There are days when you are forced to reconsider what you had thought were nearly absolute truths. One of those days was Saturday.
There was a cruel irony that accompanied my tenure at the University of Michigan. It was something which I experienced personally, but not in isolation, as many of my friends and peers surely suffered the same feeling: How can a place I fell in love with thanks, in part, to the style and substance of the Fab Five produce such wretched basketball teams? I found it especially perplexing since my life is effectively dedicated to being a sarcastic basketball addict with a waspy sartorial flair.
How can I go to a school with such a bad basketball team? That was the anguished rhetorical frame of many internal discussions staged on the way back from losses incurred at Crisler on far too many dreary winter evenings. Well, at least, that was what was going on when I wasn't on the phone with my father as we cursed back and forth (ok, it was mostly me cursing) about the consistently stupid, poorly prepared, and outmanned Michigan teams directed by struggling coaches. First Ellerbe, then Amaker, always the same: dumb teams with bad fundamentals.
Coming into this season, I expected more of the same, but things seem to have changed. Michigan is no longer reliably disappointing. Instead, it seems to have developed character, intelligence, and even some pride. If Michigan basketball were a girl, in recent years it would have been the one who always had so much of what you were looking for but never returned your calls. And now, suddenly, this year, she's actually picking up. It's hard to believe, and you don't want to get hurt, but she's been picking up a lot lately, and you can't help but think that you've finally got a shot.
I was reluctant to seriously contemplate a new reality like this--that Michigan was anything other than the usual underwhelming mess--but this week's events have forced even the most resolute skeptics to take notice of what's going on in Ann Arbor.
Michigan just beat two ranked opponents, consecutively, for the first time since I can remember. And it didn't do it the way UConn usually does, but being better athletes. No, UM won because it has Daniel Horton and because it is actually thinking a little. For instance, when it wasn't hitting from the field against Michigan State, Michigan manufactured points by getting to the free-throw line, and the Wolverines built a 34-10 free-throws-attempted advantage, compensating for the pronounced disparity in field-goal accuracy. And against Wisconsin, UM shot 55%, getting the balance and good shots that it needed to maintain its lead as it battled a team characteristically disciplined. All in all, this past week, Michigan played the sort of confident and intelligent basketball that is required to beat quality opponents. And given what I wrote above regarding the outcomes, all I can say is: QED MFers. UM is finally demonstrating some the fundamental principles that characterize the better teams in this coach's game that we call college basketball: It boxes out (a shared factor in the victories against MSU and Wisconsin was that UM won the rebounding battle in each game); it hits free throws; it knows what to do in crunch time. Far from perfect and still with lots of room for improvement--namely, offensive execution and defensive rotations--Michigan is suddenly, well, pretty good. It will be ranked for the first time in eight years this week; it has risen to #18 in the RPI (with its three losses all against RPI top-twenty teams); and perhaps least significant (for now) but most psychologically impressive, it is tied for first place at the top of the toughest conference in the country, according to the RPI.
Now, before we start packing our bags for the Tournament and a date with some team we'll have to furiously research on the internets before we fill out our brackets, let's take a look ahead at the remaining schedule:
2/1 at Penn State
2/4 at Iowa
2/9 Ohio State
2/11 at Purdue
2/18 at Michigan State
2/25 at Ohio State
If you'll recall (click HERE), I wrote that beating Michigan State would allow Michigan the luxury of finishing 5-5 down the stretch while still getting to 19 wins overall and nine in the conference. I also said that UM would need to beat at least one more good team (read: one from the RPI top 50). Well, mission accomplished, sort of. UM is now 5-2 in conference and in possession of two wins against the RPI top 50 (top 20 to be exact). What's more, at 15-3 and with nine games remaining (four at home), UM seems well on its way to securing a Tournament berth. But still, the remaining schedule is treacherous. Six games are against the RPI top 20 and none jump out as gimmes. I think that UM can reasonably expect to beat Purdue, Penn State, and Minnesota, but two of those are road games and the Gophers just pounded Indiana. I think the point is that it would be very easy for UM to start feeling good about itself right now when it has a lot of work left. It must go 1-1 this week at least, and going 2-0 would likely mean that the Wolverines were playing for seeding when they played OSU, Indiana, MSU, and Illinois.
I don't want to diminish the significance of this week, though. Beating MSU and Wisconsin at home is how you start to build a program and implement a culture of winning. Kudos to the players and Tommy Amaker for the most auspicious week in years. Let's hope there's more of this to come, starting this week in State College and Iowa City.