For Michigan fans, that means cheering on the Wolverines as if the world depended on it.

I’ll be the first to admit that the difference between wins and losses has dictated many of my past decisions. Throughout my college years, a Michigan victory would often lead to a night of laughter and partying while an untimely loss (and aren’t they all) typically meant a night full of studying and an 8:00pm bed time. Yes, I have watched every single Michigan basketball and football game for probably the past seven years running, and the outcome of each of those 200-and-some games had some effect on my mood, as they certainly did for Michigan fans around the world.

Wins over the Delaware States and Towsons of the world probably didn’t bring more than a smile, and expected losses during the tough times were hard to swallow but relatively easy to get over, but the big games were always exhilarating.

The tussles with the Buckeyes, the Fighting Irish, and the Spartans are always certain to amplify my reaction by unforeseen amounts, because there is nothing better than the feeling of besting a rival.

Recently, conference expansion caused some realignment in the Big Ten, and the historic football rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State, known simply as The Game, fell into threatened status, not because it would be discontinued, but rather because there were rumblings that the matchup would be moved from its slot on the final weekend.

Luckily, The Game was kept in place, but the ballooning of the Big Ten to 12 schools, and eventually 14 starting in 2014, made divisions a necessity. Michigan and Ohio State, who have dominated the Big Ten for about as long as the conference has existed, would now either be placed in the same division and play for the right to advance to the Big Ten championship game, or would be put in opposite divisions and play for a spot in the championship game but also a possibility of a rematch.

As it stands this season, Michigan and Ohio State find themselves in opposite divisions, and many pundits are projecting both the Wolverines and the Buckeyes to fare extremely well within those separate groupings. If these predictions hold true and both teams perform up to their potentials, Michigan and Ohio State could be playing on November 30 in Ann Arbor and again on December 7, just one week later, in Indianapolis.

But it also means more opportunities for moments like this

Fans of both teams have come out in either strong support of or opposition to this idea. Those against it cry out that the rivalry will be watered down, and that The Game could prove meaningless if both teams are already guaranteed a spot in the title game the following weekend, or that a split in the series would eliminate all bragging rights.

I, on the other hand, foresee a thrilling rematch – and only if both teams are deserving of a second game.

First of all, the chances that a rematch happens are not great, but even if it does, I will rest assured knowing that Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer want their teams to rip the other team’s collective heart out no matter what the stakes. These two teams could be playing in a gladiatorial death cage or they could be playing for a new Barbie playhouse and no one would know the difference. Emotions will flare, tempers will rise, and a battle will ensue – no matter the circumstances.

Secondly, a simple listing of some of the best rivalries in sports does wonders in support of seeing the Maize and Blue square off with the Scarlet and Grey twice. Take the Yankees and Red Sox, Real Madrid and Barcelona, the Cowboys and the Giants, Duke and North Carolina, and tell me when the last time was when these greatest rivals in the world played but one time in a season. Take any number of huge rivalries outside of college football, and one of the constants anyone will see is that rivals love playing each other more than once a year. Multiple matchups certainly haven’t eased the tensions between any of these fan bases.

Perhaps the best thing to come from twice as many rivalry games with Ohio State, however, would be twice as many moments to remember, twice as many games to reminisce over years into the future, and twice as many heroes to worship. Ohio State fans aren’t soon to forget Chic Harley, Dick Schafrath, Maurice Clarett, or Troy Smith, and in no small part for their roles in taking down Michigan; likewise, Wolverine faithful adore Tom Harmon, Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson, Chris Perry, and Denard Robinson much for their contributions in felling the Buckeyes. A potential second game every season would allow for so many more of these players to enter the halls of history of the greatest rivalry in sports.

To those who really only want to see Michigan play Ohio State once every year, I will choose to enjoy my alternate universe in which the Wolverines and Buckeyes play a second time while you sleep through another pounding of Northeastern College of the Arts.

To those who think a rematch would water down a game between two teams full of hatred for each other, I ask, do you honestly think one of these teams could swallow a loss one week and lay down in the Big Ten Championship the next? I certainly don’t.

All I envision is more hatred, more celebrations, and, yes, sometimes even more early bed times.


Despite the alternate jerseys and Big House renovations the past few years, Michigan football is all about tradition. You know the drill: winningest program, most recognizable helmets, best fight song…the list goes on. A major part of that tradition is the annual end of season battle with the Buckeyes.

The mere suggestion that it could be moved away from the last weekend in November  - whether it was a real possibility or not – was enough to draw ire from both sides of the rivalry. That’s how steeped in tradition it is and part of what makes it a greater rivalry than the other big rivalries that exist in sports.

Fans from both sides know the importance of the game. Many of us have family or friends on the other side. And for as long as any of us can remember, it has been the game that ended the regular season, leaving us to face those family and friends over the holidays with either a pompous joy or a sheepish distain. It means so much because there is only one shot. Win and you have 364 days of bragging rights. Lose and you have to hear about it for 364 days until you can get another shot.

This year, the possibility exists of the teams meeting in back to back weeks. In that scenario, there are four possible outcomes: Michigan wins both, Michigan wins the first but loses the Big Ten title game, Michigan loses the first but wins the Big Ten title game, or Ohio State wins both.

The Game should never give the losing team a chance for revenge because it will diminish moments like this

Obviously, Michigan winning both would be the ultimate icing on the cake, but in my opinion the other three outcomes are not good. Of course, losing to Ohio State in back to back weeks would make for a horrible offseason, but here’s why the other two outcomes are bad as well.

Based on schedules this season, Ohio State is far more likely to enter the end of season matchup unbeaten, or at least with a better record. Michigan has to play Notre Dame, Nebraska and at Michigan State – none of which are on the Buckeyes’ schedule – and at Penn State, while OSU gets the Nittany Lions at home. Ohio State’s only road games prior to coming to Ann Arbor are California, Northwestern, Purdue, and Illinois. None are likely losses and only Northwestern carries the possibility.

Let’s say a 9-2 Michigan team beats a 11-0 Ohio State squad on Nov. 30, but then Ohio State returns the favor in the Big Ten Championship game. The Buckeyes would go to either the BCS National Championship or the Rose Bowl, while Michigan would go to either the Rose Bowl or another bowl game and the Nov. 30 win would be all but forgotten. Just a minor hiccup on the Buckeyes’ schedule. They won the one that matters and that’s all they will remember.

In the other scenario, let’s say 11-0 Ohio State beats 9-2 Michigan on Nov. 30, but Michigan still wins the Legends and then upsets the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship game a week later. At 10-3, Michigan would get the automatic BCS berth, but it would be hard to argue that the Wolverines were better than the 12-1 Buckeyes who would also get a BCS at-large bid. Depending on the score of the two matchups (were they both close, down to the wire games, or did Ohio State win the first won handily and Michigan need a last second field goal to win the second?) the Big Ten title game victory would mean less than it would if they had only played once and Michigan won. Yes, it would mean a Big Ten title, but it would be dampened by the fact that the teams beat each other in back to back weeks. Both teams could rightfully claim they were better and there would be no tie-breaker.

So if three of the four outcomes of the scenario are negative why would I want it to happen? Unfortunately, for Michigan to win the Big Ten this season, I believe the rematch will have to happen, but thankfully this is the last year it could. Beginning in 2014, Michigan and Ohio State will both be in the East battling for a spot in the Big Ten title game. That also isn’t ideal since only one of them will get a shot to win the Big Ten each year, but it’s the reality of a bigger conference that requires divisions – which I hate, but that’s a topic for another day – and it’s better than the possibility of them meeting back-to-back.

Let’s just hope Michigan wins both and we can put this issue to rest once and for all.

A tribute to Trey Burke

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013


I still remember the day, August 24, 2010, like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, if otherwise nondescript, Tuesday afternoon in the late summer of Ann Arbor. Students were trickling back to campus just a couple weeks before the first home football game of the season and I found myself living the life, chilling with some friends on Greenwood Street, back to my home away from home a few days early for some work training before the start of my junior year.

Two nights before, my parents had dropped me off at my buddy’s college house and were immediately taken aback by the pungent smell of old, cheap beer emanating from the front porch and the silver keg sitting about two feet in front of the entranceway to the messy house. Surprisingly, they trusted Nick enough to leave me there and turned back around to Grand Rapids, probably praying like heck I would make it through the next two days and into the school year.

Burke wasn't a highly recruited player out of high school

For whatever reason, Monday was unmemorable, a day full of sitting around watching and listening to training presentations and then relaxing back on Greenwood. Tuesday was supposed to be the same sort of day – a few hours of training followed by watching TV and walking the streets of Ann Arbor on the most picturesque of days.

Taylor, the friend who would go on to live with me a year later and who was also back in town for our training, and I decided to rent a couple movies to help pass the time. One of the films was about serious air guitar competitions, a recommendation from the tall, bald, mustachioed man working the desk at the Askwith Media Library. The other, Grizzly Man, had been on my must-watch list for a while.

We got back to our temporary college house and were sitting on the couch chatting before we would pop in one of the flicks when Nick walked down the steps. I think he was holding a laptop, but I’m not absolutely certain. All I remember is what he said.

“Trey Burke committed.”

He said it with a slight air of excitement, but not much more. Taylor chimed in to ask who Burke was, and Nick and I, being avid college basketball fans and followers of the Michigan team, did our best to fill him in.

We knew who Burke was, a Columbus, Ohio native and former teammate of Jared Sullinger, but didn’t have a ton to go off of. There was a little bit of video and a few scouting reports that added up to suggest that Burke was a fringe top 100-150ish point guard that wasn’t great at anything but was above average at most things. He had decommitted from Penn State a few months earlier and had just received a Michigan offer to add to a mostly unimpressive list of other offers, among them Cincinnati, Butler, Iowa, and Nebraska.

We read through all the material we could find, including message board comments that were mostly positive, but not overly optimistic. Many posted some form of a quick welcome to Trey Burke, but few predicted grand success in the future, just excitement that basketball season was around the corner. Others said he looked more like a mid-major player than a guy competing in the Big Ten. Carlton Brundidge was still going to be the key to the 2011 class; the common perception was that Burke would be a good facilitator, a good player.

Our talk lasted all of about five or 10 minutes before we moved on to our next musings. Little did we know then that I would be writing this article two and a half years later.

In Trey's first career game, he scored just three points in 18 minutes (MGoBlue.com)

The 2010-11 Michigan basketball season was a great bounce-back year for the Michigan basketball program after the 2009-10 squad had failed massively to live up to expectations, finishing the year at 15-17 and missing every postseason tournament after being ranked 15 in the preseason polls.

That season was highlighted by the emergence of Darius Morris, a 6’4″ scoring point guard out of Los Angeles who was John Beilein’s first major signee at Michigan. As a freshman, Morris was relegated to a backup role, but his fantastic sophomore season helped lead the Wolverines back to the NCAA Tournament, where they pounded Tennessee before narrowly missing out on the Sweet Sixteen on a missed floater by Morris.

That floater would be the last shot Morris ever took in a Michigan uniform. After two seasons, he decided it was time to pursue his dream of playing professionally and entered the NBA Draft, where he was selected in the second round. I wrote a story then too, calling on Michigan fans to support Morris in his decision, and asking how anyone could question a college-aged kid in his quest to play the game he loves full-time while bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – at a minimum.

In the back of my mind, I wondered how Michigan would fare without their clear-cut best player, their floor general, starting in the fall. Yes, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass would provide veteran leadership and shot-making, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. had all the makings of a Big Ten superstar, but there no longer was a point guard to bring them all together and make the magic happen. I just didn’t want to think about it.

With Morris leaving, there was suddenly a lot more minutes available. Many, including me, speculated that Douglass would be forced to play out of position for at least 20 minutes a game while Burke and Brundidge would battle it out for the other 20 minutes. In my mind, a freshman, especially one as small as Burke, simply could not lead a team for extended periods of time in the Big Ten.

The summer came and went with my brother Justin and I frequently arguing about who would be the best freshman in the class. I still believed Brundidge was the newcomer to watch once the fall rolled around again. He maintained that Burke was worlds ahead of him, pointing to the ridiculous “Journey to Ann Arbor” workout videos that Burke had posted to YouTube. I didn’t listen.

That fall I was just as excited as always for Michigan basketball to come, but I was as unsure as ever about the merits of the team. I knew Beilein was a great coach, and I knew Michigan had some very good players, but the point guard position was becoming so important in the offense, and I kept questioning. Ultimately I guessed that I’d once again sweat it out on a nightly basis as the team sat on the bubble all year long.

A couple weeks before the season started, the buzz over this Burke player started to pick up. My friend Andrew posed as his sportswriter-uncle’s intern to get into a private Michigan practice and came out blown away by number 3. I still remember one Monday night after a Maize Rage meeting walking with Andrew, listening to his thoughts on the team a week before I would be able to view an open practice myself.

Trey dazzled in his first ever game against Michigan State, out-dueling Keith Appling (MGoBlue.com)

He started off that walk by telling me that Burke was the real deal.

“He will be the best player on this team by the end of the season,” he said.

I almost laughed out loud as we passed the Union. The best player on the team? Certainly he had to be joking. I told him I just hoped Burke earned some playing time at the point guard spot – that would at the very least be a good sign for the future. He insisted I was way off, that Burke would start before I knew it. We then walked our separate ways, I with some hope, some dream, but still some doubt.

From there, we know the story.

Burke went on to take the college basketball world by storm his freshman season, leading the team to a Big Ten championship and playing with the swagger and confidence of a man far older than 19 as classmate Carlton Brundidge struggled to earn minutes.

Once I finally got to see Burke play in a couple real college games, I had no reason to doubt any longer. Early on, I knew he was going to be a special player, and he ended up exceeding even those expectations.

By the midway point of Trey’s freshman season, I started to take him for granted. Sure, he missed plenty of shots, and no, he didn’t always make the right pass, but damn near all of the time Burke was the best player on the floor. I developed a sense of calm within games that I had never experienced before. I knew Trey Burke was on Michigan’s side, and I was at peace.

The Wolverines still lost games that season, 10 to be exact, and not everything ended up Michigan’s way, but it was a terrific winter to watch.

Sadly, that season ended with a disappointing and disheartening loss in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite earning a 4-seed, Michigan was upended by the Ohio Bobcats.

Novak and Douglass’s storied careers had come to an end, and my time as a Michigan student was winding down as well, but I looked ahead to the next season with renewed vigor, knowing the team would be in Burke’s protecting hands.

Then the news came like a blow to the stomach. Word got out that Burke was considering an early exit to the NBA, and there were rumblings around campus that he had stopped attending class, leaving most to conclude that his time at Michigan was indeed over. A few days later, reports that firmly confirmed these conclusions came out – Burke had decided to forego his college career after just one year at Michigan.  Pictures of his packed-up dorm room emerged on Twitter.

Following his freshman season, this image stirred up rumors of an early departure

I thought back to the article I wrote one year earlier about Morris’s decision to go pro and ran through every reason I gave as to why he couldn’t be blamed, eventually realizing that Burke was in the same boat. How could anyone question a teenager deciding to pursue his dreams and loads of money that most of us couldn’t even imagine making? Sure, another terrific year in college might boost his draft stock, but was the risk of injury worth it?

No one knew for sure. Michigan fans just hoped against hope it wasn’t true.

A couple more days passed with no announcement of Burke’s intentions, and a glimmer of that hope shone brightly in the sky. More stories started to come out explaining that Burke was reconsidering his decision, but still no one was certain.

Then came the announcement. On April 9, 2012, Burke single-handedly blew the clouds out of Ann Arbor by announcing that he would return for his sophomore year at Michigan. Within minutes of the declaration, most surmised that, barring a catastrophe, the 2012-13 season would serve as a swan song of sorts for the baby-faced sophomore. He would give it a go one more time in Ann Arbor in the hopes of winning a championship and improving his draft stock.

That summer passed very slowly for Michigan fans around the world as Beilein assembled his best-ever recruiting class to enter into the equation with Burke and Hardaway already in the fold. Prognosticators slotted Michigan in the top five of polls in the preseason, higher than in nearly 20 years, and Burke was viewed as an All-American.

With Burke leading the way one last time, the Wolverines gave fans a ride for the ages, opening the season with 16 straight wins to climb to number one in the country. There were some bumps in the road that followed, however, and doubts crept up.

Michigan fans will forever remember this moment

When the Big Dance rolled around this time, the sentiments weren’t so high. Michigan had limped to a 6-6 record over the final 12 games preceding the NCAA Tournament, and another 4-seed seemed to be an unfair omen for Michigan fans looking for one last joy ride.

As always, though, Burke answered the call. For the most part he wasn’t spectacular in Michigan’s run to the Final Four, but when it mattered most, he was there. He was there to shut down Nate Wolters in Michigan’s opening round victory over South Dakota State, and he was there to wreak havoc on VCU’s overly-aggressive defense despite a lack of gaudy numbers that first weekend.

Burke was there with 23 magical second-half points in the Wolverines’ fairy tale comeback over Kansas and he was there in Michigan’s blowout of Florida.

He was also there in Michigan’s victory over Syracuse, their first Final Four win in two decades. Perhaps most memorably, however, Burke was there against Louisville in the national championship that wasn’t meant to be.

It was an unfitting end to such a brilliant college career, a game that saw Burke marred with two questionable foul calls, including one on an incredible block of Peyton Siva that could have changed the outcome of the game. Burke fought to the end in that game as he always did, however, scoring 24 points and putting the team on his back despite a couple noticeably painful hard fouls that he took himself.

In the end, for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be. Burke brought home all the individual awards one can earn, but I know he is the kind of player that would have given them all back to win that last game.

That was always part of the beauty of Trey Burke’s game. He always gave it his all for the team, whether Michigan was trailing by four late or winning by 20 in the first half, and he thought every shot was going in. Sure, he missed more than half the shots he took in his college career, but I was fine with any shot Trey deemed suitable. He made me a believer in the bad shot, the long two, the off-balance layup, the pick-pocket, and the 10-foot-behind-the-line three.

The lightly recruited point guard became the best player in college basketball

He also made me a believer in the clutch factor.

Before I knew Trey Burke, I was on the side of the statisticians and mathematicians that adamantly proclaim that there is no such thing as being clutch in sports, that ultimately a player will make the same percent of his shots at any given time if there are enough trials.

To them, I say watch Trey Burke.

Watch the Ohio State home games of this season and last, when Burke made three game-saving plays in all. Watch the Michigan State game of this year, when Burke snatched the ball right from Keith Appling’s backside to ensure that Michigan would not fall apart down the stretch. Watch the Purdue game in West Lafayette, when Burke led a one-man comeback with three after three and floater after floater to keep Michigan’s season from going down the drain. Watch the Kansas game in the Sweet Sixteen, when Burke willed his team to overtime and eventually victory with The Shot, truly believing his team would win despite some computer programs giving Michigan less than a one percent chance of doing so.

To you, Trey Burke, I have a confession to make. I doubted you. Before I saw what you could do with my own eyes, I didn’t believe in you. I was skeptical that a 6’0″, 175-pound kid from Columbus, a kid that didn’t even get looked at by the Big Ten team right down the street, could carry a team for two seasons.

No one told me to write this story, but I felt that I owed it to you.

It’s players like you that make the game of basketball special and the University of Michigan special. Players that play the right way, and do so with such grace and smoothness rarely on display these days.

I never once thought you would be the savior of Michigan basketball, but now there is no doubt in my mind.

Sooner rather than later, I know we will see your ‘3’ hanging in the rafters of Crisler, adorned with “BURKE” across the top in huge letters next to the past greats of Michigan basketball, and across the way from the “2012-13 NCAA Runner-Up,” “2013 Final Four,” and “2011-12 Big Ten Champion” banners.

Until then, I wish you the best of luck on your journey to the NBA. When college basketball season rolls around again this fall, I will be excited as always, but there will be a small hole in my heart that is made a just a little bit bigger by your departure, after Novak, Douglass, Morris, Manny Harris, and so many others have moved on before. I will miss watching you play, seeing you so effortlessly lead Michigan to victory while wearing the Maize and Blue, but thank you for giving me that reason.

Thank you for making me a believer in not only you, but in the game of basketball. I always knew it was a beautiful game, but I was never certain it could be played as beautifully as you did these past two years.

Thank you for always helping me remember these past two years, and that day two summers ago that I will never forget.

Thank you for those banners, and for bringing Michigan back to where it belongs.

Thank you, Trey, for everything.

The path to the Big Ten title

Monday, February 11th, 2013


Michigan took a major hit to its Big Ten title hopes with a heartbreaking overtime loss at Wisconsin on Saturday. With a 8-3 conference record and seven games remaining, do the Wolverines still have a chance to win at least a share of the title for the second straight season? The short answer is yes. But let’s examine the remaining schedule of each of the contenders.

Remaining Schedule
Nebraska Michigan Northwestern @ Minnesota @ Michigan State
Purdue @ Nebraska @ Wisconsin Ohio State Penn State
@ Michigan State Indiana Minnesota @ Northwestern Illinois
@ Minnesota @ Ohio State Michigan State Nebraska @ Penn State
Iowa @ Michigan @ Northwestern Purdue Michigan State
Ohio State Wisconsin @ Indiana @ Michigan State @ Purdue
@ Michigan Northwestern Illinois @ Penn State Indiana

Indiana (9-2) is widely considered the main challenger and pulled off a big road win in Columbus on Sunday afternoon. The Hoosiers still have trips to Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan remaining, with home tilts with Nebraska, Purdue, Iowa, and Ohio State. It’s probably a safe bet to assume IU will lose at least one of those games leading into the final game of the season in Ann Arbor.

Michigan State (9-2) has perhaps the toughest remaining schedule of the top contenders, beginning with tomorrow’s matchup with Michigan. The Spartans get a breather with Nebraska before hosting Indiana, traveling to Ohio State and Michigan, then hosting Wisconsin before finishing with Northwestern.

Ohio State (7-4) has the most ground to make up following its loss to Indiana. After failing to hold court at home, the Buckeyes will probably need to win out to secure at least a share of the title. But it’s not an easy road. Trips to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Indiana loom and home bouts with Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois won’t be easy.

Michigan needs to steal a win in the Breslin Center

The surprise team of the conference has been Wisconsin (8-3), the team that beat Michigan on Saturday and also has a road win over Indiana. The Badgers have perhaps the easiest road of all of Michigan’s challengers the rest of the way as long as they can get through the next two games, a road trip to Minnesota on Thursday and a home battle with Ohio State. From there, they visit Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State, and host Nebraska and Purdue.

Michigan (8-3) still has to survive a home and home with Michigan State and the season ender against Indiana, but the Wolverines also still get two games against Penn State, a home game against Illinois and a trip to Purdue.

If both Michigan and Indiana both win their next six games, it will all come down to the March 10 showdown in Ann Arbor with Michigan needing to win to share the title and Indiana needing to win to take the title outright. Winning seven straight would be a tall task for the Wolverines, but if they can come out of East Lansing with a win tomorrow night, the chances will improve drastically.

A loss on Tuesday would mean Michigan has to rely on help. Both Michigan State and Indiana would need to lose twice. Michigan could help out with one of those for each team, but would then need each to lose again. That’s certainly not out of the question – remember last season when Michigan lost its last home game to Purdue, but ended up sharing the Big Ten title – but it’s a lot to ask for.

That being said, tomorrow’s battle in East Lansing is extremely important. It’s pretty safe to assume that Michigan will win its next three games after that one, so by that time, the Feb. 19 Indiana-Michigan State game will have either all but knocked the Spartans out of the race or dropped the Hoosiers into a tie with both MSU and Michigan with three games remaining.

Michigan has won three of the last four over the Spartans and would love to continue that trend. So far this season, Indiana (at Ohio State), Michigan State (at Wisconsin), and Wisconsin (at Indiana) each have road wins over title contenders. Michigan will need to follow suit and steal one on the road. Regardless, it’s safe to say the conference title race is going to come down to the very last weekend and will set up an epic Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.

Twenty years later, Michigan back on top; it matters to us

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013


Almost exactly two years ago, on January 22, 2011, Michigan dropped its sixth straight Big Ten contest, this time a home loss to Minnesota to fall to 11-9 overall and 1-6 in the conference. The season had begun with high expectations, fueled by freshman [edit: sophomore] point guard Darius Morris, but as January neared its end, many Michigan faithful began to wonder whether John Beilein was ever going to get Michigan back to elite status.

Rewind to the beginning of the 1992 season which Michigan entered with the number one national ranking looking to avenge the national championship game loss of the season before. Year two of the Fab Five saw Michigan hold the top spot all of three weeks, and ultimately lost the title game once again. Beilein, meanwhile was just beginning his Division 1 coaching career at Canisius College.

The Fab Five were the last Michigan team to be ranked No.1

Fast forward ten years to 2002 when Michigan was handed sanctions as a result of four players – Chris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor, and Louis Bullock – being found to have received money from booster Ed Martin. The Fab Five era was erased, as were the late 1990s, which included a Big Ten Tournament championship in 1998 and the 1997 NIT title. By this time, Beilein was taking over a West Virginia program that he would take to the Elite Eight a couple years later.

Jump ahead five years to 2007. Michigan hired Beilein to replace Tommy Amaker who had been the safe hire in 2001 to lead the program through the sanctions. Beilein’s first team finished an underwhelming 10-22 and it was hard to imagine a light at the end of the tunnel.

The very next season, however, the Wolverines upset fourth-ranked UCLA and fourth-ranked Duke, won 22 games, earned the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since the sanctions were lifted, and won the first round game over Clemson. It was the first feel-good moment for Michigan basketball in a long time, and while the team limped to a losing record in the 2009-10 season, it laid the foundation for future success.

That takes us back to late January of 2011. Carrying a six-game losing streak into East Lansing where the Wolverines hadn’t won since 1997 wasn’t a fun proposition, but a Stu Douglass three with 25 seconds left sealed the Michigan win. The Maize and Blue won eight of their last 11, including a regular-season ending 70-63 win over the Spartans to earn a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament. There, Michigan routed Tennessee and nearly knocked off top-seeded Duke.

Two years to the day after that unlikely victory in East Lansing, Michigan beat Illinois to sieze the No. 1 ranking in today’s Associated Press poll. Monday’s AP poll marks the first time since Dec. 6, 1992 that the Wolverines have been ranked first overall, which means four current Wolverines – Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, and Max Bielfeldt – weren’t even alive the last time Michigan was ranked number one. In fact, if you add up the age of every player on the team at the time Michigan was last ranked first (16 years, 360 days), it wouldn’t even equal the amount of time that has passed since that time (20 years, 53 days). The oldest player at the time was Corey Person at three years and 145 days old.

John Beilein has rebuilt the Michigan program to a level few thought was possible a couple years ago

Following Sunday’s win over Illinois, Beilein downplayed the significance of the No. 1 ranking, saying that no one will remember who was ranked number one at the end of January. And while that’s true on a national level, one can be rest assured that Michigan fans across the world will.

For many current Michigan fans, the fandom started, or at least grew, during that time period from the 1989 national championship through the Fab Five years. It was truly an exciting time. But the abyss that it sent the program into, which it has been clawing out of inch by inch over the past decade and a half, is one most Michigan fans would like to forget. That’s what makes today’s No. 1 ranking so special.

The 1992 squad, loaded with the talent of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson, changed the culture of college basketball and helped put Michigan basketball on the map. But their stardom and the actions that came with it took Michigan basketball off the map for the subsequent decade-plus. This year’s squad, led by a super sophomore from Columbus that the Buckeyes passed over, a pair of NBA sons, and a lightly recruited sharp-shooter from Canada has achieved No. 1 the right way, ironically, in the same year the Fab Five ban is set to end.

The obvious goal, as Beilein and the rest of the team has harped on all season, is to be number one at the end of the season. But Michigan’a ascension to the top spot has put the Wolverines back on the map and will likely breed a whole new generation of Michigan basketball fans, and it will no doubt help with recruiting. Whether Michigan wins it all this season or not, Beilein’s squad has achieved something only 26 other teams have done in the last 20 years: climb to number one. And for Michigan fans who have bled maize and blue through the lean times that have consumed the past 15 years, it matters.

Fear not, ’twas just one loss; Michigan will rise again

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013


On Sunday afternoon, something a little unfamiliar happened to the Michigan Wolverines and their fans. They lost. That’s right. After 16 straight wins to open the season, matching the best start in the history of the program, Michigan was tripped up on the home court of their arch rivals, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Perhaps worse yet, the 56-53 loss was ugly, it ended Michigan’s hopes of entering this week on top of the college basketball world after they had become the last undefeated team following Duke’s loss, and it exposed some potential flaws in John Beilein’s team. Truth be told, the final score could have been a blowout after Ohio State raced out to a 21-point lead just 13 minutes into the first half.

The spark Spike provided off the bench is reason for excitement (Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

So what should the response be for Michigan fans? Some have taken to social media to voice their displeasure with the team, notably berating freshman Nik Stauskas, who finished the game scoreless on three shots, to the point that he tweeted, “Can’t even read my mentions because of all the negativity thrown at me.” They called him “horrible” and surmised that “there’s no way Nik Stauskas should be starting for Michigan.” Others have questioned if Michigan’s number two ranking entering the game was legitimate, saying that the non-conference season was an aberration caused by beating up on bad teams.

The fact is, however, that this was Michigan’s first loss since last March, the first time the Maize and Blue have fallen in seventeen games. Seventeen! Certainly there is some reason to be concerned after the poor first half and Michigan’s failure to finish off a comeback late in the second, but fans need to take a deep breath and think about expectations entering this season while also thinking about past seasons.

When John Beilein moved to Ann Arbor six years ago to take over the basketball program, fans would have rejoiced to know that Michigan would be a top-five team in the country in the 2012-13 season. In fact, I would wager that six years ago, most fans complaining about the loss yesterday didn’t consider themselves fans in the darker times and would have struggled to name more than one player on Beilein’s first team.

It’s a testament to how well Beilein has done in his short time here that people have a hard time accepting a loss like this. No one wants to lose any game, but that is simply unrealistic. Teams play bad games, even the best teams in the country. The last three National Champions, in fact, had already lost an average of two games before this Michigan team lost at all.

I am not trying to make excuses for Sunday’s loss by any means; there is just no reason to be extremely worried at this juncture. Michigan is still an incredibly young team that relies on four freshmen to play significant roles, and the fifth freshman, Spike Albrecht, was actually the only one that looked comfortable in the hostile environment, recording a career-high seven points in the first half alone. And with no disrespect to Bradley or a crippled Northwestern team, this road game was always going to be the first road game to really challenge the Wolverines this season; the crowd was loud and the Buckeye defense was worlds above what either of those two teams could provide.

There won't be many more games, if any, that Trey is shut down (Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

Most left Michigan for dead before the halftime horn blew and already started preparing their ill-advised comments toward anyone and everyone associated with the program. In the second half, however, the Wolverines showed that the hate mail would have to be held onto, if for just 20 minutes longer, by staging a steady comeback, silencing the crowd minute by minute and eventually tying the game up with six minutes to go. And even though the attempt fell just short, the effort Michigan showed while chipping away at the lead proved to me that Michigan is not a team to be dismissed by any means. A number of teams in the same situation would have given up and mentally quit by halftime after trailing by such a large margin early, but Michigan closed out the first half on a nice run and came out in the second with renewed energy on both ends of the ball.

Throughout my four years in college, from 2008 to 2012, I spent my time attending basketball games with sometimes no more than 75 or 100 other students, most of them my good friends because everyone knew each other. Most nights I watched college basketball for those first three years and cheered against any potential end-of-year bubble team with a passion, because I knew Michigan was probably going to need a little bit of help when March rolled around just to squeeze into the tournament. That freshman year in 2009, the Wolverines went dancing by the thinnest of margins and beat Clemson in the first round. Two years later, and just two years ago now, the Wolverines again used some magic dust to fight into the field of 68 as an 8-seed, then proceeded to record the biggest blowout in any 8/9 game ever played in the Tournament.

With one loss for Michigan in mid-January this year, the worrying and over-reacting needs to stop. No Big Ten road game is going to be an easy win, especially when it comes on the home court of a huge rival that is itself a top-15 team. The Wolverines are going to be just fine and will learn from their mistakes in Sunday’s loss. It will be hard for any team on the schedule the rest of the way to limit this offensively-gifted squad to under 40 percent shooting from the field, and you will likely never see Michigan’s top four scorers combine to shoot just 30 percent themselves.

College basketball, and life in general, is a game of ups and downs. Sometimes the highs are very high and the lows are very low. This season’s roller coaster just took its first dip on the track all year and left a few riders behind. If Michigan ends up at ground level in a couple weeks, feel free to abandon ship. I, on the other hand, will continue to ride in the front cart as it undoubtedly climbs toward the clouds as the season rolls on.

Can Michigan overtake Duke for top spot?

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012


Michigan’s continued dominance coupled with Indiana’s overtime loss to Butler on Saturday afternoon allowed the Wolverines to move up yet another spot in the national rankings. Michigan began the season fifth, but has steadily climbed to second while those above them have faltered. All except Duke, which remains the only team ranked ahead of them.

The last time Michigan reached second in the rankings was the second year of the Fab Five, the 1992-93 season that remains marred by scandal and erased from the record books. Most current college students have never seen Michigan ranked as high as it is now.

So how far can the Wolverines keep going? Can they supplant the Blue Devils for the top spot? How long will Michigan remain unbeaten? Let’s take a look at Michigan’s upcoming schedule as well as those of Duke and the other remaining unbeatens.

Next 10 games
#1 Duke (9-0) #2 Michigan (11-0) #3 Syracuse (9-0) #4 Arizona (8-0)
Dec. 19 vs Cornell Dec. 20 vs EMU Dec. 22 vs Temple Dec. 18 vs Oral Roberts
Dec. 20 vs Elon Dec. 29 vs CMU Dec. 29 vs Alcorn State Dec. 22 vs ETSU
Dec. 29 vs Santa Clara Jan. 3 @ NW Dec. 31 vs C. Con. State Jan. 3 vs Colorado
Jan. 2 vs Davidson Jan. 6 vs Iowa Jan. 2 vs Rutgers Jan. 5 vs Utah
Jan. 5 vs Wake Forest Jan. 9 vs Nebraska Jan. 6 @ USF Jan. 10 @ Oregon
Jan. 8 vs Clemson Jan. 13 @ #7 Ohio State Jan. 9 @ Providence Jan. 12 @ Oregon State
Jan. 12 @ #25 NC State Jan. 17 @ #13 Minnesota Jan. 12 vs Villanova Jan. 19 vs Arizona State
Jan. 17 vs Georgia Tech Jan. 24 vs Purdue Jan. 19 @ #5 Louisville Jan. 24 vs UCLA
Jan. 23 @ Miami Jan. 27 @ #10 Illinois Jan. 21 vs #11 Cincinnati Jan. 26 vs USC
Jan. 26 vs Maryland Jan. 30 vs NW Jan. 26 @ Villanova Jan. 31 @ Washington

Right off the bat, the main thing that’s apparent is that Michigan faces the toughest schedule in the next month. Eastern and Central Michigan will close out the non-conference slate and the calendar year, while Northwestern, Iowa, and Nebraska should also be victories, leaving Michigan 16-0 heading into the Jan. 13 matchup at Ohio State. That would match the longest streak since the 1985-86 team started 16-0. If the Wolverines come out of Columbus unbeaten, they then head to Minneapolis four days later for another tough matchup. Survive that and Michigan hosts Purdue and then visits currently unbeaten and 10th-ranked Illinois.

Trey Burke's 18ppg and 7-2 assist-to-turnover average have Michigan flying high (Tony Ding, AP)

Duke still hasn’t played a true road game this season, having played Kentucky, Minnesota, Louisville, and Temple on neutral sites. The Blue Devils won’t play their first road game until Jan. 12 at N.C. State and may not face a realistic threat until Feb. 13 against North Carolina. In fact, Duke, N.C. State, and North Carolina are the only ranked teams in the ACC, so the Blue Devils certainly have an easier remaining road to retaining the No.1 spot than Michigan does.

Syracuse is right on Michigan’s heels in the rankings, but hasn’t beaten a ranked team yet this season. Last night, the Orange nearly lost to Detroit. An 8-1 Temple squad could present an interesting matchup on Saturday, but after that Syracuse should cruise into a Jan. 19 matchup at fifth-ranked Louisville undefeated. If they can survive that one, they host currently unbeaten Cincinnati two days later.

Arizona got by No.5 Florida on Saturday and now doesn’t have a currently ranked team left on its schedule. The 9-1 Oregon Ducks could be the team to trip up the Wildcats on Jan. 10 in Eugene. If not, it’s hard to see Arizona losing before Michigan, given the comparative schedules.

Of course, going undefeated is nearly impossible in today’s college basketball, and losing some games and facing adversity may even be preferable before the NCAA Tournament beings. No one expects Michigan to go unbeaten, but it would be fun to see the Wolverines grab the top spot. But even if it doesn’t happen, Michigan has proven over the first few weeks of the season that they’re a force to be reckoned with and can match up with anyone.

Michigan should make it at least three more weeks at No.2, but likely won’t pass Duke unless the Blue Devils stumble big time. Once Jan. 13 hits, Michigan will face big-time opponents pretty much every other game the rest of the season. It will be tough to earn a No.1 seed in the Big Dance, but even with a few Big Ten losses, Michigan should be good enough to earn a 2-seed. But there’s still a lot of basketball left to play.