by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEATTLE — There are nights when the Michigan Wolverines play basketball as if God controlled their bodies, and there are nights when they play as if they were asleep in church. Friday was the latter.

Congratulations, fellas. In a season full of amazing feats, this was a real coup: You managed to win a tournament game and lose respect.

“It wasn’t our best effort,” said Jalen Rose, after Michigan survived against 12th-seeded George Washington, 72-64, and advanced to the final eight.
“We need a little fine-tuning.”

Fine-tuning? They need a cable box. Against a GW team that basically came out, put its head in the guillotine and said, “Go ahead, chop it off,” U-M sank into a lazy mess that gave heart attacks to every basketball traditionalist from Terre Haute to Pauley Pavilion. They got sloppy, overconfident, forgot to box out, threw balls away, traveled, charged, forgot to box out, stepped on out-of-bounds lines, took bad shots, forgot to box out, missed free throws and forgot to box out.

And I don’t want to hear the words “wake-up call” one more time. This is the NCAA tournament. You’re not supposed to sleep through it.

“We played terrible,” Chris Webber admitted. “We should be ashamed — no, we shouldn’t be ashamed. We won.”

They won. That’s the remarkable thing. They found something inside, made some amazing plays, stole some rebounds, and when they looked up, they were on the right side of the scoreboard yet again. You know what I saw late in the game, with Ray Jackson going to the free-throw line and Michigan clinging to a two-point lead? I saw him start laughing. Really. And then Jimmy King started laughing. Their whole season, on the line, the most embarrassing loss they could picture staring them in the face, and this is what they do. They start laughing.

You don’t know whether to kiss ’em or kill ’em. Maybe this was typical

And yet, these are the Wolverines. Truth is, they haven’t dominated their opponents all year. They haven’t boxed out all year. They haven’t avoided turnovers all year. So was it really a shock that they fell victim to the same bad habits again Friday night?

Oh, maybe we all thought after the UCLA game, they would never take an opponent lightly again. Yeah. Right. And I’m never gonna eat another dessert. Season-long habits don’t die that quickly, and you wonder, as you make plans to watch the game Sunday, just how much of this Fab Five legend is real and how much is smoke. If Michigan is indeed, as many say, the most-talented team in the country, are fans supposed to be impressed with a mediocre win over the No. 16 seed (Coastal Carolina) and struggles against the No. 9 (UCLA) and No. 12 (GW)? How many more rounds can the Wolverines survive?

Not against other teams. Against themselves.

Exasperating? Here was a 15-2 lead disappearing in a sea of bad passes and lack of concentration. Rose steps on the line. Webber loses control. Jackson throws it away.

And yet, here they are in the final minutes, hitting free throws to ice it.

Exasperating? All we heard going into this game was Yinka Dare, the Colonials’ 7-foot-1 Nigerian Nightmare. Stop him and you can stop this team. So what happens? Dare barely plays, is shut down, finishes with NO POINTS.

And Michigan is still trailing with eight minutes to play!

Exasperating? Here were the Wolverines getting outrebounded like grade-schoolers — GW had 10 offensive rebounds at the half — and yet in the final minutes, here came King, sliding in on a U-M free-throw miss and stealing the rebound, then Jackson did the same thing. And King did it again. Three times? On their own free throws? They can rebound those, but they can’t get defensive boards?

“We just weren’t into it, for some reason,” said King. “Instead of us pumping each other up after every play, it was like, ‘OK, you take it.’ Or,
‘You make the play.’

“I don’t know why. I’m guilty of it myself.”

What he is also guilty of is one of the worst cases of trash-talking ever captured by TV cameras. With Michigan racking up the big lead early, King caught an alley-oop pass and slammed it home. Instead of just running downcourt, he stuck his face within inches of Sonni Holland, the defender, and screamed: “YAHHHHHH!” This, of course, was captured by the cameras and replayed over and over.

So now there’s nobody left who’s rooting for these guys. Emotion was missing

But that, too, is what you get with Michigan. You’ll notice that primal yell came at the only pure highlight period of this game. Michigan plays on that kind of emotion, True, you watch U-M fall into these lapses, and you wonder what the coaching staff is doing. Have these kids never faced a press before, that they are so flustered by one? Have they never faced a zone before, that it throws them off so much? Do they never work on offensive rebounding or boxing out, that they are so bad at it for much of the game?

Despite the huge sags in Friday’s game, coach Steve Fisher never called a time-out just to settle his group. And he once again went with the Fab Five for the lion’s share of the minutes — the starters played all but 25 of the 200. Fisher seems to have made peace with that: He’ll win with them or lose with them.

Whether he can influence them seems up in the air.

Weren’t they supposed to learn their lesson from UCLA? Wasn’t that the proverbial wake-up call? Will nothing short of the championship game capture their attention for the full 40 minutes? Webber, Rose and Juwan Howard turned the ball over five times each Friday night. That’s lack of concentration more than anything else.

“I hate when nights like these happen,” Webber admitted. “But it seems whenever we come up against a moment where we could choke, where it would be easy to choke, we always do something to win. We do something to outshine our bad efforts.”

Michigan fans would settle for fewer bad efforts.

“Oh, I don’t think we’ll play any more games the rest of this tournament like we played today,” Webber said. “I’m positive we won’t.”

He paused.

“I’m almost positive.”

The regional final is Sunday.

Bring aspirin.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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