(Editors note: this is the first post from Fouad Egbaria of the spectacular Michigan blog Holdin' the Rope. He will be contributing from time to time around here, and as I'm sure you'll agree when you finish this piece, we are all thrilled to have him on board.)
Trey Burke stood at center court, sleepy-eyed like Daniel Horton, a ghost of the past. It wasn't a cantankerous understatement or a world-weary apathy being spun at center court, the sort that shames you into reconsidering your own bouts of apoplexy when appliances or entertainment systems confound you in the mundanity of "daily life"; it was resolute calm. In two hours, Trey delivered what was tantamount to an understanding of physics and chemistry, that if you contort your body just so and launch a basketball, aiming for a certain point on the backboard--all while racing with a Denardian prowess betrothed to a jazzy riff--that a universal inevitability comes to be, Newton's Laws applied with an aesthetic verve. He knows that if you mix the elements of silence and a tenacity that not only is apparent but glaringly so, you get an alchemic boon. Trey Burke leaves Aaron Craft in the dust; he's gone and was never there before, anyway. To think that he was was your first mistake.
Erin Andrews asked him questions and he answered in a flat-lining monotone.The answers were detached from the questions in the only way that was proper. How did you do it? He talked about making plays for his team. The student section behind him was a blinding sea of unadulterated emotion, a din enveloping a nexus of cosmic nonchalance. Erin asked if we were going to get a smile from him, coaxing him into proving that he was from this planet, that he was made of the same sort of stardust that we are all supposedly made of. He smiled, probably thinking of another time, playing video games with an even then much larger Jared Sullinger.
The game was one of stops and starts, lacking in continuity or transcendent stretches of overwhelming competence. There were fouls--some accurately called, some not--turnovers, wretched shooting, and offensive sets that could be deemed desultory at best. It was a hockey brawl, full of holding and stalling and flurries of occasional frenzied strikes. Michigan led the entire way but even when they lead by as much as eight, the entire thing felt tenuous, on the verge of collapsing like a souffle made by a student fresh out of the Greg Robinson School of Culinary Arts.
In addition, the entirety of the bench scoring (from either team) can be found in Evan Smotrycz's stat line: he scored two points. Neither team shot well at all from 3 (Michigan-23%, OSU-19%), and the FTA were approximately even. It was a "classic Big Ten game," a phrase that can either be pejorative or praise-worthy depending upon the context and/or Jay Bilas's penchant for sarcasm at any given moment.
In short, it came down to Michigan's starting five versus the Buckeye starters. Very little came easy. As mentioned, with the FTA attempts and 3-point percentages being essentially identical, we can assume that the winner would have, to put it tritely, "made plays" inside the 3-point line. Michigan won on the back of a tenacious defensive effort and because, yes, they made one or two more plays than the Buckeyes did.
As Michigan reeled in commitment after commitment on Saturday, it was difficult not to watch the game without a vague belief in an invisible hand of cosmic beneficence pushing us forward on the day. Of course, when it came time to play, this hand was more invisible in the sense that ghosts are invisible than the way that gravity is invisible. All of this is to say that Michigan did everything the hard way en route to this victory, that nothing was delivered to them via cosmic or decidedly non-cosmic (i.e. Ted Valentine) hands. Jordan Morgan, a basketball player whose Piston-like style befits the home town from which he hails, did all of the things that make him one of the more under-appreciated players that I can remember watching. His stat line was impressive (11 points, 11 rebounds) but the work that he puts in to get those stats are doubly so. He bodied up Sullinger with alacrity, bridging the physical gap by executing a raison d'etre that simply states "I try therefore I am."
Jordan Morgan, to quote Walter White, is "the one who knocks."
Zack Novak and Stu Douglass continue to demonstrate why they are the quintessential glue holding this team together. If Trey Burke is the star at the center of it all, then Zack and Stu are the nebulous but emphatically apparent stellar forces keeping that star from overextending and thereby collapsing in upon itself. Despite having poor nights from the field, Novak contributed his customary grit in the form of charges and a crucial jumper delivered right over the outstretched hand of Deshaun Thomas. Likewise, Stu hit arguably the most impressive shot of his career, nailing a step back fadeaway two at just under the 4 minute mark. These jumpers were of course followed by final two buckets by Trey, each marked by the distinctive stylistic flair of a point guard who currently plays for the Chicago Bulls.
These are the types of "plays" people talk about. They're the ones you remember, even as each usage of the cliched saying--make plays--further normalizes, unjustly, sending it to coexist with all the other hackneyed sports sayings. A "play" is not a thing that just happens. It's a confluence of pinpoint focus, talent, circumstance, and ideology. First there is a desire, then there is a body of knowledge, then there is the circumstance in which the two can be smelted and wielded against others. Zack Novak and Stu Douglass were not making step back jumpers over larger players when they were freshmen, sophomores, or even juniors. This is a part of the journey unseen, the behind-the-scenes minutiae of hours spent in a gym for practice or alone. Those shots are the verifiable evidence of progress, of years of practice and an ever-burgeoning ability to trust that practice and execute it when the time comes. Johannes Kepler once derived his laws of planetary motion from years of empirical evidence, so that, from that point forward, the orbits of the planetary bodies were no longer mysterious; they became scientifically knowable.
Stu and Zack have taken that shot before, throughout years of constant refinement on the wave of a technical, psychological, and emotional fact-finding mission. They stepped back, releasing the orange orb into the Heavens, knowing exactly where it would land.
As aesthetically displeasing as the game was at times, this very aspect only served to emphasize all of the aforementioned plays. Michigan is now 20-7 (10-4), entering this final quartet of games with an opportunity to win its first conference title in approximately a quarter of a century. There are still many flaws in this team, including but not limited to: rebounding, the ability to check athletic wingers (e.g. Deshaun Thomas, who looked like an actual Monstar on Saturday), and bouts of offensive ineffectiveness, which ultimately results in Trey Burke trying to do something absurd late in the shot clock. Yet, none of this is new to you (and certainly not to Coach Beilein). Also, keep in mind that Michigan is doing all of this without the added front court presence of Jon Horford, who at worst is a solid depth player with size and at best is a very useful front court presence that could have maybe developed a bit of an offensive game with the benefit of a full season. What John Beilein and the players have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous.
Given the cosmic underpinning of this post, I might have to backtrack a bit with regard to that last sentence. Like the stars and the planets above, as miraculous and mystifying as they have have once seemed (and still seem, to a lesser extent, today), they have become known through the incremental efforts, theoretical and empirical alike. In essence, through hard work and mental tenacity, we have brought ourselves closer to the stars; gradually, carefully, painstakingly. In this way, so has Michigan. It is unclear whether or not Michigan has become a star itself, joining the firmament of bright lights in the sky, but this much is clear: Michigan is certainly now, at the very least, among them.