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September 13, 2013

The Week That Was: Hoops schedule gains respect

Devin Gardner is both a Heisman contender now and a rising NFL Draft prospect. The Notre Dame game drew incredible ratings, and the basketball team earned respect with its non-conference schedule. Here is what they're saying and my take in The Week That Was.

Michigan basketball non-conference schedule ranked fifth toughest national

With matchups against Duke, Arizona, Iowa State and Stanford, and possible dates with Kansas State, VCU and Georgetown as part of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, the Maize and Blue have upped the ante in the non-conference this season, and that approach has been recognized; ESPN.com ranks the Wolverines' non-conference slate the fifth toughest in the nation.

What They're Saying

ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan penned the article and notes that: "With Kansas State, VCU, Georgetown (and even Charlotte and Long Beach State) in the field, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off is one of the stronger nonconference events this season. The aforementioned fixture against Arizona in Ann Arbor is highly intriguing, and Hilton Coliseum is never a particularly inviting place to play. And then there's that trip to Duke -- as tough a road trip as any in the country."

Michigan State has often been given credit for its non-conference schedule, and Michigan criticized, but that will no longer be the case MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner writes: "One of the major criticisms Michigan faced during its red-hot 16-0 start to the 2012-13 season was its non-conference schedule. Some argued the Wolverines really hadn't played anyone of note during that stretch. And they certainly hadn't been tested on the road. This season, that criticism should go away."

SI.com's Andy Glockner isn't blown away, but does think it will be a challenge: "The Wolverines bring back plenty from their national final team, and serve up a schedule with many solid meals that enable a handful of wasteful-calorie snack options. The season starts soft, but a trip to Iowa State on Nov. 17 will wake things up in a hurry. Michigan's also in the good Puerto Rico Shootout (everyone wants the rematch with VCU in the semis, right?) and visits Duke in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Add in a home date with Arizona and a NYC game against Stanford and there's plenty here to chew on for Beilein's boys."

My Take: The thing that college basketball has over college football is a winner-take-all tournament at the end of the season that doesn't penalize for losing games throughout the year. That gives programs the ability to schedule difficult non-conference matchups knowing that strength of schedule will be a factor in seeding, and that becoming battle-tested will benefit in the long run. Thus, you see Michigan take a page from rival Michigan State's book and raise the stakes with its non-conference.

It's exciting and there should be four or five great matchups in November and December. Sure, the Wolverines may drop a few more contests than they did last season, but they will also learn from those experience while providing the type of buzz and energy that increase fan support and win over recruits.

Expect more schedules like this going forward.

Devin Gardner makes appearance on 2014 NFL Draft board

In its updated evaluation of the top 20 draft prospects for 2014, SI.com ranked U-M left tackle Taylor Lewan No. 3 while quarterback Devin Gardner made his first appearance on the list, at No. 16. He was the fifth QB listed.

What They're Saying

Andy Staples wrote the article and said on Gardner: "The Wolverines petitioned the NCAA to get Gardner an extra season after this one, but he may not want it. If he keeps playing the way he did against Michigan and the NFL remains enamored of read-option concepts and big-armed quarterbacks physically suited to run them, Gardner could be a hot commodity."

Baumgardner notes that Gardner's rising stock should not come as a surprise to those who have followed the NFL the past few seasons: "To Staples' point, Gardner -- a redshirt junior -- already has an NFL-caliber physique and athletic skill set. He's 6-foot-4, 210 pounds and he can move. He has a big arm, and he can extend plays with his feet. With the current NFL craze surrounding the likes of Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, it only makes sense that Gardner would be an intriguing prospect for teams if he continues to play the way he has so far."

NFL.com's Bucky Brooks goes a step further with his Gardner praise: "After witnessing Michigan's Devin Gardner's performance against Notre Dame Saturday night, I'm convinced he is not only capable of playing in the NFL but has the tools to be a franchise quarterback.

"Against Notre Dame, Gardner showed the complete array of skills coaches find desirable in a starter. He capably made strong throws to every area of the field, while also showing a deft touch dropping in teardrops near the sideline. He flashed ability to make accurate throws on the move to either direction, which makes him a terror to defend on bootlegs and naked passes. Factor in Gardner's ability to execute the zone-read and some designed quarterback runs, and he becomes a dangerous weapon in the backfield.

"With only seven starts in his collegiate career, Gardner still has a lot to learn about playing the position at a high level, but his flashes of brilliance has scouts excited about the possibilities. Given another year and a half to work through the rough spots in his game, the junior quarterback could be a tantalizing choice as a face of a franchise in the 2015 draft."

Meanwhile, ESPN.com has Gardner among its Heisman contenders, positioning him 10th and SI.com included him among its favorites, saying: "Whether or not the Michigan-Notre Dame matchup should be deemed a 'rivalry,' Gardner's performance for the Wolverines is another reason why the series remains must-watch football.

"The junior threw for four touchdowns and ran for another as he donned a No. 98 jersey to honor former Michigan great Tom Harmon. With the Wolverines nursing a four-point lead, Gardner sealed the win when he found senior receiver Drew Dileo in the end zone with 4:18 left."

USA Today has Gardner eighth in its Heisman watch: "Gardner excelled under the bright lights against Notre Dame, accounting for five touchdowns, and Heisman campaigns have historically been built on far less."

My Take: I bet Michigan fans are all hoping Brooks is right and the U-M signal-caller is the top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft because that means he's stayed put for his senior season. At the moment, that looks 50-50 at best, as Gardner and those close to him know how big of a commodity he is.

What could be a factor, however, are the other QBs available. Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater is the consensus top quarterback in the draft with Clemson's Tajh Boyd also ranked ahead of Gardner. Both represent the new breed of NFL-desired quarterbacks with similar skill sets to Gardner. Georgia's Aaron Murray and Alabama's A.J. McCarron were also ranked ahead of Gardner but they are more traditional drop-back passers.

If Gardner is only set to be the third QB taken, and fall somewhere in the 15-30 range, perhaps that will convince him to return for his senior year and the potential to be the top overall selection in 2015.

All this assumes of course that he continues to have an outstanding year and is in a position to be a first-round pick, but after doing what he did a week ago against Notre Dame, does anyone doubt that will be the case?

Michigan-Notre game earns 8.65 million viewers

Not only did the Wolverines set a new NCAA single-game attendance record, packing 115,109 people into The Big House to watch Michigan's 41-30 win over Notre Dame, but the game was also a big draw on television, with an averaged of 8.7 million viewers and a 5.3 rating. It was the most-viewed non-NFL sporting event of the weekend, according to a press release by ESPN, "delivering an average viewership that is 152 percent higher than the competition's most-viewed college football game on Saturday."

What They're Saying

Peter King is an NFL writer, but even if he took notice of the record-breaking day, laughing at the prospect of the rivalry ending: "Notre Dame and Michigan celebrated the largest crowd in college football history in Ann Arbor by apparently deciding not to play again in Ann Arbor until at least 2020, and maybe never again. Such a good idea, to give the public less of what it's crying out for."

Just for fun, thebiglead.com pointed out that 8.65 million viewers are not the end all be all: "ESPN relentlessly hyped the game all week. It was the only college football game of note on Saturday night. And somehow, more people watched Duck Dynasty last week than Notre Dame-Michigan, according to TV by Numbers. To be fair, Duck Dynasty aired on Wednesday night on A&E and was only a half hour. It was the most-watched show on cable last week with 10.4 million viewers."

Back to the game, and while Notre Dame has looked like the bad guy throughout this process, SI.com's Pete Thamel says not so fast: "The reason Notre Dame chose to pause -- not end -- this series is that the contract allowed them to do it immediately. It had nothing to do with Brian Kelly calling this a 'regional rivalry' or Brady Hoke saying the Irish were 'chickening' out of the series. The contracts with Michigan State and Purdue weren't as easy to wriggle out of, so the Irish dropped Michigan for a few seasons to accommodate its new ACC scheduling agreement, which takes up five games every year. With Notre Dame insisting on playing its traditional rivals -- USC, Stanford and Navy -- some games had to give.

"Michigan went first, but only because Michigan officials toyed with the contract language a few years ago allowing the teams to pause the deal. If the Irish are being blamed for killing the series, Michigan set up the execution."

My Take: So it's Michigan's fault that Notre Dame backed out of an agreement to play in 2015, 2016 and 2017? U-M may have amended the contract language, but it had every intention of playing three more games before both schools agreed to a hiatus in 2018 and 2019.

Thamel goes on to give a quote from Irish Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick that explains ND's decision to essentially replace Michigan with Texas over the next six seasons, and that to fit the Longhorns in, Notre Dame needed to drop one of its three rivals - Michigan, MSU or Purdue - and U-M had the easiest out.

The easiest, but Notre Dame could have worked out deals with the Spartans and Boilermakers, and didn't because … well because those teams are not Michigan and do not represent the consistent challenge that the Wolverines will provide over the next six years.

Making any other argument is making an excuse for the Fighting Irish and they're good enough to do that on their own.

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