MD

Sports

Friday, October 24, 2014

Advertise with us »

SportsMonday Column: Night and day

Paul Sherman/Daily
Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 17, 2013

KALAMAZOO — It’s on to Detroit.

With the NCAA men’s basketball bracket announced, the Michigan fanbase will descend en masse on the Motor City this week to watch both the men’s basketball and hockey teams duel in their respective last-chance, single-elimination games.

Somehow the scripts have been reversed, though, as these two teams travel to Detroit on completely opposite trajectories. One team captivated the nation, then limped to the finish line; the other found new ways to reach rock bottom all season, then caught fire at the last minute.

A downward spiral; a precipitous climb. Stock up, stock down. Welcome to the madness of March, my friends.

***

Go Blue. It’s a verb now, apparently.

As he started down the hallway after Michigan’s 4-3 victory over Western Michigan on Friday night, senior alternate captain Lee Moffie, sporting a goatee like the rest of the defensemen, turned back to a pack of reporters and gave a rousing “Go Blue.” Then, he made a confession.

“Our team is going blue a little too hard right now,” Moffie said.

Now, do remember that this is coming from the man that Michigan coach Red Berenson earlier this season called “gregarious and outrageous.” But maybe there’s something to this “going blue” business.

True, it really doesn’t make sense. But if we’re here to judge rallying cries, I’d take the hockey team’s new motto over the men’s basketball team’s “WE ON” any day. Come on, people.

A little Elmer’s glue, some binder twine and a new twist on a well-worn motto were the recipe that patched together this upstart Michigan hockey team. A month ago, facing the harsh reality that the Wolverines would miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989-90, Michigan readjusted its season goal: Reach the Joe.

It’s been night and day since then.

Before, it was a broken team playing selfish hockey. Now, the Wolverines have won eight consecutive games, and, with a dominant road sweep of Western Michigan in the CCHA quarterfinals over the weekend, they’ve punched their ticket to the semifinals at Joe Louis Arena.

“It’s always been Michigan,” Berenson said. “Our stock’s been going up and down like General Motors.”

Good man, that Red Berenson, and still quick — with a clever Detroit reference to boot, as Michigan will be facing off with Miami on Saturday night at the Joe, less than a mile from the General Motors headquarters. I reckon he’s been going blue longer than most of us have been alive. Don’t bet against his red-hot icers.

An EMS worker watched the Michigan-Western Michigan from the behind the glass of the Zamboni entrance at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo. After the Wolverines poured in four unanswered goals in the second period on Saturday, he gave a smile. He turned to his left and looked up into the stands, where a group of students were waving a massive Michigan flag in enemy territory.

“Do you go to Michigan?” he asked. They nodded. He pulled back his black EMS vest to reveal a large, gold ‘M’ pin on his undershirt.

He is proud now, not like when Michigan came to town back in January. He, too, is going blue.

***

Well, this was the plan all along for Beilein and Co., wasn’t it?

Buzz through the regular season; take a swipe at the regular-season Big Ten title; never drop out of the top-10 in the national rankings. Sounds like a downright delicious season.

But here’s the thing. The Michigan men’s basketball team isn’t spanking teams anymore. The highlight slams and alley-oops are intermixed with sloppy turnovers and missed threes.

The Big Ten is a man’s league, and Michigan got worked over pretty good a few times. That 21-1 record slipped to 26-7 pretty quickly, and painfully.

But the NCAA Tournament is a different animal. And now it’s time for the Wolverines and Jackrabbits to tangle in Michigan’s backyard — The Palace at Auburn Hills. The hometown boys are already 11-point favorites, but that means little, especially during the Big Dance.

Michigan was a team with Final Four expectations, but the ceiling for this team appears far lower than it did a month or two ago. A four seed in the South Division, Michigan is facing an uphill battle, fighting the odds for just about the first time all season.

***

If you’ve been following Michigan sports for a while, this seems to be life as usual: Michigan hockey is on fire, Michigan men’s basketball is tumbling and fumbling its way into the postseason. That’s not really the case, of course.

The hockey team still has to sweep the semifinals and finals at the Joe to avoid posting its first sub-.500 record since 1986-87. But here’s another history lesson: just three years ago, the Wolverines had to win the CCHA Tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, and they did it — knocking off Miami (Ohio) in the semifinals, no less.

The history of the men’s basketball team offers no such comfort. Fact is, Michigan hasn’t seen a team engineered to win like this in decades. As announcer Gus Johnson said earlier this season, Michigan has an embarrassment of riches. I’d hate to see that go to waste in the Big Dance.

Circle this Saturday on your calendar.

It could mark the historic collapse or it could signal the beginning of these Michigan teams’ second seasons.

One day, one night: the end or the beginning?

We’ll have to wait and see — plus, the basketball team has to get through South Dakota State first. It’s been night and day of late for these two programs. And now they’ve got only the guarantee of one more game.

It’s on to Detroit.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.