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March 1, 2013

The Week That Was: Hardcourt loss leaves a wake

Michigan's loss to Penn State Wednesday dominated the headlines this week while the departure of defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery also made for a rough few days for the Maize and Blue.

Michigan falls in State College

Penn State entered the game winless in Big Ten play and ranked 200th in the RPI. The Nittany Lions had been showing some life lately, losing by an average of just 5.3 points in their past four defeats, but against the conference's top-five teams (Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan), PSU had fallen by an average of 14.3 points in six matchups.

However that didn't matter Wednesday; Penn State played inspired and Michigan blew a 15-point lead in the final 10 minutes to suffer a catastrophic 84-78 loss that knocked U-M out of the race for the Big Ten regular-season title.

What They're Saying

Our own Chris Balas surmised the night perfectly, noting all that was there to be had and then thrown away in an instant: "No, it wasn't the worse loss in Michigan basketball history - but it's hard to think of another one as bad offhand, other than maybe a 1994 loss at Northwestern that prevented four/fifths of the Fab Five from claiming a Big Ten championship ring. Penn State's stunning, 84-78 win likely cost the Wolverines any shot at a Big Ten title and took the bounce out of the step only a night after they'd been granted new life.

"Minnesota's win over Indiana Tuesday opened a door and was supposed to have been the springboard U-M needed to run the gauntlet of games with Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana. Instead, U-M blew a 15-point, second half lead, gave up 48 points in the second half and lost to a team that had been 0-14 in conference play.

"And now it's fair to question how they can possibly rebound from it to finish a promising season strong. They seem no closer to solving their defensive woes than they did three weeks ago, giving up wide open looks from long range, missing rotations and getting outworked early on the offensive glass."

Mlive.com's Nick Baumgardner, meanwhile, didn't mince words and raises a concern that many a Wolverine fan likely have - namely that U-M is on the down slope when it should be building towards its peak: "On Wednesday, Michigan played the role of Big Ten doormat, and after an embarrassing 84-78 loss at Penn State, the once-mighty Wolverines now find themselves dangerously close to a tailspin with just three regular season games left," Baumgardner wrote.

"A team that started the season 16-0, reached No. 1 nationally in January and had control of its Big Ten title destiny when the day started, Michigan is now 3-4 in its last seven games -- and is officially playing its worst basketball of the season."

The loss not only removed the chance to win the league crown but also has put Michigan in perilous position heading into the Big Ten Tournament, The Detroit News Rod Beard pens: "The loss to the last-place Nittany Lions, coupled with Ohio State's victory Thursday over Northwestern, dropped U-M into fifth place, a half-game behind Ohio State. If the standings hold, the Wolverines would be the fifth seed in the Big Ten Tournament - and facing 12th seed Penn State in the opening round.

"That first-round matchup could provide Michigan another opportunity to work out its significant defensive deficiencies; on the other hand, it could set the stage for an early exit or tire them out for a quarterfinal with a top team, such as potential fourth seed Ohio State."

My Take: As dire as it all seems, a win over rival Michigan State Sunday would do wonders for the Wolverines' confidence and for their postseason aspirations, and really, that's what this season is all about now. Sure, it would have been nice to enter the final game on the schedule, against Indiana March 10, playing for the Big Ten title, and certainly it appears U-M cost itself an easier rode to the Big Ten Tournament title, but for this team, all that matters is the NCAA Tournament now.

Catch fire again, advance to the Elite Eight, and all will be forgiven. However, if the Maize and Blue fall short of that goal - or worse, get bounced before the Sweet 16 like many now fear possible - this season will go down as one of the more disappointing in recent memory, akin to the 2007 football campaign.

Or perhaps a more apt comparison is the 2006 football season. For all the excitement and build-up of being No. 2, 11-0, facing No. 1 Ohio State in an epic showdown with a BCS National Championship berth on the line, how is that year remembered now? Michigan fell to the Buckeyes and then was blown out by Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl. They have nothing to show for their 11-0 start except a longing for 'what almost was.'

In the pantheon of seasons that will forever live among the all-time greats, 2006 gets brushed aside, and the 2013 basketball season is on the verge of a similar outcome unless this team rallies.

Jerry Montgomery departs

Hired to coach the three- and five-techniques along the defensive line, Montgomery did his job well, getting the most out of Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger in 2011 and Craig Roh, Will Campbell and Quinton Washington in 2012. He was also an adept recruiter.

He left to take over as the defensive line coach at Oklahoma, telling OU's official Web site, "I'm very appreciative that I was able to work with Coach Hoke and our student-athletes at the University of Michigan. There were very few situations that could have convinced me to leave Ann Arbor, but the opportunity to join Coach Stoops and a storied program like the University of Oklahoma was one of them."

What They're Saying

While coaching changes are part of the job, and U-M probably won't miss a beat with both head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison former D-Line coaches themselves, Montgomery was a great benefit on the recruiting trail, and his presence will be missed Mlive.com's Kyle Meinke wrote this week: "Montgomery was integral to the recruitment of tailback Derrick Green and defensive tackle Henry Poggi, the two highest-rated members of the Wolverines' 2013 class according to Rivals.

"He had a hand in six of the 2013 commitments overall: Offensive lineman Jake Butt, defensive lineman Taco Charlton, receiver Jaron Dukes, linebacker Mike McCray, Poggi and Green.

"He was the key recruiter for each of Michigan's 2014 commits. And, looking forward, Montgomery was Michigan's trigger man on several uncommitted prospects for 2014, including defensive end Da'Shawn Hand. The Woodbridge, Va., prospect is the country's No. 1 overall player for 2014, and lists the Wolverines among his five leaders.

"Of course, Michigan has a pretty good backup option in Mattison, largely regarded as one of the nation's most effective recruiters. He's expected to take over many of Montgomery's recruitments. But Montgomery will be missed, especially in the hotbed of Virginia and its surrounding areas. That was his primary territory, and he had built major in-roads the past couple years."

My Take: We may never know the full extent of why Montgomery left for what appears on the surface to be a lateral move. Montgomery was one of six assistants making a base pay of $205,000 for Michigan, and Oklahoma could have thrown a hefty raise at him that U-M could not (or would not) match.

Or it could have been that he didn't like sharing his position group with the head coach and the defensive coordinator, knowing as long as they were around he would never garner the recognition he deserved to lead to a coordinator position. Whatever the reason, Montgomery is gone, and the Maize and Blue are not better for it.

Not when he had proved so integral in recruiting, and that is Hoke's challenge now - to land a top recruiter. The position coaching will take care of itself, and Michigan could even re-organize responsibilities (perhaps Hoke or Mattison take over full time and a new assistant takes on special teams or tight ends, splitting the duties held by Dan Ferrigno), but it needs to grab a tireless recruiter that bonds quickly and makes top talents want to play in Ann Arbor.

Drew Henson expresses regret leaving Michigan

The former Michigan starting quarterback (2000) has agreed to become a hitting instructor for one of the New York Yankees' minor league teams, and in introducing himself to the media, Henson spoke at length to the local CBS affiliate in New York about his career.

Perhaps the most revealing to Michigan fans is Henson's admission that he regrets foregoing his senior season to sign with the Yankees, though maybe not for the reason U-M fans would like.

"When I left school, left all that on the table-to play another year at Michigan, the chance to play in the NFL and be drafted-when I made that decision to leave early, I was comfortable with it.

"Looking back now, maybe the best thing would have been just to play my 4th year of football and go through that, because the same opportunities I had in 2001 I would have had 12 months later. That goes along with everything, that looking back, having patience, not necessarily being in too much of a rush for the next thing.

"If I played my fourth year I could have made my decision, 'Hey I'm good with football.' There wouldn't be anything I didn't finish on that end, and I don't think that thought of going back to play would have been there. And maybe I would have played football if that's the decision I made. I just think that the frustrations, combined with the football opportunity, weren't something I really acknowledged or even considered until I kind of reached a frustration point where it came to mind."

My Take: While Henson didn't enjoy the career of Chad Henne or John Navarre or Elvis Grbac, he may have been the most physically talented quarterback to ever wear the winged helmet. And his numbers in an injury-shortened 2000 season - 146 of 237 (61.6 percent) for 2,146 yards with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions - showcased that immense talent that if extrapolated over a full season and another in 2001 would have put him in the conversation for best ever.

Instead what defines Henson is an ongoing battle with Tom Brady in 1998-99 that has left a sour taste in many mouths long afterwards because of Brady's success since and the feeling that he wasn't given what was due him at Michigan, and Henson's early exit, which hamstrung the Wolverines in 2001.

It would be great if Henson's story could serve as a cautionary tale for future players, but in today's athletic landscape, no person seems to learn from another. More likely we will just have to remember Henson for what he was - a terrific talent that had a great eight games, teasing Michigan and its fans while ultimately settling for a career unfulfilled.

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