Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tressel's singular demonstration of deceit

Now that the NCAA Notice of Allegations has finally dropped on Ohio State and Tressel, we have actual, concrete evidence that this is going to be bad for the Senator. How bad is yet to be determined, and nearly everyone is throwing out his opinion as to what the university should do with its maligned leader. Popular opinion is that Tressel should be fired yesterday, and the school should lick its wounds and try to recover in the coming NCAA-sanctioned years. One place you won't find that is the delirious Eleven Warriors, which I usually really like but has been off its rocker with Tressel coverage. Basically every day, we're treated to a new diatribe about the wonders of Jim Tressel and the idea that this is all some giant ESPN conspiracy to destroy the university because Look, even Kirk Herbstreit has been poisoned by that well.

Even though Michigan recently went through this NCAA violation process itself, it pales in comparison to what Ohio State is about to endure (though the media scrutiny was probably stronger in Michigan's case given the widespread hatred of Rodriguez). I imagine that for Eleven Warriors, Tatgate is a bit like an 8-year-old watching his parents divorce: denial, crippling fear, and the desire to find a way to fix all of this. Unfortunately, what's done is done, and when they stumble out missives like this...
As you sit at your computer, bleary eyed and fuzzy headed, you might have fleeting thoughts that the inanity of yesterday might've just been a dream. Maybe, just maybe, the avalanche of opinions and commentary about what was essentially a non-story continuation of what we already knew didn't really happen. Maybe for once people took a reasoned approach to what was nothing more than a letter from the NCAA saying "Okay fine. See you in August." Maybe instead of reading fatuous articles by people with no real knowledge of the situation, Batman gave you the keys to his cave, and you and Alfred hosted the best Spring Break party Bill Bellamy ever saw.

But I am here to tell you that you're wrong. All of those articles and interviews happened. People really did go nuts. And Alfred is way too old to party (so is Bill Bellamy, for that matter).
... it's almost depressing to read their paranoia and delusion.

The arguments in favor of Tressel have changed. A month ago, Tressel was a Good Guy with a good track record, but now that the other shoe has finally dropped, the argument has become, "Well, this happens at every school." The problem is, I don't think it does, and if you do, your view of college football is far more pessimistic than mine.

The argument that this happens everywhere is missing the point: sure, players sell memorabilia at schools--this, I bet, happens almost universally at major institutions--but a coach with actual proof of it that lies to the NCAA? That doesn't happen everywhere. So while coaches might "know"/assume that the sale of jerseys et al happens under their watch, they know in the same sense that high school teachers know that their students are probably copying each others' homework; so long as it doesn't come to anyone's attention, they're not going to take the initiative to dig it up. And frankly, turning the other cheek for something so erroneous doesn't bother me.

However, what doesn't happen at every school, is a coach with full knowledge of these transgressions willfully and repeatedly lying to the NCAA and school administrators while divulging information that he said was confidential to a bunch of boosters. Over the last 12 months, Tressel has dug his own grave, on his own accord. This doesn't happen at every school because there aren't many coaches that are this conniving. Bite the bullet, admit your players did wrong, and live to fight another day. Tressel decided he was better than that and because of it, he's going to lose his job.

Frankly, there's no real argument that he shouldn't. Tressel has repeatedly skirted NCAA sanctions for improper benefits, and when the case finally got big enough that it would seriously harm his program's on-field production, he did everything in his power to make sure it never saw the light of day. Tressel spent hours calculating and mitigating this risk, and in doing so, committed the cardinal sin in the NCAA. And for a man who has so frequently avoided the NCAA's punishment, comeuppance is going to be severe, and most importantly, deserved.

Monday, April 18, 2011

2011 Spring Game thoughts

I probably should've had this up earlier, but there were too many playoff games to watch this weekend. So without having rewatched the spring game, here are some general thoughts:
  • First, yikes. The offense was on some 2008 ish and it doesn't look like they're anywhere near where they need to be. Watching pulling guards run into other linemen during the I-formation power play was painful. Granted, the offensive line wasn't at full strength, but this could be supremely ugly.
  • The defense looked... above average? Without Woolfolk and Floyd, the secondary didn't look like a crater and the defensive line/linebackers all looked OK against the run (the huge exception being Michael Cox's long touchdown run where he bowled over one of Michigan's defenders).
  • If the game highlighted anything, it's that Michigan needs a new quarterback. Shocking though it may seem given Denard's production last year and Devin Gardner's upside, but neither of them are going to work in this offense. Michigan will have a new starting QB next year, book it.
  • Specific problems with the quarterbacks: Denard had trouble making many of the throws. He still doesn't have much touch, especially on deep balls, and had trouble throwing over the offensive/defensive lines, sailing a lot of passes. Devin, who has the size, still has little or no technique. Watching him fling a 40-yard pass from his off foot was the most Pryor-Armpunt thing I've ever seen him do. Unless the new staff can drastically improve his fundamentals, Gardner won't ever see significant playing time at Michigan, and that's disappointing.
  • Your running backs are still just guys that have legs and hold the football when it's given to them. Mike Shaw probably had the best day, making the right reads and getting into space. But even he was unimpressive. The others were all hit or miss with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stephen Hopkins getting most of the other touches.
  • Will Campbell looked like a large man that was able to stand straight up and not move when offensive linemen ran into him. He has zero technique but will be a functional plug for most of the season.
  • Other defensive notes: Holy Blitzes. Michigan is going to be aggressive this year on defense, play lots of man coverage (yay!), and throw a lot of different looks at quarterbacks.
  • People that impressed: Jake Ryan was as advertised in his recruiting profile: the archetypal linebacker with a nose for the ball. He'll see playing time this year. Carvin Johnson played well at free safety. Tony Anderson held his own against the first team offense, though I suspect he won't see much playing time when Woolfolk and Floyd return.
  • Mike Martin: I know he had a pick-6 during practice, but he needs to not be used as a linebacker. I can see literally no benefit to having Martin line up on the outside, standing up, and dropping into coverage. This is worse than using Craig Roh as a linebacker. If you want Martin to take a zone drop from his nose tackle position, fine, but using him how they did in the spring game is a recipe for easy completions.
Later this week, I'll have other content on the spring game. And hopefully, a torrent of the game will be available so that I can do some real analysis. A bit of editorial though:

This is going to be a difficult year. Despite implementing plays for Denard to run the ball, it's clear that Michigan's offense is going to struggle mightily. They're not built for this system and it showed. The offense is going to be similar to 2008 when it was disjointed and the players spent most of the year just trying to figure out the basics. Fortunately, the defense should be able to make up for some of those shortcomings. It's going to be a blitz-heavy defensive front that will put pressure on the opposition to execute. So long as they can tackle well (still yet to be seen), the defense should look a lot like it did under the Carr years: force teams to march down the field and wait for them to make a mistake. With the caveat that this is just the spring game, it's difficult to see Michigan doing more than treading water this year.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Another loss

This is what happens when you Google image search "disappointment"

Anyone who's played EA Sports' NHL series knows the feeling: when the AI starts flawlessly passing the puck around the offensive zone, and despite your best efforts, you're unable to get a hold of the puck to clear, you know you're about to be scored on. Such was the case when Minnesota-Duluth finally punched home the winning goal on Saturday. When Michigan got the puck to center ice but not far enough to complete a line change, Michigan was scrambling. "This is where they score. We're tired and can't get off the ice," I said to my optimistic roommate who thought I was being a little too negative in the light of a do-or-die situation in the national championship game. And sure enough, a Minnesota-Duluth player came streaking in from the point and scored a slam dunk goal before Michigan was able to recover.

"We never win," my brother texted me.

When Michigan had a goal called back because the ref wanted to blow the whistle earlier but didn't, it became obvious that they were going to lose this game by one goal. It happens every year. Even if the team didn't really deserve to win, and they didn't, just like they didn't against North Dakota, they should've won. Lots of years, they should've won, but they never do. And if there's anything more disappointing than not being good enough, it's not being good enough when you've convinced yourself that you are: basketball being ranked #15 preseason, 4-0 and 5-0 starts in football, getting robbed before the Frozen Four last year, and basically getting robbed this year. How many times can Michigan rise from the ashes only to go up in another blaze of glory?

The worst part of losing this game is that Minnesota-Duluth was wholly unlikeable. Aside from their fans holding an overwhelming majority in the crowd--and being shown every 10 seconds mugging at the cameras like drunken mules--the team on the ice was chippy and antagonistic. They expected to win, acted like it, and then did. The cosmos are stacked against Michigan.

Thus ends another disappointing season of Michigan athletics. One team imploded spectacularly to the tune of a new head coach. Another team overachieved and looks to have a positive future. And this one has taken its last gasp before a flood of seniors leaves the program. Maybe next year will be better. It probably won't be.

  • It's difficult to blame Red Berenson for anything this season--by all accounts this team shouldn't have even been as successful as it was--but the team didn't look like it had a gameplan against Minnesota-Duluth. Michigan's players had no sense on control. They pushed the puck forward regardless of whether or not there was a teammate there and ended up giving the puck away in the neutral zone more times than I'd ever seen before. There was absolutely no defensive regrouping and Michigan's breakout consisted of one play--chip and chase up the boards--that the Bulldogs dominated with a strongside forecheck. The team spent the entire game pounding its head against a brick wall and expected it to crumble.
  • Most of Michigan's penalties were deserved. They played an embarrassingly undisciplined game. Part of that was Minnesota-Duluth jawing at them, but they had a scouting report: this team loses their cool.
  • Both of the Bulldogs' goals in regulation were fluky, but so too was Michigan's second goal. That's hockey.
  • I've never seen a hockey team at this level pass the puck into the middle of their defensive zone that many times. It's hockey 101.
The next sporting event of importance is Michigan's Spring Game and then sweet release. My heart simply can't take much more of this. It's the offseason for all of Michigan's major sports. Time to recharge your batteries and sacrifice your farm animal of choice in the hope that running the power-I 25 times a game isn't as barbaric and ineffectual as it seems.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Making something out of nothing

When the AP college hockey beat writer sat down to write his game column on last night's victory over North Dakota, he set up his laptop, took a sip of his extra large coffee, and thought to himself, Wow that Hunwick kid really played out of his mind tonight. "...and goalie Kevin Hunwick..." he wrote, moving on to the more important parts of his article. In some ways, this summarizes a Michigan hockey team that has 13 NHL draftees on it and won the CCHA. This team is less Kevin Porter and TJ Hensick and more Zach Novak and Jordan Kovacs: scrappy kids that, despite the odds and some physical deficiencies, find a way to get shit done. Make no mistake, North Dakota is better than Michigan, that much was obvious to anyone watching the game. But as is the case with single-elimination hockey tournaments, parity is supreme and anyone can win, even if it takes every bit of a 5'7" former walk-on to do so.

Last night's game can only really be described as terrifying. From the drop of the puck, it was clear that Michigan was in over their heads. Not only was North Dakota faster, they were also more physical, bigger, and smarter with the puck. Everything about last night was bad until Ben Winnett controlled a puck that had mockingly rang the crossbar and threw it into the net. The team celebrated like they had just won the Stanley Cup because, well, that's what it felt like. Against increasingly unlikely odds, Michigan took the lead against a team that on almost any other night would've pounded them into submission.

From that point on, Michigan mounted the bare minimum of offensive chances. Three shots in the second period and none of them memorable. In fact, I can't  remember a single good offensive chance Michigan had in the final two periods that didn't sail over the net on a 2-on-2 or result in a harmless clear. In the meantime, North Dakota was doubling Michigan's shot total and appeared to be the juggernaut they were advertised as. Except the puck never found the back of the net and now, Barry Melrose is shocked.

The weird thing is, it felt like Michigan played decent defense. A lot of North Dakota's shots were from the sideboards. Not only are these easy to stop, but they allowed the undersized, aggressive Hunwick to easily funnel rebounds into the corners instead of in front of the net. And when a puck was bouncing out front, Michigan was almost always able to clear it without a second shot getting to Hunwick.

In spite of everything, Michigan has moved on to the national championship game to face off against Minnesota Duluth. They'll need a similar effort from everyone involved if they're going to pull off the improbable, but when have you ever doubted that Zach Novak and Jordan Kovacs and Shawn Hunwick wouldn't give you their best effort every game?

  • The ice. One thing working in Michigan's favor (sort of) was a choppy ice surface. And I mean really choppy. Between the other Frozen Four game played just a few hours earlier and the conversion of the rink from an indoor soccer field just a few days prior, the ice temperature appeared way too high, making for a soft, sloppy surface. The puck wouldn't settle down for either team, but that worked to Michigan's benefit. I venture to say that if they played when ND/Minnesota Duluth played, that it would've been a very different outcome.
  • Referees. This was a poorly refereed game. Michigan received penalty after penalty for things that were, ya know, not penalties. The elbowing call on Matt Rust was inexplicable. But the worst call of the night was giving Kevin Lynch a diving call on an obvious interference. Giving the players matching minors there was the worst call of the night, and made me yell expletives at my TV. And I like my TV, I don't want to talk to it that way. The only call that went Michigan's way was a terrible offsides call that came on the heels of one of Michigan's four dominant penalty kills. Despite the linesman standing just a few feet away from the puck and staring intently at it, he decided to blow the whistle on what was clearly an onsides play.
  • Speaking of penalty kills, we have it. North Dakota couldn't get anything going on the power play and could barely get the puck in the zone. A real testament to Michigan's defense.
  • Open net goals are good for your blood pressure.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

When Cinderella hangs out past midnight

I'm an NBA guy. Anyone who knows me well, knows my party line, "I like to see freak athletes do freak athlete things," and in that regard, there's few better avenues than the NBA where players run faster, fly higher, and are generally more acrobatic than 99% of the people on the planet. If you asked me which I'd rather watch, an NCAA Tournament game or a regular season NBA game between two competent teams, I'd vote the latter nearly every time (with the exception of Michigan's inclusion in the Tourney game, which, hey, that actually happens now).

But having a very Free Darko mindset about athletes and the sports they play usually puts me in a precarious position with regards to rooting interests. I like watching the Miami Heat win. I don't understand people's hatred of the Yankees or Duke or UNC, and openly denounce people that complain about consistently great teams. My favorite NBA team currently is the Denver Nuggets and my favorite NBA lineup of all time is Allen Iverson, JR Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, and Marcus Camby.

It should be no surprise then that the NCAA Tournament, an event whose excitement is largely based on upsets and an Anyone Can Win It All philosophy isn't really my bag. It's not that I'm a BCS advocate or think that there's something fundamentally wrong with the NCAA Tournament, but I don't care to see better teams fall by the wayside because of a single bad game. And since basketball is the type of sport where the teams with superior talent tend to sit atop the league*, fans are excited when they see a tournament that can give teams like Butler and a shoddy UConn team a chance to become "National Champs". (Scare quotes are warranted here.)

There's been a lot of backlash to the backlash today about last night's wretched fumblefest, which was, without a doubt, the worst televised sporting event I've ever watched. Much of the commentary centers on the idea that one terrible game is not enough to diminish a month of exciting basketball; that the tournament isn't broken but that this was a statistical outlier of sorts. And while I can agree with most of this, I do have to balk at least a bit.

The problem with last night's game is that it was exactly what everyone wants: A Cinderella story (two perhaps) playing for the National Championship. Every year, fans are treated to claims of parity and competitive play, and every year, people are disappointed when Butler comes up short against Duke, or George Mason is unceremoniously booted, or VCU and Butler have to play each other in the Final Four rather than contend for a National Title. Some will point to last night's teams being wildly unqualified for the game through statistical measures like Kenpom, which is a tenuous argument to make. UConn finished the season 10th in Kenpom rankings and was as responsible for last night's wreckage as Butler (who ranked 41st, by far the lowest Kenpom ranking of any Final Four team since 2003; the next closest was George Mason's 23rd in 2006).

So while last night's game may not indicative of the National Champions of the past, I reserve the right to be pissed off and annoyed when we're offered that sort of travesty. Especially when it's what everyone was clamoring for in the first place.

*This is especially true in the NBA. Coaching consists of about 5% of a team's success in the NBA, regardless of what Reggie Miller will have you believe. There's a reason Mike Brown and John Kuester led the Cavs to 60-win seasons and it's name is Lebron James. Coaching is far more important in college, but that has as much to do with amateurism and shaping young talent as it does on-court adjustments.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Where I'll be

Long before I spent the majority of my time thinking and blogging about Michigan sports, I was just a lowly music critic, working my way up the hierarchical publication ladder. During my senior year of high school, I started writing reviews at Delusions of Adequacy and worked my way through sites of gradually increasing stature before undergoing my formative music writing experience at Stylus Magazine and The Michigan Daily, eventually landing at the grand daddy, Pitchfork, and bowing out a few months later.

The point is, music writing had always been my thing and it was the reason I started The Modern Things back in 2008. But in late 2008, I was experiencing my first summer in four years where the promise of Ann Arbor, my core group of friends, and Michigan football and hockey were not in the cards. I became rabid for more football coverage and realized that most of my writing on The Modern Things was tending toward sports. It was shortly into the 2008 season that I decided to abandon The Modern Things in favor of a sports-only site (this one) that eventually morphed into the Michigan-only site it is today.

But with the offseason approaching and my own desire to start talking intelligently about music (and video games too, probably) in a public place again, most of my writing this summer will probably be at The Modern Things. So if you like reading about the new TV On the Radio album or white Atlanta rappers with red afros or watching music critics eat ice cream, stop by. Posts around these parts will probably be pretty slim with exception of the next few weeks when Michigan wraps up the Frozen Four and Spring practice.