ATLANTA — I don’t want to sound psychic, but the moment I saw East Tennessee State come out for warm-ups, I knew this game was over. I was eye-to-eye with the players, for pete’s sake! I haven’t been eye-to-eye with a basketball player since I found one sleeping in his car.
Here was Jason (Shorty) Niblett and Eric (Shorty) Palmer and Calvin (Shorty) Talford and a host of other ETSU guys who, with the exception of 6-foot-11 Greg Dennis — and he carries as much weight as a No. 2 pencil — didn’t exactly measure up to the task. Yes. I know the Buccaneers upset Arizona the other day. But Arizona is not Michigan, not in climate and not in basketball team. Obviously not in hang time.
These Wolverines may be young, but they are big. And they are fast. And they enjoy fresh air, especially that fresh air up around the rim. They like to soar up high, take a deep breath, maybe snap a few photographs — and then ram the ball through the hoop.
The result, Sunday afternoon, was two games; one played down here, and one played up there. I don’t want to say Michigan advanced to the Round of 16 by performing on a different level than East Tennessee State. I did, however, see the players fitted for parachutes.
Strategy is good. Tempo is good. Defense is good.
Height is better.
“I’m not ragging on them or anything, but they are, you know, short,” said Jimmy King, who had so many flying dunks in this 102-90 victory that I lost count. And he’s a guard! Add his total to all the turnaround jumpers center Juwan Howard (23 points) threw over the helpless ETSU defenders and all the soft lay-ups Chris Webber (30 points) dropped in as ETSU looked up in awe and you pretty much have the story of Round 2.
Dunk. Slam. Alley-oop.
Who can spare a ladder?
“Do you remember anyone getting a hand in your face all day?” Jalen Rose was asked, after he scored 19 points.
“Nah,” he answered.
Of course not. The guys covering him were 5-foot-6 (Palmer) or 5-foot-11
(Niblett) or, the big man, 6-foot-4 (Talford).
And Rose is 6-foot-8.
And can jump over the basket.
Which he threatened to do several times, along with the rest of his high-flying teammates. There were so many alley-oop passes in this game the referees should have been blowing penny-whistles. Here comes Rose, a no-look lob to Ray Jackson. Slam! Here comes Rose again, a no-look lob to Webber. Slam! Spectators who hadn’t seen Michigan play all year were left with jaws agape and eyes rolling, particularly on the piece de resistance in the first half, where Howard lobbed the ball in from the free-throw line and Webber leapt high, intercepted it, one-handed, on his way down, and mashed it through the rim.
“Unbelievable,” was the word I heard most often uttered.
“Can we get a ladder?” was East Tennessee State’s response.
Now, let me say right here that short teams can do great things in basketball. Maybe even win a national championship. But they need other strengths to compensate. Against Arizona, the Buccaneers found such strengths in their quickness, their pressing defense and their three-point shooting.
But against Michigan, their trump cards were matched. The Wolverines like few things better than a team that challenges their speed. And that speed also can break a press, and let them tighten the defense on those water bug guards.
“It was scary today,” said ETSU’s Rodney English, a 6-4 forward. “I was almost afraid to miss a shot because they would get the rebound, and then they were off to the races. I have never played against anyone who got after me the way they did.”
“Michigan is huge,” said Bucs coach Alan LeForce. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they make it to the Final Four. . . .” It doesn’t get any easier
You know what? Neither would I. The talent is there. The size is there. The speed is there. And, frankly, this business about the starters being freshmen is a little overdone. First of all, it’s an advantage, I think, to be a freshman during March Madness, because you don’t even know what you’re doing. You’ve never failed in an NCAA tournament, so you don’t fear the consequences. You play loose and go for broke.
Besides, these kids — Webber, Rose, Howard, King, Jackson — are not exactly babes in the woods of spotlight. They have all been through big pressure and national media attention when they were in high school. And they had plenty during U-M’s regular season. “The only difference,” Howard told reporters Sunday, “is that there’s more of you now.”
Having said all that, I must say this: The Wolverines still haven’t proven everything. Even with Sunday’s victory. Yes, they showed they can handle the pressure of the first round. But both teams they faced they should have beaten. Temple wasn’t in their league. And East Tennessee State had its miracle against Arizona.
This is not to take away from Michigan. After all, it could have been knocked out via upset, as were St. John’s, Kansas and USC. But winning two games against inferior teams — even if they are older and more mature — doesn’t mean you are ready to cut down the nets on a Monday night.
The next round will be the big test. Oklahoma State looms as a more than worthy opponent, and should U-M survive, North Carolina or Ohio State is next. That’s Big Time. The pretenders are gone now. The real thing beckons.
But that’s Friday. For now, the Wolverines should enjoy what they’ve done, and should revel in the memories of this game, most of which they will see from a skylight angle, looking down on all those Buccaneers hands trying desperately to reach them. Soar. Fly. Alley-oop. Dunk.
As he left the court, Jimmy King raced into the tunnel — and ran smack into a Michigan staff person carrying a cup of orange pop, which splashed all over King, soaking his uniform.
“Dang, man!” he said, laughing.
It was the only thing that touched him all day.