February 11, 2012

Mailbag: Can Wolverines win it?

The basketball season is heating up as mid-February approaches, and so is the Mailbag. It's time again for the weekly dip into the missives that bring forth burning questions.

With Michigan's win over Nebraska Wednesday, our Wolverines remain in the thick of the Big Ten race, just 1.5 games back of Ohio State and half a game back of Michigan State. What does U-M have to do, and have happen, over the last few weeks to win the conference title?

First, it has to beat Ohio State on Feb. 12. If it doesn't, there's very little chance of the Wolverines making up the kind of ground they'd need to in order to even get a share of the Big Ten crown. Michigan has six games left, and they'll probably have to go 5-1 in those, including a win over the Buckeyes, to grab a share of the title.

The Wolverines might have the easiest remaining schedule of the top trio of OSU, MSU and U-M. That doesn't mean it's easy, by any stretch. Not only does Michigan have Ohio State at home, the Wolverines have to go on the road to Northwestern and Illinois yet, and home games versus the Illini and Purdue aren't gimmes.

But the Buckeyes and Spartans have it even tougher. They both face each other twice, and the Buckeyes also have road games at Minnesota, Michigan and Northwestern. Their home games in addition to MSU involve Illinois and Wisconsin.

The Spartans get Nebraska at home, but that's really the only break. They also have Wisconsin at the Breslin Center, but have to travel to Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana, and finish the regular season with the Buckeyes at the Breslin. There are some losses lurking in that slate.

Even though he seems to be experiencing the best season of his career, Stu Douglass still doesn't seem to be a fan-favorite. Why do you think that is? And who are some other players, basketball or football, that were undervalued by the fans/media for whatever reason?

That's probably an over-generalization. There were plenty of "STUUUUUUU" chants going up when he hit the clincher a year ago at Michigan State, the four-pointer in the win over the Spartans at Crisler this year, and in a number of other clutch moments.

But he is a streaky shooter, and isn't Zack Novak when it comes to volcanic demonstrativeness, so he might lose a few fan points.

Anyway, to your question, some of the most undervalued Michigan players I've seen over the last decade are Chad Henne, Denard Robinson and the C.J. Lee/David Merritt combo.

In Henne, you had a kid who executed the unprecedented, taking a team to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl as a freshman quarterback. He was also a wart on Ernest Shazor's elbow (missed field goal block) from winning a shootout with Texas in Pasadena, one the Wolverines lost, 38-37.

But he never beat Ohio State, goes the harangue. No, he didn't. That's because the Wolverines couldn't contain Troy Smith down the stretch in 2005, letting him slip away and cash in (again). That's because Henne helped put 39 points on the board against the Buckeyes in 2006, but Michigan's defense gave up 42.

And that's because he had no business being on the field for the offense-devoid debacle of 2007. Michigan scored three points that day, and weeks later, with a healthy Henne, hung 41 on Urban Meyer and unbeatable Florida.

As for Robinson, we won't belabor this - a kid on his way to being perhaps the most productive offensive player in Michigan football history had people calling for him to be moved away from quarterback in the middle of the 2011 season.

And as seniors, Lee and Merritt were considered feel-good mascots instead of leaders/captains on a team that made a shocker of a run to the NCAA Tournament. That is, they were thus considered until they were gone, and it all fell apart the subsequent season.

I saw Denard Robinson was at the Michigan hockey game last weekend, and he's been at basketball a few times. Who is the last Wolverine athlete that was this popular, this social and truly served as the embodiment of what it meant to be a collegiate student-athlete? Has there ever been anyone like him?

I don't think there ever has been someone quite like Robinson, which is very different than saying there haven't been wildly popular student-athletes at Michigan, or ones generous with their time, etc.

For one, he's at Michigan in an era of media saturation, where his every move is monitored. If he sits with the Maize Rage, it's all over ESPN (much to the dismay of Michigan haters to the northwest, and elsewhere). The speed, the electricity on the field and in his smile, combined with the humility and the way he treats people just make him genuinely unique.

Folks talk about truly treasuring Novak and Douglass in their final few weeks in a Michigan uniform. Think about the Robinson farewell tour next season. Might be worth substantial space on the DVR.

Who do you think the coaches are most keeping an eye on during winter conditioning leading up to the start of spring practice March 17?

Look at the needs, and you'll know. Michigan has to have a center, whether it's veteran Rocko Khoury, rookie Jack Miller, Ricky Barnum moving over from guard, etc. All of these guys will draw more scrutiny than Jim Tressell in a fake nose/glasses combo at Glick Fieldhouse the week of The Game.

Up front on the other side, the contenders for spots on the defensive line draw the microscope. Will Campbell, Quinton Washington, Craig Roh, Jake Ryan and others will get serious scrutiny as to fit. Also, Michigan will be looking hard at the newcomers, such as linebacker Joe Bolden, to see how he meshes in his new surroundings.

Michigan has lines to remake, and that's Job 1.

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