The Michigan basketball team took center stage this week but flopped in its matchup with rival Michigan State, suffering a 23-point blowout loss.
Michigan beaten up by physical Spartans
Entering the contest 1-2 in their last three, and coming off an overtime loss to Wisconsin, the Maize and Blue couldn't match MSU's intensity and trailed 38-24 at the half. Leading comfortably, and with U-M posing no threat, the Green and White coasted to a 75-52 victory - the largest advantage in the series in 11 years - as Michigan State moved to the forefront of the Big Ten standings (10-2) and dropped Michigan two games back in the race (8-4).
What They're Saying
Our own John Borton didn't mince any words after this one, writing that "the Wolverines were indeed bullied, belted and flat-out busted by a more physical, significantly more aggressive crew of Spartans. On a dream night for taunting Spartans fans, John Beilein's team absorbed a beating only the Washington Generals could tolerate."
The Detroit News' columnist Bob Wojnowski gives MSU credit for raising their game, and for proving that while the Maize and Blue may be on the rise, they'll still have to go through the Spartans, penning "The Wolverines have made obvious strides under John Beilein, and that should continue. But in the process, I have a feeling they ignited Tom Izzo and the Spartans. That's how rivalries work. The first top-10 showdown between these teams in history had to inspire Michigan State, which has been rumbling along quite nicely for 15 years without much of a threat.
"The threat showed up Tuesday night looking to see where it stood. What the Wolverines learned shouldn't shock anyone who has watched Izzo's teams. When threatened, the Spartans bow their backs and fight back. You show you're in charge by taking charge and that's what they did, pound by pound."
Finally, MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner addressed the elephant in the room - the idea that maybe Michigan simply isn't physically and emotionally strong enough: "The recurring theme in Michigan's four losses this season has been its toughness, or lack thereof, against teams that pride themselves on playing physical defense.
"Against Michigan State, the Wolverines were battered physically all night long. And not just in the traditional sense, either.
"Just like Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin, the Spartans hedged Michigan's ball screen hard. They took away Trey Burke's passing lanes and they were physical with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III.
"That physical defense led to 16 Michigan turnovers, which led to run-out points, which led to a blowout. And no one, except for Burke, responded."
My Take: One could very easily make excuses for the Wolverines. This was Michigan's fourth game in 12 days, against the likes of Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State, with all but the OSU game on the road. That's a brutal stretch, and after a heartbreaking loss to the Badgers on Saturday, it would be understandable if U-M was spent emotionally and physically.
But that's an excuse and for a team that had been ranked No. 1 nationally, and has aspirations to win the Big Ten title and contend for the Final Four, losing so decidedly against your biggest rival is a huge red flag.
These are the moments that are difficult, but championship teams fight through the pain and the exhaustion, they claw their way to success if they have to, but we didn't see any of that Tuesday. We saw Michigan fail to match the intensity of its opponent yet again, and we saw the Wolverines fold the moment the momentum tilted in the Spartans' direction.
Maybe none of that matters in the long run. The NCAA Tournament generally favors guard play and teams that can score, and U-M has, arguably, one of the nation's top backcourts. The Wolverines could go on a run, win four or more games in NCAA play and this loss gets pushed aside - of course U-M may have cost itself a 1 or a 2 seed so the road gets more challenging -- but psychologically a program on the rise was humbled by an in-state rival that announced loudly that it's not going anywhere.
And perhaps that's the biggest message to take out of this. Michigan State is still Michigan State, and the Spartans intend to fight to remain the state's best program, willing to put on the boxing gloves and pummel their foe into submission. Will the Wolverines get back in the ring and spar? Are they willing to fight with everything they have to be the top dog? We may get that answer March 3 in the rematch or it may take a few years, but it's up to the Maize and Blue to respond after getting knocked to the canvas.
Glenn Robinson III's production, reputation fall
February has not been kind to the freshman forward. In Michigan's four games this month, Robinson is averaging 4.5 points and is shooting 29.2 percent from the floor and 20.0 percent from the arc. His rebounding numbers have also dropped from 5.8 per game in the first 21 contests to just 3.3 per night.
What They're Saying
ESPN.com's Chad Ford has dropped Robinson from the No. 18 overall NBA Draft prospect to No. 22, acknowledging the difficult stretch the rookie is going through, but noting he's culpable: "The raw ability is there, but Robinson hasn't looked ready for prime time in several weeks."
While not pinning Michigan's 1-3 mark on Robinson alone, MLive.com's Baumgardner paints a pretty vivid picture of what his disappearance has meant to the Wolverines: "Go deeper, and you'll see how much value a healthy Robinson brings to Michigan, and how much pain a struggling Robinson causes.
"When the 6-foot-6 freshman scores at least 10 points, Michigan's 15-0 with an average margin of 17.9 points per game. When he shoots worse than 40 percent, the team is 5-4, averaging 68.7 points per game -- eight fewer than its season average of 76 per contest.
"There's a reason why he's started all 25 games this season. When he's locked in, he's a difference-maker.
"When he's not? He also makes a difference, but not in the way the Wolverines want.
"If he produces, Michigan should be just fine. If he doesn't?
"Well, the numbers aren't lying."
My Take: Admittedly, I don't cover the basketball team but in talking to hockey coach Red Berenson for 11 years, he continually reminds me how important confidence is to a player's impact. A young man can have all the talent in the world, but if his confidence starts to suffer, his game can collapse. On the ice, we've seen that with seniors A.J. Treais and Lee Moffie, both captains that have been two of U-M's worst players over the past two months.
On the court, it appears Robinson has lost his confidence, even going up tentatively for the dunks that he threw down with authority in the first semester. So the question is: how do you get it back? There's no easy solution. Sometimes it can takes weeks, if it comes back at all. But Berenson always said the key was to control what you could control, largely effort, especially on the defensive side of the ice (ball), and chip away offensively until something breaks your way.
Michigan fans can only hope Robinson re-finds his confidence before the postseason because as Baumgardner noted, an unproductive rookie is bad, bad news for the Wolverines.
Running back Fitz Toussaint vows to be ready for fall camp
After rushing for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011, Toussaint said his goal was 1,600 yards as a junior in 2012. But the 5-10, 202-pounder missed the first game of the season, suspended following a DUI, and never returned to form, rushing for only 514 yards before suffering a broken leg in a week-11 win over Iowa. Toussaint had averaged 81.0 yards and 5.2 yards per carry in the two games preceding the Iowa contest.
What They're Saying
Angelique Chengelis from The Detroit News has the full scoop on Toussaint, detailing his exhaustive year: "Last spring while Michigan was going through practice, Toussaint learned his mother, Elaine, had been in a car accident that nearly left her paralyzed. During surgery, her blood pressure was so high, Toussaint said doctors told him it was a miracle she survived.
"Several months later, in July, Toussaint was arrested in Ann Arbor for DUI. He was suspended from the team and missed the opener against Alabama.
"Then the injury.
"Accelerating his return to football is Toussaint's focus.
"He has regained the weight, and his recovery is several weeks ahead of schedule. There is some slight swelling, but he doesn't have to wear a brace. He's jogging and lifting weights and he's putting in extra work running sprints and doing lateral-movement cone drills, and he intends to watch film a half-hour each day.
"Toussaint is not ruling out some participation in spring practice, which begins March 16."
My Take: I spoke to Toussaint Tuesday at the Michigan Alumni Network Dinner and he shared a similar expectation that he will at least take part in the running drills with his teammates this spring. That would be incredible, and it would be even more incredible if he was ready for fall camp after the gruesome leg injury.
Toussaint is motivated. He understands that 2012 was a disappointing year on the field as well as off, and he feels he has so much more to prove after demonstrating an ability to be a No. 1 ball carrier in 2011. With a highly-touted freshman arriving also (Derrick Green), Toussaint understands he has to fight to keep that window open for himself.
Perhaps the best-case scenario for Michigan is the re-emergence of Toussaint as a 20-carry, 100-yard, 1,200-yard back and then the contribution of Green, who can bring a toughness to the ground attack.
Toussaint has been there, done that, and deserves every opportunity to be the guy again, but that's all he deserves - an opportunity.
Ohio State infiltrates the state of Michigan
On Jan. 13, Ohio State pulled of a surprise when it landed four-star Detroit Cass Tech cornerback Damon Webb, considered a likely member of Michigan's 2014 class, and then secured a commitment (since rescinded) by Southfield defensive end Lawrence Marshall just this week. Both in-state players held U-M offers.
What They're Saying
The Toledo Blade's David Briggs notes that the Buckeyes are responding in kind to the continued efforts by Michigan to poach recruits from the state of Ohio: "It is part of a relentless effort by Buckeyes coaches to mine a state the program has traditionally overlooked - and a personal matter, too. With Michigan only strengthening its traditional inroads in Ohio under coach Brady Hoke - the Wolverines have signed 18 Ohioans in their last two classes - OSU's Urban Meyer does not intend to let those raids go unanswered."
My Take The state of Michigan produces 20-25 Division I prospects every year, of which four to eight rank among the top talents available in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and other upper-echelon states. As the article noted, Jim Tressel ignored Michigan during his 10 years, signing only six players from the Great Lakes State, but there is no legitimate reason to turn a blind eye to a neighboring state that could provide a few elite recruits every year.
Is there more motivation than that? Could it truly be a case of Meyer proving to Hoke that for every Ohioan the Wolverines sign, the Buckeyes will try to return the favor? Potentially, while knowing that it deals a significant blow to the Maize and Blue who may have been counting on those three or four in-state studs.
It is never OK for Michigan to lose out on a marquee prospect in its home state (though it has happened), but this might be one of those years, because of limited scholarship availability and certain needs that must be filled, that a few more go elsewhere as U-M puts up a sign: "no room in the inn."
Losing Webb was a shock because of the Wolverines' relationship with Cass Tech, and with the kid, but Michigan must address bigger needs than defensive back this year. If it fails to sign defensive end Malik McDowell and/or wide receiver Drake Harris then there is cause for concern.