It was an eventful sports weekend. Baron Davis in town to face the Pistons, Michigan and Michigan State trying to advance in the NCAA tournament, and most importantly, another player gets compared to a side of rice pilaf. Let's get to the particulars...
Pistons-Clippers, A Diamond in the Rough, and a "Celebrity" Sighting
I was in attendance Friday night with my Dad as the NBA's version of the Detroit Lions, the Clippers, invaded the Palace. It was honestly one of the more enjoyable Piston games in a long time. Coincidentally, the game was won by several guys not accustomed to leading the Pistons to victory. It seemed that all the best Pistons decided a late season Friday night affair with the Clip Show was not worth their time. Not only did Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Allen Iverson, and Rodney Stuckey all sit out the game, not a single one of them was even on the bench for the game. Stuckey's absence is understandable as he had come down with a miserable cold earlier in the day, but the lack of the others puzzled me. Regardless, there was an unexpected pleasure in seeing the Pistons win a game led by a different cast of characters. Despite the tremendous accomplishments of the Pistons core over the years, sometimes we crave change as sports fans. This night, it was Will Bynum, Walter Herrmann, Kwame Brown, combining with usual faces Antonio McDyess and Tayshaun Prince in carrying the Stones to a blowout W over the Clips. Even though it's not saying much, the crowd was as into the game in the 4th quarter as much as I can remember this year. Some highlights from the night...
-With all that is going on in Detroit sports right now, one man is seriously flying under the radar. Conversations revolve around Jeremy Bonderman, Matthew Stafford, and Chris Osgood...and all the while, Will Bynum is having a coming out party for the Pistons. You can almost hear him saying to himself, "Why was I on that bench all year? I can play this game"!! And he's right. On Friday night, in his first ever NBA start, Bynum blew by Baron Davis so many times that it became unclear whether it was actually the real Davis or just a very good likeness taken from an LA wax museum. His incredible quickness, Nate Robinson like elevation, and an uncanny ability to finish with either hand around the bucket make Bynum an almost impossible 1-on-1 cover for anybody in the NBA. Whereas most guards that get the ball rotated to them simply rise for an open J, Bynum does no such thing. Instead, he explodes towards the rim, relishing the contact from any defender that dare impede his path.
The impressive thing about Will is that while he is moving at a breakneck speed and constantly dribbling through his legs and behind his back, he is almost always in control. His turnovers are minimal, unlike a player such as Allen Iverson, who is more inclined to throw an errant pass and look toward the referee for a sympathetic whistle. To keep things in perspective, I am not suggesting that Will Bynum should be the Pistons starting point guard next season and play 40 minutes a night. He has holes in his game that need to be addressed. He is not a confident outside shooter, and has not mastered the art of using his penetration in order to get easy buckets for other players. But what Bynum has done, after waiting patiently and finally getting a real chance to showcase his skills, is prove that he belongs. In this league, and more importantly, on this team.
-Sometimes you can go from zero to hero in the blink of an eye. Before the game, I noticed a girl wearing a nice home Pistons Chauncey Billups jersey. "Gotta respect that," I thought to myself. Mr. Big Shot gets traded, but she's still representing in a big way. To go out and purchase the Billups jersey and stick with it is....wait, wait a second, hold up, flag on the field. Adorning the bottom part of the jersey was an advertisement logo, and the word was not 'Nike' or 'NBA.' Instead, it read "Bob Evans." Yep, this was definitely a previous game night giveaway, not a legitimate Pistons jersey as I had first thought. I'll even give you the benefit of the doubt on wearing the giveaway jersey if the major sponsor is 'Meijer' or the 'Detroit Free Press.' But rocking any Pistons related gear that also sports the words "Bob Evans" anywhere on the garment is strictly off-limits. The building is called the Palace, so let's try and keep it a little bit classy, people.
-When you attend a Pistons-Clippers game on a Friday night when the weather is just starting to get better and the NCAA tournament is in full swing, you can expect the celebrity turnout at the game to be less than stellar. Such was the case on this night. Taking my seat, I noticed Baron Davis shouting at a fan a couple rows off the court. I look over, and whaddya know, it's Mike Epps!! I'm sure most of you are thinking, "Hmm...you said 'celebrity,' right...who is Mike Epps"?? The answer, in short, is a poor man's Chris Tucker. He's an actor/comedian that is neither a great actor nor an overly talented comedian. Nonetheless, I was semi-excited for the sighting. As he approached, I gave a "Whassup, Mike!" and stuck out my hand. He obliged immediately with the high five/handshake/hug, obviously thrilled to be noticed by somebody in the crowd. Him and his crew settled in, and as the game progressed, were forced to move three or four times for being in someone else's seats. That's something you expect to see from a bunch of 15-year old boys trying to sneak up into the premium seats when all they bought was standing room. But to see a Hollywood "star" attempting to pull off this caper, and subsequently getting busted, was embarrassing to say the least. Spike might be a Knicks regular, and Jack might be at every Lakers game, but on this night, we had Mike Epps. Even if he never did find his seat...
-Brian Skinner's goatee deserves its own reality show. If you haven't seen this thing up close, you haven't lived. I probably spent a good 25 minutes throughout the night just staring at this abomination. It is half black, half orange, and extends approximately 2-3 feet below his chin. It's as if David Wells' goatee sat down for a meeting with Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart's goatee, and decided to form one ultra-bizarre, head turning piece of facial hair. Next time you look up Skinner's statistics and wonder why he's still in the NBA, just remember; goatees like that do not grow on trees. Or do they???
The NCAA Tournament, Plus a Random Unrelated Thought
-While this weekend was the reward for a terrific season for 64 teams in the country, one of the most beloved children's television hosts was left home for the festivities. The San Diego State Aztecs were not invited to the Big Dance despite a very respectable 23-9 record. And their head coach, Mr. Rogers, was none too happy about it. Apparently he reacted to the snub by running his players through a brutal practice session, culminating with the oft-complaining senior point guard Prince Tuesday being thrown out of the gym completely. Coach Rogers also confiscated everyone's car keys as punishment, forcing them to get around strictly by way of the trolley. Wait a second, what's that? Ok, I am now being told that the SDSU boss is still Steve Fisher, and not Mr. Rogers, as previously thought. Coulda fooled me...
-While watching Michigan win their 1st tournament game in 11 years from Champp's on Thursday, an unexpected comedy bonus was added to the equation courtesy of my man Kurt. Come to find out during the night that Kurt is a refereeing aficionado, and enjoys mimicking the officials' signals with each call, leading to this enjoyable sequence. Michigan would go on a little run, and following a big 3 or transition bucket, Kurt would immediately place the hands on top of the shoulders to signal a needed timeout by Clemson. The funny thing is, usually he was right that the Tigers needed a breather to regroup and stop the run. Only their coach, Oliver Purnell, did no such thing. He let the surge continue until he was absolutely forced to call a T.O. to save face. Oliver Purnell may have been the "Coach" on Thursday, but Kurt was much more aware of when to change the pace of the game, even with a couple of Blue Moons already working their way into the system. Coach Purnell has now wrapped up his 21st season, and his all-time tournament victory total is the exact same as Kurt's. When Clemson most likely begins searching for Purnell's successor in the coming weeks, they will comb through the other power conferences trying to steal a fellow big name guy. But if they were smart, they would just head up to 14 Mile and Orchard Lake to Champp's Sports Bar...you're gonna get a coach unafraid to signal for a timeout in a crucial moment...and a pretty good basket of Mozzarella Stix.
-Is there a better mascot in college basketball than the Hilltopper of Western Kentucky? The guy is basically a red version of King Hippo from 'Mike Tyson's Punch Out,', and that spells F-U-N to me.
-Let me be the first to say what so many of us out there are thinking...Is that blind guy on American Idol really "blind"??? Caught most of his performance last week. The guy was dancing, moving around, doin' his thing... but always managed to find the microphone when he resumed singing. And it wasn't like he was grabbing for the pole the mic stands on...he just knew where it was. I'm reminded of Cedric Ceballos' "blindfolded" throwdown in the 1992 Slam Dunk Contest. Ceballos managed to run the length of the floor, completely blindfolded, leap at exactly the perfect time, and stuff it through. It's been hotly debated ever since as to whether Ced was really without vision on that dunk. Similarly, I expect debate to rage on over this historic American Idol contestant. As LeBron James says in the classic commercial where he discovers a man confined to a wheelchair is in fact perfectly healthy, "Dude's fakin..."
This Might Be the Last Game of the Season...Act Accordingly
Any time you watch a team all year and follow them day in and day out, there is an empty feeling when the run finally comes to an end. This was the case Saturday afternoon, as Wolverine rooters saw their team's tournament run come to a screeching halt at the hands of the Oklahoma Sooners. And while 99% of the media outlets recap the game using only the words 'Blake' and 'Griffin,' here at the HSL we like to look at things in a more unique way. In this space's humble opinion, the rigidity of John Beilein reared its ugly head at the worst possible time in the 1st half, possibly costing Michigan a real chance to pop the 2-seeded Sooners on a day when they were not at their best.
Coach Beilein has always been of the belief that if a player picks up two first half fouls, he'll be watching the remainder from a cozy seat on the bench. It is understandable to have this in your pocket as a general rule of thumb, but it cannot come at the cost of failing to understand that each game is a fluid situation and the same rules cannot apply all of the time. Such was the case in this game against Oklahoma. Michigan's best player, Manny Harris, picked up two quick whistles in the first five minutes. Boom! He got the hook, and for the next 15:09, he was a spectator like you and I. I could not imagine that Beilein would allow the man that carried his team almost singlehandedly to victory in the opening round to sit for 75 percent of the opening half. This was different than just any regular season game. The consequences are unforgiving. A loss, and you do not have a chance to make up for it three nights later. A loss here means you'll be waiting until about Halloween to step foot back out on the court. To be fair to Beilein, I do see certain situations where "sitting a guy until the 2nd half because he picked up two quick fouls" makes sense. Here are some examples...
1. You are the superior team. You have no problem biding your time until the half, making sure the game remains close, and knowing full well that your overall talent advantage will take over down the home stretch. Not the case here. Oklahoma was around the Top-10 all year, while Michigan struggled to get to .500 in the Big Ten.
2. You are extremely deep. The prolonged absence of the player (or players) in question will not have much of an effect since the squad goes 10-11 strong with scorers at every position. Again, not the case here. The Wolverines can play a number of guys, but many of them are just role players and cannot be counted on for big minutes in the biggest games.
3. You're protecting a big lead, affording you the luxury of sitting your superstar player. Like the previous two examples, this was not the case on Saturday. Michigan hung tough (more on this), but never had a commanding advantage that would allow for such an extended rest from a player of Harris' caliber.
Many fans probably watched the 1st half of that game, saw Harris sit for the final 15 minutes, and ended up saying to themselves, "We're only down one! We survived without Manny! We are in great shape"!! Unfortunately, that was far from the truth. The 1st half of this game was a classic kind of 1st half that has roots going back to 1976. College basketball historians will note that Indiana stormed through the entire season undefeated that year, the last team to do so. In the National Championship game, the Hoosiers matched up with these very Michigan Wolverines. U of M came in as heavy underdogs, and played a perfect first 20 minutes...and were up 35-29. My dad always says that you almost knew that it wasn't enough...that a half that perfect should have resulted in a 15-20 point lead. Sure enough, Bob Knight's crew came out thrashed Michigan after the intermission, winning by 18.
While the circumstances were slightly different on Saturday, the gist was the same. Oklahoma couldn't buy a bucket for a large part of the 1st half. Missed layups, bricked free throws, wide open 3s going begging, and turnovers were all part of their struggles. The Sooners didn't just leave the door slightly ajar for Michigan. They practically removed the hinges and sent out formal invitations for the Wolverines to RSVP to the Sweet Sixteen. But I sat bewildered as Beilein trotted out anyone on his bench not named Manny Harris, and the Wolverines entered the halftime break with the most deceptive one point deficit in college basketball history. After the half Blake Griffin and company had just played, Michigan needed to be up about 6-8 points. For Beilein to somehow think that Manny Harris, after being confined to a folding chair for 62 total minutes, would come out with the same energy he might have in the 1st half, is beyond my comprehension. I know his teammates call him "Manny Fresh," but after a 62-minute break, you can be too fresh. It even got to the point that in the 2nd half, (your season is on the line, sir!!) with both DeShawn Sims and Harris saddled with 3 fouls, but facing a 10 point deficit, Beilein still removed both stalwarts and attempted to come back with the pick and roll combination of Zack Gibson and Rice Pilaf Merritt.
The heroic contributions of Anthony Wright were unexpected and hugely important. But for anybody to think that Michigan is capable of beating a Top-10 team in the NCAA tournament with their best player on the court for just 21 minutes, they are sadly mistaken. When it is literally 'win or go home' time, it is imperative that you go down with your best players on the floor as much as possible. I would find a box score read out of "Harris, 5-17, 38 minutes" much more comforting than his actual line of "3-9, 21 minutes." You would walk away knowing you threw your best punch, with your best puncher doing the throwing. Sadly, it was not to be on Saturday, and the best Michigan season in over a decade has come to an end. It was an important season for the Wolverines. They got back on the college basketball map, and even managed to make a small dent in people's brackets around the country. And while John Beilein did an excellent job in leading this team throughout the campaign, one is never too seasoned or too experienced to stop learning.
For Beilein, it is important to remember that while having a belief system and a coaching philosophy is necessary and creates an identity, it is never safe to go into a contest with preconceived rules that are not to be altered regardless of the in-game circumstances. In the biggest game of the season, the player that had played biggest all year was not on the court. While most people in doubt simply rely on the old standby, "Put your best foot forward," Beilein gambled and decided to try and win the game by putting his 4th or 5th best foot forward. It might work in December and January against Savannah State or Indiana, but winning games against elite programs in the NCAA tournament is a different animal. The comeback year for the Wolverines was an important one, but it is now over. One can only hope that next time, things will be a little different...because you can't win it all with your biggest gun tucked away in the holster.
Saving His Best for Last
A large part of what makes the NCAA tournament so special year after year are the memorable performances by the guys you'd least expect to step forward in times of crisis. When Michigan played North Carolina in the 1993 Final, a total of 10 future NBA players stepped on the floor. And lo and behold, the kid that emerged into the national spotlight was Donald Williams, a streak shooter that never quite had the chops to reach The League. But he was plenty good that night. He exploded for 25 points and made every big shot to give Dean Smith one final championship (nobody remembers Donald anymore because Chris Webber managed to steal the headlines just a little bit late in this game). On Sunday night, with the USC Trojans giving Michigan State absolutely all they could with a Sweet Sixteen berth on the line, a most unexpected form of offensive firepower came to the rescue in the form of Travis Walton. And boy did they need it.
Walton is a very valuable player for the Spartans. He's a senior. He provides leadership on the floor. He is a ballhawking defender, just recently taking home Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. But his offensive game has always been limited, to say the least. Walton struggles to create his own shot. His range from the outside halts at about 17 feet. In 20 games this year against Big Ten opponents, Walton touched the double digit scoring mark a grand total of zero times. In the first round blowout of Robert Morris, Travis was a big fat goose egg in the scoring column.
But none of that mattered on Sunday at the Metrodome. Walton poured in a career high 18 points, knocking down big shot after big shot and playing his best ball when it mattered most. He showed a confidence with the rock in his hands like never seen before. When the Trojans seemed to have the momentum on their side, Walton would answer. When they would tie the score and be looking for that one critical stop on the defensive end, Walton would bury a high arcer from the elbow. On a day when Goran Suton could not throw the ball into the ocean, and Raymar Morgan was a complete non-factor, Walton's performance was more than just a welcome addition to the box score. It saved the season.
In Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen took the ball for the Yankees. The series was knotted at two with the rival Brooklyn Dodgers. The only thing was, Larsen had gotten shelled by these same Dodgers in his Game 2 start. Many were surprised that he was being given another opportunity in such a critical spot. Larsen was a sub-.500 pitcher, and was by no means a guy you would look at and say, "He's about to do something special." But that's exactly what he did that day. Larsen climbed the mound at Yankee Stadium, and 27 batters later, he had become the only pitcher in baseball history to throw a perfect game in the World Series. Two days later, the Yanks would clinch the title with a Game 7 massacre at Ebbets Field. Travis Walton was not perfect on Sunday. He missed five shots and even tossed in a couple of turnovers. But like Larsen did on that historic day in '56, Walton forgot that he was supposed to be a background guy, confidently striding to the forefront and preventing what would have been a devastating season ending loss.
Don Larsen's heroic afternoon led to the Yankees bringing home the title. The Michigan State Spartans still have a ways to go before they can claim that same triumphant fate. But when and if they do, this career defining night by Travis Walton will long be remembered as the one that kept the season alive. After all, to be thought of as one of the all-time best, you need years of sustained greatness. But to be hero for a day, all you need is a ball and a hoop. Walton had that, and capitalized in a way never before seen in his previous 138 times donning the green and white. It is on to the Sweet Sixteen for Walton and company...but maybe it is just a little bit sweeter for old #5 tonight than it is for the rest. You might not have expected it, and in all likelihood, he probably didn't either. But the fact remains...the Spartans could have easily dropped this game to a more than ready USC Trojans squad, but Travis Walton was not going to let it happen. Tonight was his night, and somewhere, Donald Williams and Don Larsen were smiling. Their club has a new member.
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