Sports are like any other form of distraction in our all-too-busy lives. The offer a brief moment of mental rest. A period of respite on something completely unrelated to our jobs, families, or social lives. In reality, sports should be as unimportant as selecting a set of underwear. Or perhaps even less important, as whatever we're wearing is close to our naughty bits all day. Sports have nothing to do with making rent, feeding ourselves, or enabling ourselves to do both for a prolonged period of time.
But in many ways they sustain us in a similar fashion. When we watch our team play for that moment we forget about our hunger, our roof, our commitments. We live in an imaginary world where the only thing that matters is the game. Everything else is suspended in the ether. Our fears. Our needs. Our reality.
English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that readers must engage in a "willing suspension of disbelief" in order to comprehend (or process) the fantastic or non-realistic elements of literature. This concept has been the backbone of nearly every book, television show, opera, play, or movie created since the dawn of time, and a concept long in practice before Coleridge put this thought down on parchment. Still, the enunciation of this belief or concept is a powerful force in our very concept of entertainment and diversion. Though Coleridge most certainly meant this prose to relate to forms of literature, I can't help but think how well it applies to sport. In particular, how well it applies to the 2010-2011 Michigan Men's Basketball Team.
While I've described this team's rise as improbable, a day away from its biggest game of the season I'm finding that descriptor to be somewhat lacking. There's so much more to this story. In many ways we must suspend our disbelief simply to appreciate what has transpired before our eyes.
Coming into the season I, and just about everyone else who covers college basketball, felt there was little to no chance that this freshman laden squad would so much as sniff the postseason. Had any prognosticator opined that Michigan would be a bubble team at the start of the season, he would've been laughed off the stage, page, or internet chat room. The reality was staring us all in the face and it was far too convincing. There was no way this team would be in contention within a year.
Fast forward four months and what we've seen and what we're seeing completely shatters what we believed at the start of the season. You truly have to suspend reality to believe that a lightly regarded freshman from Miami, a player whom his hometown favorite didn't even offer, would blow up to the point of being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week three straight weeks. And if I told you before the season that not only was that going to happen, but that he'd do it in the last three weeks of the season to push Michigan into Tournament contention, you would've slapped a silly suit on me and put me in a padded room.
But there it is. Darius Morris evolving into a star. Zack Novak stealing rebounds from men half a foot taller than him. Jordan Morganshrugging off injuries to be Michigan's first legitimate post presence since the Tractor Traylor was breaking backboards in Ann Arbor. Little ole Matt Vogrich turning into a stellar defender and deadly shooter. Michigan's sudden rise almost defies explanation, though we can logically point to shooting averages, turnover ratios, and all manner of statistics to explain it. But that takes the fun out of it, doesn't it? You can look at the numbers for sanity and explanation, but the joy is simply in looking at the kids playing.
There's a smile. A swagger. A look of determination and pride. It borders on anger or retribution, but there is a playfulness and perserverance that exists in them that removes any malevolence from their demeanor. These aren't kids fighting for something outside their grasp. These are kids claiming what they see as rightfully theirs. The emotion of the game has nothing to do with their opponent, it has to do obtaining their goal. Whoever the opponent is, they are simply an obstacle to be overcome or a challenge to meet. Other than that, opponent, you are of little consequence.
The thing is no one could've predicted this season. No set of numbers, simulations, or wild optimism could bring you to this. It's like a movie. The rough and tumble rookies take on all comers. They take their knocks and learn from their mistakes. They topple their old foe and start streaking. To top it off they take on their arch rival one last time for all the marbles. You might as well call it "The Mighty Ducks" with Emilio Estevez as Coach Beilein, and move on.
But there it is. Mighty Michigan State, two years removed from the Final Four, comes in to Crisler with its own tournament life on the line. Despite the hype, nothing has gone right in East Lansing this season. Player defections. Injuries. Inexplicable lapses in play. A fall from the top ten in less than a month. A hobbled, but still determinedly evil empire in the way of our plucky young upstarts.
Hyperbole and story padding aside, Michigan State is just as dangerous now as they've been in years past. They posses one of the best post players in the country in Delvon Roe and one of the conference's best guards in Kalin Lucas. Michigan barely held on against Michigan State a month ago, so it's not as though Michigan has some systemic or personnel advantage that would normally entitle them to a win. If anything, the recruiting and talent advantage still lives in Green and White. The gap may be closing, but Michigan State is the more talented team. They're just not a very deep team.
So it's come down to this. A play in game for an invite to the NCAA tournament. Two arch rivals. The upsart trying to sweep it's tormentor for the first time since 1997. The upstart trying to do the improbable at the expense of it's competitor. It's made for the silver screen. It can all happen tomorrow.
All you have to do is suspend your disbelief. Go Blue.