Before their Tuesday evening flight to Los Angeles, the Wolverines got in a practice today and humored us folks in the media. At his press conference, Coach John Beilein, as delightful as ever, gave fresh insight into the team as they head into their Thursday night match against the Texas A&M Aggies.
First off, a bit of hope. Going into the opening weekend of the tournament, many feared that the team would be rusty after a 10 day break, which was a product of playing the B1G conference tournament a full week before all other major conferences. These fears appear to have been validated as the Wolverines turned in two woeful offensive performances against Montana and Houston, which luckily lead to victories due to excellent defense and a certain shot. Beilein was quick to downplay the role of the extended break in their performance, citing North Carolina who couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn and experienced no such break. Whatever the cause of these bad shooting performances, they are hopefully in the rearview mirror of this Michigan squad. On Monday, the team ran through shooting drills, which Beilein said were some of the best he had ever seen. A highlight of the day was Zavier Simpson going a cool 60/80 from the arc. Hopefully that kind of shooting performance will rollover to Thursday’s matchup. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine them shooting much worse than in their prior two games.
Another interesting note Beilein made about their practice leading into their Sweet Sixteen game: the team has been utilizing tennis balls. Now, I’ve heard of using tennis balls for ball handling drills to sharpen hand-eye coordination, but this was a little different. The coaching staff has made Moe Wagner and Duncan Robinson hold tennis balls while playing defense in the hope that it will prevent them from fouling. Holding the balls is supposed to prevent them from grabbing and illegally touching their opponent which has been a problem for both players. Wagner is a foul magnet, and Robinson finished the thriller over Houston on the bench after picking up five fouls. Players drawing silly fouls has also been a theme for many teams so far in the tournament. From my casual watching, many games have been slogs filled with whistles and it has lead to many teams finishing games without their stars. Most notably, Texas lost an overtime battle to Nevada in the first round in large part because their star freshman Mo Bamba fouled out while logging only 31 minutes in his final game as a Longhorn (at least that was more than Jaren Jackson played). If anything is keeping me up at night going into the Texas A&M game, it’s our own Moe going down in similar fashion. Texas A&M boasts a deep frontcourt and Michigan will need Wagner to not be chained to the bench. Do tennis balls actually help? I can’t say and I’m not about to doubt Beilein.
Lastly, Beilein put an end to a (not actually) furious debate. As soon as Jordan Poole’s miraculous three-pointer to defeat Houston hit the bottom of the net, the shot was being compared to the heroic actions of one Trey Burke that came five years (already?) prior. Of course the comparison was bound to be made. Each was a miraculous occurence that gave life to a season that was all but lost. Both came on college basketball’s biggest stage, the Big Dance, the most grandiose and romanticized spectacle in all of sports. They’re both moments of pure joy that this fanbase will cherish forever, so of course instead of simply enjoying them, everyone has jumped at the opportunity to rank them. As for myself, I am very conflicted on this issue and after much deliberation I have come out in favor the Burke shot. As soon as the ball left Burke’s hand, I was certain Michigan’s 2013 tournament run was over. A team that was loaded with talent could have underperformed the entirety of the season and finished the tournament forgettably in the round of 16. When that prayer found the basket, I had never felt more shock, relief, and awe in my entire life. Thankfully, Beilein has come down on this issue and provided a definitive answer. When asked, he stated without hesitation that the Poole shot was superior. This was mostly on the grounds that Poole’s shot was a game-winner while the Burke shot still left Michigan plenty of work to do in overtime. Whichever way you fall on it, I think we can all agree that each shot was a beautiful piece of Michigan basketball history and that Poole had a way cooler celebration.