Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Undiscovered Country


Villanova 79, Michigan 62

When your only tool - or even your primary tool - is a hammer, all you see are nails, and your only solution is to hit them.

Outside of the unicorn game against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, Michigan fans - and coaches - kept waiting and waiting for the three-point shooting to show up in the NCAA Tournament. "Houston's going to be a tough game if they shoot the way they shot against Montana." "Gonna have to shoot better than this in the regional." "Gotta make shots to beat this Loyola team." "The A&M offense has to show up on Monday."

It was. They didn't. They barely did. And it didn't.

As Michigan fans, it often feels as if the walls are in a constant state of closing in around us. The hockey team is back in the Frozen Four after wandering in the wilderness for a few years. Jim Harbaugh is the football coach, and three years in we are still in desperate search of a quarterback and an offensive line.

But perhaps the most dystopian factoid is that not only did Michigan's basketball season end on a sour note because the jump shooters never arrived, but they didn't even go out against what had for so many years Beilein's kryptonite. They didn't lose to a massive team that just overwhelmed them on the boards. This wasn't Marcus Lee abusing Jon Horford, or Jordan Bell outmuscling everyone for a critical offensive rebound. Michigan was firebombed in the championship game by a team that looked like a Beilein team on steroids.

Five shooters all over the floor? Guards that can break the defense down and find the open man? Bigs that can break opposing defenses by having range beyond the arc? The most prolific three-point shooting team in NCAA history?

I suspect if you asked John Beilein to draw up a prototype of his ideal team, he'll point you in the direction of the team that just beat him in the national title game.

This feels different than 2013. I was, am, and will remain viscerally angry about the 2013 championship game for a variety of reasons: the officiating in that game was despicably one-sided, with the National Player of the Year receiving an unfair whistle all night. But even worse than that, that game was lost to a transparently corrupt program that couldn't even make it five years without having to vacate the whole thing. The 2013 championship game should have been Michigan against Wichita State. There should be a banner in Crisler Arena that says "2013 NCAA Champions" on it.
This time around was just a plain-old ass-kicking from a program that is sterling enough to not soil the banner they're about to put up. I've heard various whispers about the possibly less-than-rigorous standards Villanova has for admitting basketball players into the university; here is the amount of angst I put into that:


This isn't a flagrantly egregious program like Louisville's 2013 outfit. This isn't a mercenary factory like Kentucky or Kansas who don't even pretend to care about the NCAA's so-called rules. I'm one of those cynics who believe that any amount of sustained hyper-level of success in college basketball carries at least a little dirt. But I have enough respect for Jay Wright and the Villanova program to shrug this one off. Michigan didn't get swindled this time like they got swindled in 2013. Michigan wasn't robbed this time like they were robbed of a Final Four by one of the most renegade programs and one of the slimiest coaches of all time in 2014. If we're ranking recent Michigan tournament losses in terms of outrage, for me, the 2014 regional final against Kentucky is even a hair above the 2013 championship game, if only because if the NCAA was actually serious about enforcing the lame rules it allegedly has, Kentucky basketball would've been Hiroshima'd off the face of the planet decades ago, never to return.

But I digress.

Getting your hats handed to you by a respectable program and a respectable coach still hurts, but this isn't the type of loss that will keep people up at night. Losing on a last second shot feels much worse than getting nuked by a team that plays a style you want your program to emulate.

The pain comes from seeing this uniquely "Beilein" group of kids, cobbled together from a few coat hangers, some duct tape, and a supersoaker, fall just short of the ultimate glory. Beilein struck gold in 2011 and 2012, landing some extremely high level prospects (McGary, Robinson, Stauskas) and coupling them with a couple ace diamonds in the rough (Burke, Hardaway). When those results paid off, Beilein tried to aim higher in recruiting. The result? Identifying Devin Booker and Luke Kennard before anyone else, and then watching Kentucky and Duke swoop in and scoop them up. There was serious consternation that Beilein had made several egregious recruiting missteps that helped put together a super class for Tom Izzo: in some form or another, to some degree, decisions made by Beilein in recruiting helped put together the Cassius Winston/Miles Bridges/Josh Langford class at MSU.

Those guys sat at home while Beilein went to the Final Four with a D-3 transfer, a 3* Pennsylvania kid with offers from Rice and George Mason, a Kentucky castoff, and a lanky German kid who Beilein recruited incognito.

One of the more high profile recruiting misses after the 2013 Final Four was the point guard who just won Player of the Year for Villanova. The nominal "story" was that Jalen Brunson didn't want to come to Michigan and sit behind Derrick Walton for two years. This is very unfair, but it's hard not to imagine what this year's Michigan team would've looked like with more production from the point guard spot. Don't get me wrong, I love Zavier Simpson. One of the most tenacious defenders you'll ever see, and for my money the on-court architect behind Michigan's defensive resurgence this year. May he spend the next two years haunting Cassius Winston's nightmares.

But it was painful watching him in San Antonio. Michigan has been by-and-large blessed at the point guard position since Darius Morris was a sophomore seven years ago. Linear thinking suggests that going from Morris to Burke to Walton should have established a decent enough reputation that some really good players would've been beating down the door to play PG for a Beilein team.

Zavier Simpson is a really good player - on defense. Offensively, his struggles were one of the many factors that held this team back. But even belaboring that point is largely irrelevant. Michigan didn't lose to Villanova because their point guard can't shoot and seemed paralyzed by indecision in San Antonio. They lost because they played the best team in the country with assassins all over the floor.

Maybe one day Michigan will be the assassins.

Until then, it remains the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.

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