Monday, March 06, 2006

Boulders and Seeds

Happy Casmir Pulaski Day from Chicago. Its crappy, snowy, and rainy all at the same time today. Yet, around noon today, there will be a large parade down either State Street or Michigan Ave in honor of someone you've never heard of. Chicago. The City that Works. In honor of the father of the American Cavalry, sit back and enjoy the Pulaksi Day edition of Maize n Brew. The game, the Big Ten Tournament, and whether or not we can find our dancing shoes are all contained within...

Rollin a Boulder

Saturday was senior day as Michigan seniors Daniel Horton, Graham Brown, Chris Hunter, Lester Abram, Hayes Grooms, Amadou Ba, Troy Sanchez played the final home game of their careers at Cristler. To put it in perspective, this was Tommy Amaker's first recruiting class. This was the group that had to suffer through all the sanctions and restrictions placed on the program because of the Ed Martin debacle. The weight of an entire program was put on their shoulders to carry. These guys could have transferred and played in games that mattered long ago. They didn't. They stayed. They helped bring the team back from the precipice, and turned Michigan back into a legitimate Big Ten program. They'd had ups and downs. In 2002-2003 they finished 17-13 overall, 10-6 Big Ten, but missed the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments because of sanctions. In 2003-2004 they finished 23-11 overall, 8-8 Big Ten, winning the NIT. 2004-2005 was a disaster as Big Blue limped to a 13-18 overall record, 4-12 Big Ten, as injuries, immaturity and an unprecedented level of smoting from above destroyed a promising season.

Yet there they stood on Saturday. Still there. Still proudly wearing the Maize and Blue. Thanks guys.

All these young men have played a role in the tragi-comedy that has been Michigan's season. In Shakespeare, things start fast, bask in mid term glory, then flounder and die in the end. Whether it is Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet you want to compare the season to, they both seem anomalous to what has happened on the hardwood. However, this particular story has focused far to much on the abilities of one young man, and in the ancient traditions, this is more a Greek tragedy than it is Shakespeare. As the season has rolled on, we've learned that Michigan is only as good as Daniel Horton on any particular night. When he's on, Michigan stands a good chance of winning. When he's cold Michigan is usually buried under the landslide. No matter how hard Daniel Horton tries to push the boulder known as Michigan basketball to victory, the games keep slipping away, and he is left to the next game to do it again. Sometimes he gets there. Others he does not. He's a Maize and Blue version of Sisyphus, eternally damned to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down the slope. (at right: Daniel Horton propping up Michigan)

On Saturday Horton returned to his usual self again, shedding his 10 point performance against Ohio State, scoring 34 points and grabbing 4 rebounds. He almost single handedly willed Michigan to victory. Unfortunately for our Daniel and our senior class, it was not to be. Indiana's effective outside shooting, and a dominating game by Marco Killingsworth, spoiled their final game as Indiana topped Michigan, 69 to 67.

Sadly, Horton had almost pushed the team all the way up the side of the mountain before the game slipped away. Michigan lead the entire first half, taking a three point lead into the locker room. The game was as billed: sloppy, tense, and worrying. Michigan lead 12-3 for what seemed like an eternity, but was never able to put Indiana away with a prolonged run. With every defensive stop Michigan got, there would be the corresponding turnover or ill-advised shot. So, despite turning the ball over 14 times in the first half, Indiana was still in the game.

Michigan came out of the locker room strong, leading by as much as 10 points early in the second half. Then Horton's grip on the stone began to loosen. Horton turned the ball over 6 times during the game while failing to register an assist. Seeing his star get tired, Amaker sat Horton for 3 minutes, with Michigan up 8 points. Jarret Smith, spotting Horton, responded by turning the ball over and missing both shots he took. Smith finished the night with one point and 4 turnovers in 13 minutes of playing time. When Horton re-entered the game Michigan was up three and the game had changed for good.

Graham Brown provided some spark. Pounding on Killingsworth, putting in 10 points on a seldom seen left sky hook, and grabbing 9 boards. Unfortunately, Indiana's 3-point shooting provided just enough of an edge that the senior's efforts came up short. With about a minute left, Killingsworth drained a 15-16 footer to give Indiana a one point lead. Michigan had the ball with the shot clock off and a chance to finally push the rock over the ledge.

It wasn't to be.

The final play set up was a disaster in motion. Horton dribbled off time as he tried to set up a drive that never materialized. With ten seconds left, he started to cut, passed and ran around the baseline to get open. Three Michigan players passed on open shots before the ball finally found Horton again, in triple coverage, with 3 seconds on the clock. The shot clanked off the rim. Michigan fouled. Indiana hit both free throws. 2 seconds left.

On the inbounds pass, Graham Brown, trying to hit Brent Petway at the opposite foul line, instead hit the scoreboard turning the ball back over to Indiana. Two more free throws and the game was over, with only 1.3 second left and Indiana with a 5 point lead. In a final cruel joke from the Gods, Horton's last three pointer, taken in vain, went in.

And the boulder rolled back down the hill....

What We Learned:
  1. Daniel Horton is a tremendous talent that will be sorely missed at Michigan next year, and for the years to come.
  2. No one else on this team is capable night in, night out of contributing enough for this team to win on a regular basis.
  3. Brent Petway is the scariest man I have ever seen on a fast break. The reverse alley-oop slam, even though it didn't count, was one of the coolest plays of the season.
  4. Never count on Courtney Sims. Double-double? Defense? Man, did I blow that call. 1 point, 2 boards, 2 turnovers in 22 minutes.
  5. Dion Harris and Jarret Smith need counseling for their jump shots. Seriously. Neither of them seem able to buy a bucket. I'm convinced they're missing their mouths when they try to eat at this point. We desperately need them to start hitting something. Please, God, let them find their shots. They're good kids. Really.
  6. In 35 minutes, Ron Coleman had a pretty good game. I'd like to see him hits some open shots a little more often, but he always seemed to be around the rim.
  7. Lester Abram is done. He's been coming back for three friggin games, yet nothing. At this point I've written him off until next year. Nothing personal, just that ankle ain't healthy, and he's going to have a hell of a time getting in game shape for either tournament in a week.
  8. We can't afford a first round loss in the Big Ten Tournament. One and done? We're going back to the NIT if that's the case. The ESPN Plus guys mentioned the fact that Michigan had lost 5 of 7 coming into the Indiana game at least a half-dozen times. Then, after the game was over, they commented that Michigan was going into the tournament having lost 6 of 8. Those sorts of things stick in voters ears, no matter how impartial they're supposed to be.
Planting Seeds

According to ESPN's bubble watch, Michigan should still make the NCAA Tournament. Bracketology has us as an #11 seed playing Marquette in Jacksonville.

Minnesota, Again

Michigan's opponent will be, for the third time this year, Minnesota. While Michigan has beaten Minnesota the last two times convincingly, Michigan has also blown two must wins in a row. Pressure does not seem to suit the Wolverine players particularly well. I'll break down the tournament later this week. The Chicago Tribune had a great line on having the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. Having the tournament there is like having the Oscar Ceremony in Albuquerque. On the plus side, the Trib picked Michigan to make the tournament semis before losing to Illinois.

Here's hoping.


At 8:42 PM, Blogger PeteM said...

Great summary of the season. I sometimes wonder if, as great as Horton is, the team relies on him too much. No one else seems capable of stepping up.


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