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February 1, 2013In the week that was Michigan sports, both Bobby Knight and Rich Rodriguez spouted off about the Wolverines, the Maize and Blue hoops team rose to No. 1 nationally and the Big Ten is once again talking about divisional realignment. I recap it all here and offer my take on the news of the week.
Michigan is the nation's top team
For the first time since the 1992 season, Michigan earned the Associated Press No. 1 ranking following a dazzling 19-1 start that included wins over Purdue and Illinois in the seven days before the poll was released Monday. U-M received 51 out of a possible 70 first-place votes to take the top spot, but in the Coaches Poll, the Wolverines sit second behind No. 1 Kansas.
What They're Saying
John Niyo of The Detroit News notes the ranking, even if it doesn't mean much, is a welcome celebration for long-suffering Maize and Blue fans. "The point, though, isn't so much what a No. 1 ranking means for this year's Michigan squad. It's what it means for the program, which has come a long way - at long last - the past few years under Beilein," he wrote. "I mean, do you remember where Michigan's basketball team was ranked on Jan. 27 two years ago? Well, I'll save you the trouble: They were ninth in the Big Ten standings."
The Detroit Free Press' Jamie Samuelsson, meanwhile, argues that this week's ranking is an indication of what's in store for the future of Michigan basketball. "Not only is this an outstanding basketball team, but all the makings are there for this to become an outstanding basketball program, which is John Belein's biggest task in Ann Arbor," he said. "There is not a single senior among the top ten scorers on the roster. Eight of the top ten scorers are underclassmen. And even though Burke would seem to be a lock to depart for the NBA after the season, it's clear that Michigan will be very, very good in the immediate future. Add to that the appeal of the brand new facilities and a fan and alumni base that rivals any in college sports, and it seems that Michigan basketball is back."
Finally, MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner suggests U-M fans relish this week even if all that matters is who is No. 1 on April 8. "Those Wolverine fans who have waded through more than two decades of rough waters and frustrating seasons -- well, it's OK. Let it rip," he wrote. "Pump those fists all you want. That part? That's your job. It's OK to be excited, your team has a No. 1 next to its name."
My Take: I was 12 years old when the Wolverines were last No. 1, and when I was a student at Michigan (1999-2002), Brian Ellerbe was the head coach, and Michigan's roster consisted of guys like Kevin Gaines, Chucky Bailey, Avery Queen, Dommanic Ingerson, LaVell Blanchard and Bernard Robinson Jr., among others.
Since then, the climb back to national and conference relevance has been slow. Maddening even. Tommy Amaker put U-M back on track and John Beilein has restored the Block M for everything that it had been and should continue to be - one of the best basketball programs in the country.
Michigan is baaaaaack, and should be savored. An especially easy thing to do for those that sifted through the muck that was the program for more than a decade.
Bob Knight criticizes the Fab Five
Sticking with basketball, former Indiana head coach and current ESPN analyst Bob Knight called out the Fab Five during a Thursday night telecast of Alabama-Arkansas, Baumgardner reported.
"I'm not sure what the Fab Five was," Knight said. "They never won anything.
"They never won a championship, they didn't get anywhere, they got beat."
My Take: Knight went 3-1 in four matchups with the entire Fab Five - Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson - so he has bragging rights over that era of Maize and Blue, but to dismiss the impact the 1992 and 1993 squads made on college basketball is ignorant at best (and Knight is not ignorant).
The Wolverines changed the look (no more John Stockton shorts, thank you very much) and culture of college basketball, adding a brash, swash-buckling, we-won't-back-down attitude to the game that remains today. And really, that's likely Knight's issue with the Fab Five - he doesn't care for the way the game has evolved and points the finger at Webber and Co. for introducing a street-ball atmosphere.
It would have been much more honest of him to come out and say that during last night's game then to take the approach that the Fab Five didn't accomplish anything tangible in their two years together. Of course, doing so may have been career suicide, but hey, this is Bobby Knight and he can say anything he wants.
Rich Rodriguez can't resist talking about Michigan still
A little over two years since Rodriguez was officially dismissed as the head coach at Michigan, the current Arizona Wildcats' boss is still trying to explain away his 15-22 record in three seasons with the Maize and Blue. Prompted by the Sporting News' Matt Hayes, Rodriguez said player attitude helped lead to his downfall.
"We had some guys committed at Michigan, but we had others that weren't," he told Hayes. "Some guys felt a sense of entitlement. The name on the chest, and 'I've already arrived.'
"The Chad Hennes and the Jake Longs put the work in and succeeded before us, and guys behind them thought they were entitled to the same status but hadn't proved anything."
What They're Saying
Hayes paints a portrait of Rodriguez as a victim that has found true salvation in the desert of Tucson. "Three years of hell at Michigan," he wrote. "Three years of not being a Michigan Man, of changing the old familiar with the new unconventional, of completely turning over a roster to start from scratch. All the things those in charge at Michigan knew the day they hired him. All things they eventually used against him.
"How scarred by Michigan was Rodriguez? He took the Arizona job sight unseen. Knew nothing about the roster. Knew nothing about the history of losing. Knew nothing about plans for a $65 million facilities expansion.
"Knew nothing about the Pac-12 or West Coast recruiting or the legend of student body president Button Salmon, who 86 years earlier-on his deathbed after an automobile accident-pleaded with the Wildcats to 'Bear Down.'
"He just knew this: It was football, it was coaching-and it wasn't Michigan."
My Take: Is there some truth to Rodriguez's comments? Absolutely. There was a divide among the Wolverines in his first year at Michigan, with a good number buying in but quite a few used to the way things were being done and resistant to change. Those players certainly didn't do Rodriguez any favors. Nor did an administration that wasn't vocally supportive and made no effort to impress upon every alumnus that they embrace the new coach.
But Rodriguez is not without blame, even if he's attempted to revise history in a way that absolves him of all of it. Rodriguez couldn't encounter a challenge without offering an excuse, citing a lack of overall talent when he took over, a defense that, infamously, Vince Lombardi couldn't fix, and noting a segment of the Michigan populous that would not rest until he was destroyed (that fraction did exist but was nowhere near the size and scope Rodriguez portended).
The truth is, Rodriguez lost the fans and the support of the administration because he took a proud program that needed to be updated and instead knocked the entire structure down and tried to rebuild it from scratch, in his image. Perhaps he would have eventually constructed a beautiful mansion, but not by ignoring the defensive side of the ball like he was doing.
It was a marriage that never should have taken place to begin with, and a relationship that had no chance to strengthen after an abysmal first year in which both parties showed off their ugly side. It ended in divorce, and both Michigan and Rodriguez are better off for it.
The future of RB recruiting?
In an interesting article featured on Sports Illustrated's Web site, Andy Staples writes about the attractiveness of Alabama's program to elite running backs despite the presence of numerous five- and higher-ranking four-stars already on the roster.
"According to the NFL Players Association, the average career of an NFL tailback lasts 2.57 years. The more pounding a player takes for free (in high school) or for a scholarship (in college), the less he can take for big money in the NFL," Staples writes. "Because backs absorb the hardest hits whether they're carrying or blocking, they are the most at risk to suffer a career-ending injury on a given play. That has made tailback the most expendable position in the NFL, and it has forced Nick Saban and other coaches to change how they use and recruit tailbacks. If high school tailbacks are smart, it should change how they choose a college program. The schools that can divide the workload should have the advantage."
My Take: In 2007, five running backs nationally finished with 300 carries or more, including an absurd 450 for Central Florida's Kevin Smith. In 2008, there were again five. In 2009, there were four, there were two in 2010, six in 2011 and seven in 2012.
Alabama's Eddie Lacy (204 carries) and T.J. Yeldon (175 carries) split attempts this past year and both rushed for 1,000 yards, allowing both players to showcase their NFL potential. Some coaches won't go for that - Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges has said he prefers a one-back system - but if the country's best program is doing it, others will follow suit, and it would be wise for the Maize and Blue to be one of them.
Back in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, this is how Michigan did business, rotating two or three tailbacks as the Wolverines wore down defenses. In today's college football, where every recruit dreams of playing on the next level, a system that employs at least two ball carriers, giving them the chance to make a name for themselves and help the team, represents the future.
Big Ten shakeup coming
The Big Ten is considering geography as a basis for divisional alignment when it adds Rutgers and Maryland to the league in 2014 Penn State athletics director Dave Joyner shared this week. The conference is also considering how many games to play against its fellow Big Ten competitors, with Michigan AD David Brandon a fan of nine.
"As the conference expands, it would be unfortunate if a student-athlete came to the University of Michigan, played in the Big Ten Conference for four years and never even got to play or compete against one of the schools in the conference," Brandon told ESPN.com. "That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. As the number of institutions has grown, I believe we should take a look at at least moving to nine."
My Take At first glance, I agree with Brandon. With seven teams in a division, each team will be committed to six intra-division contests, leaving just two to be played against the other division if it's eight total. Considering the fact that the Big Ten likes to rotate the schedule every two years, only four programs from the opposite division will be on the lineup over the course of a four-year career. It would be a shame if a senior class of Wolverines never played at Penn State or hosted Wisconsin.
By going to nine conference games, at least six of the seven programs in the opposite division would be on the four-year loop, which is better if not perfect.
The problem of course is that every other year there would be an automatic fifth road game, tilting the competitive edge and, perhaps more importantly, hitting the bottom line for these extravagant athletic departments that need the close-to $5 million they earn from a home game.
Couple that with the fact that the Big Ten's premier programs want to schedule a marquee non-conference foe every year, and you're looking at a situation in which you're at most getting seven home games in any given campaign; on years Michigan plays five conference away games, it would want three non-conference affairs to reach seven, but the reciprocal is going on the road to face a top-20 program in the seasons in which U-M has five conference contests at The Big House.
I still like the idea of going to nine conference games, but the Big Ten would have to find a way (ideally by the expansion of the Big Ten Network into the East Coast markets) to make up the difference, paying out an extra $5 million to each team on top of what the league already doles out.