By Michael James
The Tribe Sports
Quick question: what are the odds that Michigan basketball wins the Big Ten next season?
They have pretty much everybody coming back. Should have a great chance, right?
While we’re at it, Michigan football is already favored to beat an Urban Meyer-less Ohio State team months before fall practice begins.
And Michigan fans, well, we can’t wait to see that, can we?
The thing about these tantalizing possibilities is that they each will come after enough time has elapsed for us to forget that Michigan – almost always, these days – fails when the competition gets rough and the going gets tough.
Both in football and in basketball.
You have noticed this familial trait, haven’t you?
Before you shoot down the messenger with omnipresent chants of “Go Blue,” and “hater,” the fact is I’ve always loved Michigan sports, from the first time I saw that winged Maize and Blue helmet with Rick Leach tossing darts to Jim Smith.
That’s a long time now – even before John Wangler to Anthony Carter.
But having spent years as a sportswriter in Detroit and New York City, I also developed the objectivity to step far enough outside my feelings to give an honest critique of my childhood teams.
And here it is: Michigan’s teams, both in football and basketball, play a finesse style of game that simply melts when faced with hard-nosed competition. Quite simply, they lack edge and attitude.
That’s been in evidence for nearly 15 years of Big Ten football and even longer when it comes to basketball.
This is not to say that both programs aren’t great, because not many around the country win as much or as consistently as they do. The trouble is that Michigan football and basketball never really win when it counts.
That is not Haterade. It’s fact. Part of the historical record.
Both teams often start relatively high in the polls and flirt with ascending to the mantle of the top team in the nation – until it counts.
Then they fall apart.
For the football team, this usually happens against Ohio State. In basketball, heartbreak can be expected – like clockwork – in the NCAA tournament.
Michigan is, sorry to say, king of the polls and also fool’s gold.
The issue, in my humble estimation, is in the type of athlete Michigan routinely recruits – full of flash and finesse, yet rarely dogs with chips on their shoulders like, say, Michigan State and Ohio State.
They play hard, no doubt, but this comes out mostly when they’re ahead. They’re front-runners.
When they get hit in the mouth, however, they seem to wilt from the figurative sight of their own blood.
Yet, Michigan football fans lustily debate being mentioned in the same sentence as Alabama and Clemson, despite the fact that you can see a clear rise in the level of competition when those teams play.
Michigan basketball? Same deal.
Think about what you saw in three games – all losses – against Michigan State this season. While you can argue that the Spartans were simply the better team, what’s interesting is that MSU had to rally back in each of those games and did it with a grit and desire that you just don’t see in the Wolverines.
And, say what you will about Michigan State football, but their players often aren’t as celebrated as the Wolverines, but they are down in the trenches fighters who give Michigan fits each and every time they play, no matter the supposed advantage in talent.
Back to Michigan basketball. Next season, they’ll again trot out a 6-foot point guard in Zavier Simpson who can’t shoot nor create his own shot (against TT, he had 1 assist, 1 rebound and was the only Michigan starter to go scoreless, by the way) – and quite likely make it back to this same place again.
But that’s not – and won’t be enough – if you truly care more about winning national champions than where Michigan sits in the national polls.
The message should be clear for both Jim Harbaugh and John Beilein: finesse players are great, pretty and flashy, but you need some dogs to win it all.
Until Michigan starts going after these types of players, oh, they’ll still win – a lot – but you can expect more of what you see annually against Ohio State on the gridiron and Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen.
Michael James has spent more than 20 years in sports journalism as a general assignment reporter with the Detroit News, an NBA beat writer for the New York Daily News and as head writer for ESPN’s Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith.