Monday, December 8, 2008

The fates make us wait.

I don't remember what it was like when Michigan was good at basketball. I was just over four months old when Glen Rice set the NCAA Tournament record for points scored while leading Michigan to the title. The only memory I have of Rumeal Robinson's free throws are whenever that game is shown on ESPN Classic. When the Fab Five had their heyday, I was four years old. The only thing I remember about the Fab Five is the shame I felt when everything they accomplished was swept away. Somewhere inside Crisler Arena's recesses, the legacy of Michigan's most talented basketball teams is tucked away, banished from the light of day.

I have only fuzzy memories of the 1998 team, the last time Michigan showed anything worth watching on the basketball court. When UCLA finished off Traylor, Taylor and Bullock in the 2nd round, I was watching. I didn't really have any sentient rooting interest in it yet, but the people around me were angry, they were disappointed. As Michigan left the court, one of the people in the room with me - I cannot for the life of me remember who - said something to the effect of, "I think this is the end."

And it was. The sins of the Michigan basketball program caught up with it. What started in February of 1996 with a rolling SUV came to a head in November 2002, as Michigan hung its head in shame and removed the Final Four banners that had hung in Crisler proudly since 1993. I hope that in 2012, when Michigan is free to embrace what the Fab Five did, they don't. Because doing so would mean having to acknowledge Chris Webber, and he deserves no acknowledgment. The fact may be that the main culprit here is dead and buried, but Webber was anything but a saint. He deserves no forgiveness. It brought me a twisted sense of joy when he retired from basketball without a championship.

Saturday, the healing began. After years of toiling around in mediocrity, after watching Tommy Amaker do his best to pull Michigan through probation only to fail spectacularly at coaching the talent he managed to bring in, there is finally reason to be proud of Michigan's basketball team. There will still be roller coaster moments, but after watching Amaker's teams fail at some of the most basic things, I'll be content to watch Beilein's team this year go through the ups and downs of a young team building a foundation. Besides, nothing could be worse than watching a 16-3 team lose 6 of 8 down the stretch, falling from a sure NCAA bid onto the bubble, and then losing the first game of the Big Ten Tournament to a team that went 5-11 in Big Ten play. Nothing could be worse than letting Greg Oden's Buckeyes go on a 10-0 run to end the game on Senior Day at Crisler while your two seniors, Dion Harris and Courtney Sims, are so unfocused, so unprepared for pressure situations, so poorly coached, that they both fail miserably at the free throw line down the stretch.

In the final eight minutes against Duke on Saturday, Michigan hit 15 of 17 free throws.

That's not to say Michigan is back. This is still a young team with little to no inside presence. There will be times in the Big Ten where we as fans become infuriated at the 1-3-1 because we have nobody to rebound and we give up 20 offensive boards. There will be games where open threes just won't fall. There will be games where DeShawn Sims plays more like Courtney Sims. There will be games where Manny Harris will be more turnover-prone than usual. But one thing is clear: The free pass that Michigan State has been operating under in this state since the mid 1990s is over. There is no wrecked SUV and shady booster spreading money around to players to bury Michigan and help Michigan State seize the state anymore. I'm not discrediting Tom Izzo. He's a great coach, and his list of achievements is very impressive, but for all the Final Fours and NBA players on that list, it omits one thing: the fact that it was all done while Michigan swirled the drain. It's pretty easy to rake in the star recruits and win big when you're essentially recruiting against no one.

And for the Spartan trolls that inhabit the RCMB and SpartanMag with your witty "TGCICB" taunts, I have a response that you might be familiar with: Pride comes before the fall. *wink wink*

It feels like the Twilight Zone around Michigan parts, these days. Nobody wants to talk football, it's all basketball now. We're all geeked over a huge win on the hardwood instead of the gridiron. Basketball games are being used as big recruiting tools for big recruits. 11 months ago, Terrelle Pryor teased us by visiting Michigan, and the basketball game he attended was so quiet you could hear crickets in Crisler. There was a slightly different atmosphere on Saturday for the recruits that were there.

Speaking of which...people puzzle me. The thought process that some people use on internet message boards is just weird. There are some people who think that the decisions made by those in the past will have a direct impact on completely different, unrelated people in the present. I understand the fear and the paranoia. When you're burnt once, you always flinch a little bit when you go near the stove again.

The saga of Ronald Johnson two years ago left a gigantic, scarring burn on everybody that is a Michigan fan and follows recruiting. Not many people know the full story behind it, and I'm not one of the ones who does. What I do know is that all the drama that went down behind the scenes that tore RoJo away from Michigan and sent him across the country to USC, none of that is happening with William Campbell, the cause of everyone's angst this year. Yes, it is nervewracking that Campbell decommitted from Michigan. It's unsettling that he is visiting big players like Alabama, LSU, Miami, and Florida. But lets consider the following:

  • Campbell has two current teammates (Teric Jones and Thomas Gordon) committed to Michigan, along with one former teammate already at Michigan (Boubacar Cissoko).
  • Campbell's head coach at Cass Tech, Thomas Wilcher, is a former player at Michigan.
  • Campbell's direct family is all solidly in favor of Campbell going to Michigan.
That last one is probably the most critical. Somewhere along the line during RoJo's recruitment, there was a fracture. Whether it was between the Michigan staff and RoJo's family, or RoJo's high school coaches (who were also pro-Michigan) and RoJo's family, who knows. But something happened somewhere that disconnected the Johnsons from the University of Michigan. That, to this point, is not even remotely close to being the case with Campbell. USC, the program that can swoop in and steal any star prospect from any power in any state, abandoned any hope for luring Campbell away and didn't even host him on an official visit two weeks ago because they don't believe he can be swayed away from Michigan.

Big Will isn't Ronald Johnson. And he isn't Nick Perry. RoJo and Perry fleeing Michigan to USC in 2007 and 2008 has no bearing on Campbell in 2009. It's a shame they got away. RoJo probably would've been a starter for Michigan this past season, either at corner or at free safety. Perry would have us all feeling a lot better about the defensive end position headed into next season. It would've been pretty cool seeing three highly touted Detroit defensive linemen on the same line next year with Brandon Graham (Crockett), Perry (Martin Luther King) and Campbell (Cass Tech). But it didn't work out that way.

Instead we'll just have to hopefully settle for two.

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