Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wolverines play inspired basketball only to be let down by Beilein

ON BASKETBALL

I was in shock. I was transfixed to my seat. I couldn't explain what I was seeing on my computer screen. 

Michigan, the underachieving, hugely disappointing, uninspiring team that had hibernated for most of the college basketball season — falling all the way from a preseason No. 15 ranking to an under-.500 record and a likely trip to a postseason chock full of, well, nothing — was playing like it hadn't for most of four months. 

The Wolverines had stormed back from a 13-point deficit against Ohio State, the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and Evan Turner, my national player of the year (and I'm far from alone in tabbing him that). They had done it in less than 10 minutes, using precise offensive execution, a series of huge shots by junior Manny Harris, who finally decided he'd had enough of this losing thing, and some scrappy defense they hadn't shown the entire game.

They were ahead! By two points, 68-66. And just 2.2 seconds remained on the clock. Not only that, but Ohio State faced an inbounds pass from under its own basket.  In other words, inbounder David Lighty had 94 feet in front of him before the basket his team needed to drop the ball in. Not an easy task.

All the Wolverines needed to do was keep their foot on the gas pedal for 2.2 more seconds, and they'd be in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tourney, riding more momentum than a tsunami wave (and, as we would dutifully learn a couple hours later, they would face mediocre Illinois. And, as we would learn about six hour after that, Michigan State — which destroyed and embarrassed Michigan last Sunday — would be out of their way, cleared from the bracket by an equally desperate and inspired Minnesota squad). 

So as smart as I knew it was to view Michigan through a pessimistic lens, I actually thought it would have a chance to win the tournament and get that automatic berth to the Big Dance riding that aforementioned tsunami wave. Yes, 10 minutes of basketball in Indianapolis had developed that opinion for me.

But that's when John Beilein, a coach I very much respect who I think will get this program to a very high level — hopefully not too far down the road — just zoned out, had a brain freeze, insert phrase for not thinking. 

Instead of putting a man on Lighty, taking away his vision, Michigan settled into a 1-3-1 zone, with four of the players back near the 3-point arc on the opposite end of the court. Not even the up man, Stu Douglass, was close to the ball. So Lighty was able to easily inbound the ball to Turner, who — with a full head of momentum — took a few easy dribbles and pulled up right in front of Douglass for a 37-footer with 0.2 seconds left. 

Yes, Turner was able to catch the ball in the backcourt and get that close because not a single Wolverine pressured him. (Note: Did I mention this guy is arguably the nation's best?) As he dribbled up court, I had a sinking feeling about what was just ticks away from occurring. It seemed too inevitable, too much the story of Michigan's season.

But unlike throughout most of the past four months, Michigan's players could take no blame for the 69-68 loss that, almost definitely, ended the team's season (Beilein has said the only non-NCAA tournament the Wolverines (15-17) would accept an invitation to is the NIT). This one has to fall completely on the coach.

All he had to do was put Zack Gibson, with his long arms, on Lighty, jumping up and down and creating all kinds of issues for the inbounder. All he had to do was put a defender — maybe Douglas, maybe Harris — on Turner. Make him take those few dribbles against pressure. There's no way he would have made it past half court, and that shot would have been infinitely more difficult.

Clearly, Beilein was guarding against the long baseball pass. But let me say this — I've watched a ton of end-game situations this year, and the long baseball pass is the most ineffective last-second play. Period. Out of all the games in which I've seen it employed, it was only completed once (during the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game in February) and the Commodores missed the shot that followed. Additionally, even if the Buckeyes had completed such a pass, there would have been a good chance of the completion resulting in a two-point attempt, which only would have tied the game.

Let David Lighty, with Gibson in his face, try to go all Ichiro on you, Beilein. Seriously. What are the percentages? The decision was terrible, and sadly it ended the season in which, finally, the Wolverines were showing glimpses of playing up to their potential.

So what now? How do we sum this up, and what happens to the Wolverines going forward?

Obviously, they'll dearly miss DeShawn Sims, who had an outstanding senior season despite the immense struggles of his teammates. The Wolverines will sorely lack that inside presence with Sims gone. They'll bring in 6-foot-9 Evan Smotrycz, who could immediately contribute as a freshman. Tim Hardaway Jr. is also coming to Ann Arbor, but who knows how he'll fit in with the host of combo guards in stock already?

The fate of next year's team, clearly, will fall on just how good and how great of a leader Harris is. He's said he is coming back, and I believe him because I find him to be a genuine kid and because he needs to return. His draft stock isn't exactly soaring.

On Friday, Harris showed exactly what he needs to do beginning now and into next season. After a big basket, he pounded his chest and showed more emotion than I'd seen from him through this year. When the Wolverines needed big baskets down the stretch, he provided them a pair of extremely difficult moves and shots. 

Harris needs to be to the Wolverines next year what Turner has been to the Buckeyes this season. In the offseason, he must work on his ballhandling and being able to attack to his left. In short, he needs to become a complete player who won't go through long shooting slumps, who will play passionate defense like he did down the stretch Friday, and who won't get benched during games by Beilein because of lackadaisical play. 

If Harris becomes that player, the Wolverines could be interesting to watch next year. If not, it will likely be another forgettable season.

But for now, sadly, the focus remains on what could have been. On how much more damage these Wolverines could have inflicted if given another day of life, another chance at moving closer to the NCAA Tournament berth that seemed such a given three weeks before Thanksgiving.

For the way those final 2.2 seconds transpired, Beilein has only himself to blame.

2 comments:

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