It had already been a rough few days for a sports fan of my allegiances when Michigan and MSU tipped off on Sunday. I suppose I should mention what those are, first. When MSU football is in its offseason, I'm a pro and college hockey fan first and foremost, followed closely by college basketball. Everything else is detritus, filling the WWL's airtime.
So. Both American hockey teams had faceplanted in Sochi, competing only with each other for the Most Gutwrenching Defeat silver medal, because Russian hockey obviously takes gold in that particular event (but what's worse: blowing a 2-goal lead with three minutes to play, but at least confining your failure to a short timeframe; or watching your formerly prolific offense wither away into a desert of nothingness for 6 entire periods? Who cares. These things are awful and both of them happened).
MSU hockey did nothing to make it any better. Predictably, the Spartans got sandblasted in their first-ever series in the Kohl Center, after which the merriest thought that could cross my mind vis-a-vis the MSU hockey team was 'at least we still beat Penn State.' But that team is completely rudderless right now, and every series against superior opposition on both the ice and the bench makes Tom Anastos look a little less capable of raising this wreck from the depths. Were it not for Jake Hildebrand's brilliance, MSU hockey's victories this season could probably be counted on one hand. This, from the team that won a national title seven short years ago.
Oh, and now Henrik Zetterberg is likely done for the season, so the Red Wings' streak of 22 consecutive playoff appearances will probably come to an end. So as far as the NHL goes, I'm relegated to rooting against the Blackhawks. Fun stuff. Go Kings, or whoever.
My point in describing the enveloping ennui I'm mired in due to hockey is that, for me, there should have been a lot riding on Sunday's basketball game. I can't get excited about baseball while there's snow on the ground, and I'm an MSU fan, fergawdsakes. March is supposed to be my favorite time of year.
To be realistic, though, most MSU fans have long since tempered our expectations for this year. The spate of injuries have disrupted the team's flow and chemistry enough that even a midseason loss to a Big East also-ran wasn't much of a surprise. But this was still a team with plenty of talent on the court, a team that had run off 14 straight wins at one point, and that held a half-game lead over Michigan for the conference title going into Sunday's game.
For 3/4s of the game, it looked as though MSU had a good chance of winning. In the first half, the Spartans built an 11-point lead, but as Michigan chipped away at it, Izzo kept his timeouts in his pocket, as is his immensely frustrating custom (I seriously cannot remember the last time he used his first timeout with more than a minute left in the first half, regardless of circumstances. The Nebraska game, when Pitchford was going Full Coble in the first half, is another prime example of this). MSU by 2 at halftime.
I've often said, when noting what look like strange personnel decisions, that I'm in no position to question Tom Izzo's use of his players. And so, when Keith Appling starts and is supposedly full-go, has supposedly been shooting just fine in practice, I have no reason to doubt his efficacy in game action. Until I see him play, that is. Appling's stats aren't that bad, exactly; 3-4 FGs, 6 points, 2 assists and 2 turnovers. But his complete lack of a functional shot is apparent, and Michigan adjusts accordingly.
And then there's the Russell Byrd Experience. For those of you unfamiliar with the Byrdman, I'll summarize his story. He came in with Appling and Payne as the supposed third star of what should have been a brilliant recruiting class, a lights-out shooter who chose Izzo over Calipari. I like him already, don't you? Unfortunately, multiple serious foot injuries forced Russ to take a redshirt, and after his slow recovery, he has become a favorite whipping boy of the MSU fanbase- perhaps justifiably so, as his reputedly brilliant shot tends to vanish in games. These days, his confidence is, to the outside observer, so nonexistent that he doesn't even pretend he's going to shoot anymore. The rest of his game hasn't really developed much, and it might be charitable at this point to say he's not bringing much to the floor except decent size on the wing.
Byrd's contribution to Sunday was, in 5 minutes, to be beaten badly, once by Glenn Robinson III and once by Caris LeVert, on drives to the basket in which he fouled the driver, but not hard enough to prevent the basket. Those 6 points were an enormous drain on MSU's first-half momentum, and shrank the lead to 2 at halftime. Those 2 fouls were the only thing keeping Byrd away from an impressive 5 trillion- meaning he played 5 minutes, but registered no stats.
And the defense...oh, the defense. One of the major conference-wide storylines this season has been Wisconsin's transformation from a defensive grinder into a more offense-oriented, finesse-style team, but until recently, I didn't realize how much that label could be applied to MSU as well. The way MSU's transition defense in particular crumbled down the stretch, when stops were most essential, was a strange thing to watch.
If you have somehow come to this point in this article without knowing the result in this game, here comes the punchline: Michigan won, by nine, and probably should have won by more than that.
And I can't even be mad about it. Because they were the better team. When they were down in the first half, they fought back. They made better adjustments at halftime. And they very clearly wanted it more than an MSU team that looked disinterested at best for most of the afternoon.
I don't know exactly when or why the world was turned on its head like this. Maybe Brandon Dawson's absence is the difference between these teams this year. Maybe Beilein is one of the few coaches who has Izzo's number. Maybe there's a motivation factor at work, similar to the football matchup but reversed, where one team will always want to win this game more than the other to try and win the public's respect.
Whatever it is, MSU fans have plenty of things to complain about, if we are so inclined (we would never, amirite). Matt Costello's continued inability to stay out of foul trouble. Appling playing at all when his shot is clearly not right and his wrist will be needed for the Big Dance. Byrd getting any minutes that could be given to Alvin Ellis III or Kenny Kaminski, both of whom are arguably better players already and certainly have higher ceilings. Timeout usage in general. Yet another display of piss-poor officiating, though there were at least bad calls in both directions. Nik Stauskas' stupid face. Man, is his face stupid. And Canadian, no less. Michigan fans had the gall to wave around a Canadian flag not two days after the national disgrace that was being beaten by Canada in something. Disgusting.
But, considering this was a loss to Spartan enemy #1 in a game with enormous conference title implications, I got over it quick. Like, confusingly quick. When GRIII threw down an alley-oop with about two and a half minutes left, I knew it was over. And I didn't even swear. I didn't look for something durable to throw at another durable thing. I got up, freshened my Detroit cooler, and asked what else was on. Ooh, more white people sliding down a hill on skis.
Earlier in my life, a great many things worried me. School, relationships, family, the future, everything of any real consequence, really. I noticed last year that, even though many of these things are as uncertain and tumultuous as they've ever been, that I'm not nearly as stressed out about any of it anymore. Personally, I think the pressure of studying for the bar exam two summers ago may have simply cracked me. Like, my give-a-fuck is permanently damaged because of that strain. But, like a pitcher recovering from Tommy John, I believe that I have emerged from that stronger than I was before it.
The one part of my life where existential concern persisted was in my sports fandom. This, despite the fact that sports fandom is the one prominent aspect of my existence that is entirely beyond my control.
There was I time when I hated giving Michigan credit for anything. Hated it. Like, to the point I once tried to argue Wayne State's medical school is better than Michigan's. Did you read that? I wasn't ever arguing that MSU has a better med school; I carried the banner for Wayne State because it gave me a chance to be contrary to someone touting U of M's quality. And sure, I may have been intoxicated, and 21 years old, and arguing with an obnoxious Michigan fan, but there was a time when no amount of evidence could force me to utter a positive thing about U of M in general, let alone their athletics, which represented the pinnacle of everything wrong about that horrid place.
Well, no more. I've long since come around to the quality of the medical school, but it's time to complete the circle and confront an uncomfortable, but inevitable, truth: Michigan's the class of the conference this year. Consulting the remaining schedules, I expect that to be vindicated by at least a 2-game margin. And even if Michigan stumbles and MSU forces a draw recordwise, the results on the court tell us who was better this year.
Don't get me wrong; I still hate Michigan. Stauskas still has a stupid face. Jordan Morgan is still a goon with no discernible skill other than constantly whacking dudes and not getting called for it. But I like Beilein. And I feel bad that GRIII is inevitably going to be compared to his dad for the rest of his career, which probably won't be as illustrious. So congratulations on a well-earned victory and conference title. Yep, it's definitely already in the bag. No need to worry about any remaining opponents, just go ahead and relax, it's already locked up.