Friday, July 30, 2010

Fuel on the fire: Another worst play addendum

MGoBlog's tragic two-part Worst Plays of the Decade list has produced at least one addendum courtesy of The Wolverine Blog, and I thought it appropriate to add my own worst play: Zoltan's legendarily bad fake punt against Michigan State last year. Case in point:

At the time, I broke down the play and compared it to a similar fake punt that he executed perfectly against Minnesota the year before. But let's set the scene:

Michigan is 4-0 and coming off one of the hottest starts in the nation in a pivotal season for the program. A win in this game and Michigan is basically guaranteed bowl eligibility, with Delaware State being the following week's opponent. Michigan is down 10-6 in a slog of a game that saw them only have four (!!!) possessions in the first half for a total of 67 yards of offense. They managed six points because of a Kirk Cousins interception that set them up with a short field. Michigan State wasn't doing much better despite holding a commanding lead in time of possession.

After Zoltan spectacularly muffs the play, Michigan holds MSU to a field goal and would go on to lose the game in overtime thanks in large part to a Tate Forcier interception. Whether or not actually punting here would've allowed Michigan to win the game--speculative guesses say probably: in MSU's final 5 possessions, they mounted 138 yards (70 of which came on one drive), which accounted for a TD, two punts, a fumble, and a turnover on downs--it stands to reason that without those three points that Michigan essentially gave away, they win the game in regulation and have a chance at going bowling.

In the aftermath, Rodriguez took most of the heat for the play, claiming that he gives Zoltan the read on every play, but I'm not entirely convinced. It was nice that he threw himself under the bus for a senior leader, but this one falls squarely on the shoulders of The Inconceivable.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Amateurism, Jason Whitlock, and Twitter arguments

Sometime last week, Ace of The Wolverine Blog and I got into a lengthy Twitter debate--as lengthy as Twitter debates can be anyway--on Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock's latest article on Reggie Bush, amateurism, and the broken NCAA system. Ace, while taking exception to some of the rhetoric Whitlock uses, agrees with his general sentiment, while I, as I'm wont to do re: Jason Whitlock, went into a mild tantrum because someone actually pays Jason Whitlock to write about sports*.

The crux of Whitlock's argument is such:

The NCAA rule book is not the United States Constitution.

If anything, the rule book supporting the bogus concept of “amateur athletics” is akin to the laws that supported Jim Crow, denied women suffrage and upheld slavery.

No joke. This is how he starts his column. This is how you draw traffic to a website, not create a reasonable argument about the trappings of the current NCAA system in regards to amateurism and agents. He never goes all the way to completing the idea that he hints at here--that college football is an enterprises that gets old white men rich on the backs of stereotyped young black males (because black males are the only ones playing college football)--but it's blatantly obvious, enough to submarine any rational thought on the topic he might have therein. Not to mention, that if Reggie Bush was white, you can be assured there would be a different lede to this story.

A note before I go further: I am not against the idea of paying college athletes and abolishing the idea of amateurism as might be implied by this column or the aforementioned Tweeting. My main objection is to Whitlock's argument and the various problems his thinking presents.

*Full disclosure, I loathe Jason Whitlock. He's the kind of writer who, when discussing the Tiger Woods scandal would refer to Tiger's indiscretions as "Pussy Galore" and other half-baked catch phrases that, if you said were catering to the lowest common denominator, would actually be insulting to mathematics and Joe Sixpack alike. He writes for a hit count, not for full-fledged ideas.

College athletics is not slavery
Contrary to what Whitlock may have you believe, college athletics is not slavery. Having to enumerate on this fact that to anyone other than Whitlock seems like a fruitless affair, but seeing as we're using him as a base, we'll debunk the idea.

You can see what Whitlock is trying to say here: college athletes don't get paid but their respective universities see serious dollars because of their performance. He goes on to say,

The athletes are being compensated in a currency (a shot at a compromised education in their spare time) many of them don’t respect and haven’t been properly prepared to use.

The fallacy and complications in this sentence alone are numerous. First of all, Whitlock acknowledges that the athletes are being compensated, handsomely so (upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars). And like magic, he ignores this part of the deal by passing it off as a) "a compromised education" and b) something that "many of them don't respect". Both of these statements are wildly presumptuous and in many cases, probably wrong. For example, Myron Rolle was a Rhodes Scholar in his time as a productive safety at Florida State. Not every college player is Myron Rolle, but to claim that students are given a compromised education is flatly false; they are given every opportunity and it's their decision whether or not to fully and seriously pursue that angle of their college life. And to say that "many" college athletes don't respect their education is downright offensive.

What Whitlock fails to understand here, is that highly talented young athletes are not unlike other young adults that go to college: go to school, specialize in something, get a job. For a lucky few students, "getting a job" means playing on Sundays under the bright NFL lights. To value football above a traditional education is not something that should be passed off as irresponsible for the select group of students who have a realistic opportunity to do so. The idea of "majoring" in your sport of choice should not be a dismissed option. What sets these students up for a better life and a better future? English classes or weight training and being in the film room?

Say what you will about the ethics of it all and whether or not you think these students should leave college with a "real-world" degree, but it's nearly impossible to make the argument that these students are not being fairly compensated, whether it be through training them for a career in the major leagues or giving them a free education--if they choose to seriously pursue it--that hundreds of thousand of similar students could only wish to receive let alone afford.

To people who aren't the worst sports writer on the planet
Ace at The Wolverine Blog adds to Whitlock's argument saying that football in particular is a dangerous sport that carries inherent risk--risk that may make a football education null and void on any given play; allow student athletes to cash in while they can--and the restrictions on student athlete jobs is unfair.

To the latter (because it's easier to answer): student loans exist for a reason. That college athletes shouldn't leave college without having to pay back loans is silly. We're conditioned to think that a full scholarship means that everything is paid for, but there are very real things--food, rent, etc.--that college athletes have to pay for out of pocket. To which I say, student loans exist for a reason.

Football is indeed a violent sport, and one in which your career (and possibly life) can be ended on a single freak play. But if you were to ask any college football player whether or not they were aware of this, 100 out of 100 would tell you they are. They've been aware of it since they were 5 years old and watching SportsCenter and saw that terrifying Joe Theismann video. There's also a lot of reward that comes with a professional career in football. Using the game's violent nature or the difficulty to actually cash in on the career (such a small percentage of college football players ever see a legitimate NFL career) without talking to the players themselves is a straw house. I realize I'm making similar assumptions, but college football players are well aware of the risks and rewards of playing the game. Paying them because of those risks (while also paying for their education and ability to get the highest level of athletic training) is redundant.

But what about Bill Martin's yacht?
OK, so Bill Martin has a yacht that he sails on--or at least a really big sailboat--that we were all made of aware of when he took a noted leave of absence during the coaching search. The yacht was paid for by his salary which came from the school/athletic department, which gets its money from football revenue, which comes from on-field play by the student athletes in question and OH MY GOD SLAVERY. (Remember, Jason Whitlock was compensated, probably well, for extrapolating this revelation into 1,000 words and calling Reggie Bush Kunta Kinte.)

You can't deny the benefit that the university sees from the students that have chosen to attend their institution free of charge and with some of the most advanced, prominent training anyone on the planet can receive. People like Jason Whitlock will contend that this is slavery and these students are being used. But let's look at this hypothetically: Let's say every football ticket, jersey, and piece of athletic clothing were free to fans and the university made no money on sports. How does that in any way change the student athletes' decision to go to a university in an attempt to follow their dream of playing professional sports if they're still given free tuition and training?

More importantly, it's not like Mary Sue Coleman is going Scrooge McDuck money-pit-diving in athletic department money. A lot of that revenue goes to new facilities, paying for coaches salaries, etc., the kinds of things that directly benefit the players. The fact that football revenue doesn't go into the players' pockets doesn't harm the players, but rather it benefits the university. And isn't that why they have the team in the first place? The school has a team to make money. Students come to play for that school because it will give them a shot at the career/life they want. The school can give them that opportunity because they make money and can pay for the best training. It's a cycle.

This is too long
I guess the ultimate point here is that a) college football isn't slavery and b) Jason Whitlock gets paid money. I'm not advocating not paying players--though I am advocating not paying Jason Whitlock--but these are students who have purposefully bought into a system that has very rigid rules about "amateurism" and must abide by them. The rules are not nearly as arcane as "progressives" like Whitlock contend (he goes so far as to chastise journalists for falling in line behind the NCAA, in the process, commending himself for being such a visionary), but they're also not perfect.

Most importantly, college football is not slavery.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ground breaks on basketball practice facility

Very rarely does my job (online editor for two business-to-business magazines) offer me any information that I am interested in outside of the confines of my office. However, today is one of those days:

In addition, Turner has broken ground on a $23 million basketball development center for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. The basketball development center is being constructed adjacent to the Crisler Arena on the Ann Arbor campus. Construction is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2011. The scope of work includes a 57,000 sq. ft. facility featuring two basketball practice courts, locker rooms for players and coaches, a strength and conditioning space and a hydrotherapy and medical facility.

“Turner is proud to be a building partner with The University of Michigan. As a graduate of the University and a long time fan of Michigan basketball, it is personally rewarding to be part of this project to benefit the Wolverine basketball teams,” said Steve Berlage, Vice President and General Manager of Turner’s Michigan operations.

Not breaking news or anything, but they've officially broken ground on the basketball practice facility. Huzzah.

EDIT: I did think this happened a little while ago, and a brief check of returns that ground was broken at least a few weeks ago. Pictures. So in the words of Liz Lemon, "Mark it down Cerie: July 15, just like every other day."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

NCAA 11 first impressions

Ed. note: I will very likely end up reviewing this game for PopMatters, so I don't want to go too in depth into everything, but I'll share at least a few thoughts on my first experience with the game.

First thing's first: the physics system. When I played the demo, I had a little trouble getting used to it. Players felt too jumpy. Despite it's intended realism, everything in the game felt a little bit too smooth, a bit too easy (imagine the difference between Cruis'n USA and Need for Speed; the former's twitchy controls more similar to NCAA 11's revamped physics). But the more time you spend with the game, the more that fades away and you start to settle in to what is clearly a more realistic experience. You can no longer stop on a dime after backpedaling and take off at full speed. Nor can you navigate through the defense like a fighter pilot without anyone laying a finger on you--if you start zig zagging, you're going to be tackled.

The next thing that really stuck out to me was how much more difficult the game was because of improved AI. It's not that they made the computer controlled players better necessarily--though there are a fair amount of magnet batted passes that go against you--but they made them more intelligent. Defenses play smarter zones and more appropriate schemes. They also don't always tip their hand pre-snap as to what is about to come and if you run the same play two or three times, they'll start adjusting to it (e.g., when I'd run a slot triple option, the defense starting bringing the free safety down). They react to the play better, too, meaning it's difficult to get a breakaway run down the sideline because players on the opposite side of the field are coming for you quicker and at better pursuit angles. And opposing offenses mix up their play calling a lot to keep your defense on its heels. Speaking of which...

The no-huddle offense is nothing short of a revelation. Impossible to defend. Impeccably fun to run. After being tackled, you hold down a button (for XBox, the Y button) and the game brings up a compact playbook--in on-screen size only, every play is available to you--for you to choose your next play as your team runs up to the line. Once you've picked your play, you can immediately snap the ball, whether or not the defense is set. But the same goes for when you're trying to defend a no-huddle offense. You wind up picking from a handful of plays for what seems like an entire series because you can't sub in or out the correct personnel for a different formation. The 3-3-5 makes lots of sense here despite only being able to pick from about 8 plays.

To the much maligned blocking: it works. Despite what you might have been told, it works. Running is no longer predetermined. You have to wait for holes to open up, wait for a pulling lineman, read defenses, etc. Linemen ostensibly do what they're supposed to and it's really fun.

Take this all with a grain of salt because there was very little chance I wasn't going to like this game. But this feels like a watershed moment for the franchise.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


$10 says I can play a better SS and CB Road to Glory than you. I will now recede into the depths of my XBox 360 to master every position group in the best career mode in any sports game.


Monday, July 12, 2010

2010 swing games

After devouring Hail to the Victors over the last week, and reading through the staff roundtable last night (which included everyone's predictions for the season), I figured I'd run through my general impressions of the schedule and more importantly, the games that I think will end up determining whether or not Michigan is looking at a 5-7 or a 8-4 record.

First, I'm functioning under a number of assumptions. The first might be too optimistic given the past two years but I feel comfortable enough making it: Michigan will clean up against the bottom of the Big Ten and will beat its push overs. It may not be pretty, but 2010 is the year that the Purdue's of the world stop beating Michigan. The other assumption is that Wisconsin and Ohio State are probably out of the question as wins, and that Penn State and Iowa are probable losses, about which more later. So in easy to read list form...

Wins: UMass, Bowling Green, Indiana, Illinois, Purdue (5)
Losses: OSU, Wisconsin (2)
Probable losses: Iowa, Penn State (2)

... which leaves the team with a base record of 5-2--with the two probable losses looming--and the three swing games, UConn, @Notre Dame, and Michigan State, the fates of which may very well seal (at least in the immediate future) the job security, or lack thereof, of Rich Rodriguez.

The first thing that may strike you is that the first two games of the season are both swing games. This is a good news/bad news situation. The good news: Michigan is still a young, developing team with a whole lot of stuff they haven't shown in-game (e.g., against Notre Dame last year: Tate Forcier scrambles, no one knew Cissoko was terrible at football). With the nominal move to the 3-3-5 defense, Michigan is going to be able to surprise at least UConn with a defense that they haven't seen before and won't have on film. Combine that with the possible implementation of Denard Robinson at quarterback, and you've got a completely new schematic team that UConn has little preparation materials for.

The bad news: Michigan is a young, developing team with a whole lot of stuff they haven't shown in-game. Early-season jitters, a possible new starting QB, and failure to get off to a hot start are all very real things that could send a 2-0 start down the drain. Emotions will be riding high against UConn--rededication of the Big House, pivotal season for RichRod, etc.--and erratic play could doom the team. The other bad news is that when Michigan travels to South Bend this year, the Fighting Irish will be in a similar position to Michigan last year, with a new starting QB, a new coach, and a new scheme. Michigan could very well find itself surprised by a marginal team with new gadgets.

The third game is the in-state grudge match with Michigan State and looks to be the most winnable of the three. In the past two years, Michigan took MSU to overtime during the first road start of its true freshman quarterback in 2009, and played them competitively with the worst offense in the history of history in 2008. Getting the Spartans at home this year, along with more experience on offense should prove to be a very winnable game. But then again, we're still yet to see if there has been defensive improvement (my guess: yes) and Kirk Cousins is exactly the kind of quarterback who could feast on Michigan's depleted secondary.

So what does it all mean?
A split in the first two games is acceptable; lose them both and the team could be in very hot water. Aside from an 0-2 start and the media firestorm that goes along with it, that leaves Michigan with zero wiggle room when it comes to the teams they should beat. The team also drops to 5-4 with PSU, MSU, and Iowa left to scratch out at least one win (two of which Michigan will be playing as the decided underdog). But if they can get out to a 2-0 start, a 7-5 record is almost assured. Dreams of 8-4 and 9-3 then become something to aim for. And yes I remember our 4-0 start last year. Also I hate you.

Of the two nominal upsets Michigan might pull off this year (Iowa and PSU), both seem exceedingly winnable, despite the ugly 35-10 shellacking by PSU in the Big House last year. Penn State is going through something of a quarterbacking crisis the likes of which could very well bury them, not to mention the loss of some key defensive players. If I were to guess, though, I'd say PSU pulls this one out at home.

Iowa, on the other hand, who is going to start the season ranked in the top 10 nationally, is going to struggle this season and looks to be a game Michigan could pretty handily win. Despite being a night game on the road (and only the second road game of the year), Michigan lost to Iowa by only 2 points and was driving for the win before Denard threw an ill-advised pass--that I'm still not entirely convinced was all his fault--and ended Michigan's hopes. Combine that with Iowa's offseason losses of Moeaki (MOEKAI!!!), a first-round pick left tackle, and a number of other key players, Iowa looks exceedingly vulnerable. Not to mention, Ricky Stanzi is still their inconsistent quarterback.

So yeah, what does it all mean? In a perfect world where people think I'm smart and this blog occasionally gets things right, Michigan ends the regular season 8-4 with losses to PSU, OSU, Wisc, and either ND or UConn. But since we've all been alive for the last two years, we know we don't live in a perfect world and I very seldom get things right. Michigan will almost certainly slip up against the likes of a Purdue or Illinois or Indiana. Neither UConn nor Notre Dame are anywhere near locks. Kirk Cousins could shred the Michigan secondary for 500 yards. And everything else that's terrible that Michigan has endured the last two seasons could happen.

But my vote is in: 8-4.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Decision aftermath

I have a strange relationship with the city of Cleveland. I’ve lived here for two post-college years, working a job that I landed with the help of an acquaintance who happens to be my current boss. I’ve found the bare minimum of friends (the few that I have don’t like me very much, as evidenced by an e-mail I received earlier today from one of them telling me I was being an ass or some such at the bars last night). I’ve found very few activities—aside from my hockey team, I don’t really do much but golf, both of which can be performed elsewhere. And the city is at least partially responsible for the recent dissolution of a long-term, long-distance relationship that I realistically thought was Going Somewhere—this being the main impetus for my social collapse and general absence from this blog during the offseason.

For two years, I’ve spent a large amount of time following the Cavaliers, a team that I openly root against (I’m a Pistons fan; divisional rivals, etc.), to the point that I seriously contemplated starting a blog called “In the Enemy’s Corner” and taking a legitimate approach to reporting on and analyzing the team. The organization fascinated me for one reason: LeBron James.

“He doesn’t exist. He’s not real,” is my common refrain when describing James. He’s omnipotent. The things he’s physically capable of don’t exist in the lexicon of basketball, and watching him is like watching a demigod descend onto a waxed, hardwood floor; he’s a Shakespeare play. And as I decried for the last two years only to be told I don’t know anything about basketball, on the court he was surrounded by the equivalent of high-paid grade schoolers that couldn’t make a lay up.

I watched The Decision last night on ESPN in my apartment with a friend who has, for the last several years, been a Cavaliers season ticket owner. When LeBron announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, she let out a four-letter word loud enough that I was worried that the children who live in the house across the street might hear. She was upset. She was broken. Mostly, she was angry that she had already bought season tickets and owner Dan Gilbert had raised the price of tickets $3 per seat, per game (an extra $120 or so, but it’s the principal of the thing). At the bar later she showed me Gilbert’s rant to which I responded, “What an embarrassment. Who goes to the internet to post something like that publicly moments after something like this.” I didn’t realize that Dan Gilbert had written it.

In the streets, people were crying and burning James jerseys.

I’ve been mostly appalled today watching the reaction of the city, coworkers, friends, and the general public. LeBron is selfish and arrogant and he betrayed the city. This is the refrain of everyone in earshot. How could he do this to Cleveland?

I was talking to a friend about the impending decision two days ago. He said, “None of those guys is a legacy player in the same way that LBJ wants to be,” when I compared the Celtics Big 3 to the current situation in Miami. I responded, “Is he really itching to become what you want him to be? That's a bullshit conclusion to jump to, especially because there's a very real chance he joins Wade and Bosh in Miami, which says that maybe he doesn't give a fuck about being whatever it is you and Michael Wilbon think he wants to be.” (As an aside, I hate Michael Wilbon. That’s all.) A lot has been imposed on James, unfairly too.

What the city of Cleveland has failed to realize is that this is not about them. That’s not meant to be consolation: this is not an It’s Not You It’s Me situation. I mean it very literally: LeBron James going to Miami and no longer playing for the Cavaliers has nothing to do with the city of Cleveland. It’s about LeBron James and basketball, not curses and betrayal. Much like James, this whole situation is being saddled with a bunch of storylines similar to, “If MSU wins the NCAA Tournament in Detroit, it saves the city.” That sort of shark-jumping, begging-for-drama storyline that’s imposed on far too many sports stories.

So now LeBron James is essentially banished from his home state of Ohio. And that’s fine. That’s everyone’s right. He’ll be booed across the country for the way he handled the whole situation—rightly so, to an extent—and he’ll probably win multiple championships. Most importantly, maybe now, LeBron James can just be LeBron James.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

'The Decision'

Sometimes on my lunch breaks, I write about Michigan football. Sometimes I do this.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The things I love are starting to smolder again

Following the Michigan football spring game, I went into a brief stage of panic followed shortly by the moderate level of panic I've been experiencing since. The football team is either going to be awful or mediocre or great, and at this point, I've sent myself into a Buster Bluth-like self-induced coma so as to not talk about the team save moments of excessive need. (For example, my cousin-in-law--is this a thing?--who is apparently an MSU fan went into a brief bout of righteousness at the family's Easter dinner table about Demar Dorsey. I did my best to reasonably defend the kid but my parents later chastised me for being loud and inappropriate at a family dinner. But I digress.) And in all honesty, I had tried to forget our basketball team existed; on-court results openly questioned their existence, why shouldn't I?

And then word comes down that Laval Lucas-Perry has been booted from the team and well...

It becomes clearer by the day just how much of a rebuilding year we are bracing ourselves for. Douglass, Morris, Novak, and Vogrich are the only returning players with college experience. Blake McLimans is dealing with playing at a new weight. Jordan Morgan is still recovering from injury. Evan Smotrycz and Tim Hardaway were likely to play significant roles but this ups the ante.

I Tweeted that the loss of LLP would be a huge hit for the program despite his sub-par production but I didn't dare look at just how scary the depth chart might be. UMHoops looked and, well, it's just as bad as anyone could've imagined.

I have long bemoaned the death of the John Beilein-led Wolverines, but I can think of no clearer symbol of, well, utter failure than in his fourth year to have only 1/3 of the team entering the season with any game experience at all, one of whom averaged only 5.5 minutes per game in his freshman season--and let's note that a) Beilein isn't recruiting one-and-dones; b) he didn't necessarily take over a program chocked full of upper classmen; and c) it's not like the team succeeded last year and graduated their talent a la UNC 2009.

As Dylan at UMHoops says, this is a rebuilding year, but is that even acceptable in the fourth year of the program? The four game-experienced players Michigan has returning combined for 30.59% of the team's scoring last year on 44.35% shooting (31.06% from beyond the arc) and an assist/turnover ratio of 1.87, all of which, surprisingly, are at or slightly above the team's season averages (though if you ask anyone, I'm sure they'd tell you that having only these players return is not the most promising proposition). The rest of Michigan's team now is inexperienced and undersized (mostly), and is going find themselves led by Novak and Douglass as the team's returning "veterans".

I trust Beilein, or at least I'm trying to. He took the team to the Tournament in his second season and should be awarded some sort of leniency for that, but it's difficult not to look at the current state of the program and think it's headed downward. One bad break (Ben Cronin) and one early departure (Manny) should not send an entire program into a tailspin of crippling youth and, let's face it, mediocre players, but they have. If Rich Rodriguez didn't exist, Beilein would be feeling a lot more heat for this, but Michigan will always and forever be a football--and hockey, lots of people forget this--school. I'm about at the end of my rope with Beilein. If we don't see anything this year, you can expect me to be leading the torch and pitchfork crew into Crisler.