Tuesday, January 29, 2013

With Great Ranking Comes Great Responsibility

I still can't believe that in the 20 years it's taken Michigan basketball to return to the #1 spot, only 26 different teams have been the top-ranked team in the nation. Twenty six!

But it finally happened: Michigan took the top spot again. With a Duke loss at Miami last week, and two Michigan wins over Purdue and Illinois, there wasn't any real doubt over who was the mightiest team in the land...for the AP. I don't know many news outlets that still use the USA Today Coaches Poll, but that poll has Kansas ranked number one.

I'm not here to talk about that, though. In many people's eyes, this week is a huge one for Michigan. Yes, it is the number one team in the land. But they have to defend that ranking against one of the top teams in the nation - and who had been #1 for the first month of the season - Indiana. The Hoosiers have taken their hits - first against in-state rival Butler, then against Wisconsin, and finally in a near defeat by Michigan State last weekend - but don't doubt their ability to come out hard against the Wolverines in Bloomington on Saturday night.

In recent games, Michigan has started out slowly, or allowed the other team to come out fast. Against Illinois, large runs in the beginning of the game were quickly cut down by the Fighting Illini, while against Purdue, Michigan couldn't seem to stop the Boilermakers' hot shooting. Earlier, Minnesota hung around for more than 20 minutes until Michigan finally slammed the door.

Playing in Bloomington is dangerous, especially with a crowd that desperately wants its team to get back to that number one ranking. Michigan needs to come out pumped up and ready for the onslaught. More importantly, Trey Burke has to keep doing what he does best: coaching from the floor and finding the best possible way to get points. He can't overdo it - teams have dissected game tape and he isn't a surprise anymore. There are plenty of other scorers on this team that he can feed. (Nik Stauskas, anyone?)

I'm not dismissing tomorrow's game against Northwestern in the slightest. They managed Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone pretty well on January 3 (likely because Michigan runs a 1-3-1 themselves), and the Wildcats couldn't hit the broadside of a barn - and that issue probably won't be the case tomorrow. I am looking forward to the Indiana game more because Indiana is the High Ranking Team that Michigan hasn't really encountered this season. (I don't count Minnesota as a HRT...especially with that 4-game losing streak) How is Michigan going to handle the pressure? Not only is this one of the top five teams in the country, Michigan has a reputation to uphold!

Take the challenge and run, Michigan. Show a national, Saturday, prime-time audience that you were meant for this position.

After twenty years, it finally feels like now is the time for this team.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Don't Be Too Quick to Dismiss HarBowl

I’ve already heard it. “Any more talk about the Harbaugh brothers coaching in the Super Bowl and I’m going to puke.” 

Usually I am one of those people. Any overhyped, media-crazed story has me rolling my eyes and flipping the channel. I’ve written about the hype, and how horrible it is, many times. I’ve verbally complained to people about the hype. 

But this time? This time, folks, I’m taking the side of hype.

So sue me.

Let’s go over the other facts of the past fourteen days: the baseball writers decided no one was worthy of making the Hall of Fame, Lance Armstrong confessed to Oprah that he took PEDs, and Mante Te’o was the victim of a horrid prank (or so we think at the moment). Those types of stories are pretty depressing. The media trounces on those stories to get us to react. They want us to talk about the validity of the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) and whether or not baseball players accused of taking steroids are should be in the HOF. They want us to ream out Armstrong for his jerkiness. They want us to feel pity for the Notre Dame defenseman.

Now think about the Harbaugh story. Jim and John – born a little over a year apart from each other – are head coaches of the two teams headed to the Super Bowl: the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. John has established himself as a solid head coach, even while having no NFL playing experience. Jim played 15 years in the NFL after being a stellar college quarterback for the University of Michigan. The boys’ parents, a happily married couple named – get this – Jack and Jackie live in Mequon, Wisconsin, a little burb north of Milwaukee. Jack has gotten coaching film from the boys throughout the season and has given each support every step of the way. And now these two men are going to have to try and best the other on one of the biggest stages in sports.

Does that make us irritated at an organization? Does that make us think that a player is a giant jerk? Does that make us feel pity? 

No! It makes us feel good! It makes us feel happy! Stories like this one are meant to be overhyped! Why complain about this? Do you really want to hear more about the Los Angeles Lakers’ nosedive into the basement of the NBA? Really? Because I’d much rather hear about two men from a solid Midwestern family who have reached the pinnacle of their sport. 

Last year I was already salivating at the idea, but then both the 49ers and the Ravens lost in their respective championship games, making the Super Bowl last year – even with Tom Brady – a little less important in my book.

This year, though, I’m very excited for this game. I am looking forward to seeing the pregame and postgame talk about the Harbaughs. I look forward to seeing any screen shots of their parents – or maybe their sister and her husband, Indiana basketball head coach Tom Crean. I eagerly anticipate the CBS crew messing up “Jim” and “John” about twenty-one times. (Is there a prop bet for that one yet?) 

Why? Well, I take pride in family. It’s probably similar to me enjoying a good Peyton-Eli matchup. Okay, I also enjoy a good Peyton-Eli commercial. But they’re brothers, too. Like the Harbaughs, they grew up together, played with and against each other, had arguments, fought, laughed, joked, and lived together. To see a family story extend beyond college is a treat, especially because many times we hear about sports figures’ broken homes or tragic backstories. 

Wouldn’t you like to play a giant game like this against your brother or sister? Pick your favorite sport. Now have your sibling be on the opposing side. For me, it would be swimming. If my sister was in the lane next to me in the finals of the 400m individual medley, I would sooooooo want to beat her. But at the same time, if she beat me, I would be very proud of her. Put yourselves in Jim or John’s shoes. Think of how much fun it would be!

So enjoy the only kind of family drama there should be – played on a football field, where the outcome doesn’t really matter and they’ll shake hands at the end. Stories like this one are the ones that I will gladly overhype, whether you like it or not.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My First Hockey Post

Hi, my name is _______, and I am a hockey fan.

It almost seems that you need to do that in order for people to understand you. "You're a hockey fan? Even with all the crap the NHL has put you through? Your seasons never start on time! Hockey shouldn't be played in the summer! Blah blahblahblahblahblah?"

Yes, even with all the crap the NHL has put me through, I am still a fan of hockey. Exhibit A: as I was preparing to go out and run my errands, I turned on the Blackhawks-Kings game and was immediately drawn in. In the first five minutes of the game, there was a 5-on-3 and Chicago scored a goal. How does anyone not get drawn in?

As my father says, hockey is the best sport to watch on an HD TV, too. The whiteness of the ice really makes the players pop out of the picture - not to mention it's a lot easier to follow the puck, too. No bright flashes of red or blue necessary, FOX.

Some hockey fans vow to never watch or attend the sport ever again because of what the NHL did to them. Really? I feel like those fans were never fans of hockey in the first place - they simply watched it because their home team played great and won the Stanley Cup or something like that. With the first sign of bad things happening, they were going to drop hockey regardless. But true hockey lovers were just waiting - like NBA and NFL fans back in 2011. They were ticked off, but they weren't going to stay away.

And the teams, to be fair, are really trying to get their average fans back in any ways they can. The Detroit Red Wings offered their fans a scrimmage in Plymouth, and the traffic brought M-14 to a crawling pace. The Pittsburgh Penguins are giving out free concession items at their first four home games of the season. The Colorado Avalanche are selling Opening Night tickets at a 2-for-1 price.

I was excited to see the NHL season begin, simply because now I live in Avalanche country. I am hoping that both Colorado and Detroit are contenders this season (which shouldn't be too hard; the season is only 48 games long), because to see that rivalry renewed while living in enemy territory would be terribly exciting! If I made it to a Red Wings-Avalanche game at the Pepsi Center, I'm sure I wouldn't be the only Detroit fan in attendance, either. It wouldn't feel like a home game like in, perhaps, Phoenix, but we Red Wings fans travel well.

As for the Red Wings themselves, it shouldn't be too much of a transition to have Henrik Zetterberg be the captain instead of Nicklas Lidstrom. But it will be difficult to fill in the big gap that Lidstrom (and Brad Stuart, who left for San Jose) left in the defense. Goalie Jimmy Howard had a good campaign in 2011-2012, and that consistency will help the incredibly young defense he's got in front of him. What I'm more concerned about is the loss of Tomas Holmstrom, who retired a couple of weeks ago. Holmstrom was a mainstay in front of the opposing net, and drove many goalies crazy while providing Detroit players with plenty of scoring opportunities. Who is going to be nuts enough on this team to replace that?

Breakneck seasons like this one allow for a lot of anxiety, stress, and hyperactivity - which is exactly what you'd want to see on an NHL rink. A game in January used to be meaningless; now it's proof that the team is getting off on the right foot. The only teams that wouldn't be in the playoff race in April are the ones that fell flat on their faces when the puck dropped for the first time.

Next weekend, there is not one football game. What are you going to do with your Saturday and Sunday afternoons? You can't possibly fill the entire weekend with college basketball. Add some spice to your weekend: watch some hockey! And then you'll realize that maybe, just maybe, you've missed it - just like I have.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Problem with Youth

I seem to remember something like this happening 20 years ago.

Back then, the Fab Five dominated the college court. Their style was unconstitutional, their swagger was unorthodox. But they won - a lot. And the thing that really got people talking about them was their youth. Five freshmen started for Michigan, sending juniors and seniors to the bench that weren't bad players - they just couldn't keep up.

But what happened in the NCAA Tournaments? As freshmen and sophomores, the Fab Five (and Friends) couldn't pull out that last game. The more experienced Duke and North Carolina teams beat them.

And before we could say "Wait till next year, when we've got these guys as upperclassmen!", Chris Webber bolted for the NBA, and the magic was gone. Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose left the next year.

I even remember something like this two years ago. Darius Morris was poised to help Michigan basketball compete in a tough Big Ten Conference. But amid the whisperings of his NBA potential, Morris left Michigan after his sophomore year, and the team had to build from the bottom again.

Not to say that there wasn't anything at the bottom. Because Morris was gone, Trey Burke was able to get more playing time and help him develop. And Trey Burke, along with junior Tim Hardaway Jr, have become the leaders of the team.

But the rest of the players on the court are new to some of these experiences. New to the threatening nature of the Ohio State gym. New to the national spotlight. New to the idea that, with one game, they could be #1 in the nation.

So when the spotlight shines the brightest, the youth can't keep up the dominance.

THAT'S the problem with youth.

Youth has very little experience. Youth needs to live a little to get the experience needed to dominate and control a game. Youth needs to have some downs along with the ups. Youth needs to have that crushing defeat in order to know how badly it feels...and never want to feel that way again.

But there's another problem with youth - of the college basketball variety.

So many of the Youth of the NCAA are beckoned by it's older NBA brother - and the cash and fame that comes with him. Youth doesn't want to wait to get the experience in college - they want to be in the deep end immediately.

So how is Michigan going to adjust to this loss? To the fact that everyone was looking at them today, and they absolutely STUNK for the first 20 minutes of the contest? Are they going to grow up? Are they going to use the experience to adjust their game?

I can be encouraged by the fact that this happened early in conference play. Michigan has a chance to play OSU again at Crisler Center (still can't adjust to the name change), and will be seeking revenge. Burke and Hardaway Jr. and GRIII will hit the practice floor tomorrow ready to shoot around till their fingers cramp. A loss like this can only be good.

Well, kind of.

If the Youth decide to stick around and change from Youth to Experienced, then I am very, very excited. This year is gravy. Next year? Next year could be amazing. A team that grows together knows each other and understands what the other is thinking and can be there for the alley-oop by mere telepathy is a team to be feared.

But if Hardaway Jr. and Burke decide to bolt for the NBA come spring, then this loss is really, really hard. Any loss we get doesn't help us form an Experienced team - it makes the juniors and sophomores eager to play a solo game, energize their draft status, and jump ship. And then we're right back where we started.

With more Youth. And the vicious Youth cycle begins again.