Standing in the tunnel, just off of the Crisler Center floor outside the locker rooms, Greg Byrne was fulfilling the responsibilities of the coolest job in the world. Glad-handing friends of the program and telling people he didn’t remember that he most certainly remembered them, he stank of charm and victory. When it was my turn to shake the Athletic Director’s hand, I said, “Greg, I really like the sports.” He chuckled and told me he shared those sentiments and carried on through the crowd.
I most certainly do enjoy the sports, I confirmed as much by flying to Ann Arbor for 40 hours of collegiate fun. I also confirmed with the wait staff at Ashley’s on State Street that their establishment was indeed not named for Brandon Ashley who had just scored 18 non-Wolverine points that afternoon. I’m not sure I’m welcome back.
What was further confirmed in Michigan was that these ‘Cats are deserving of their number one ranking. That they’re equal parts balanced, talented, tough, and fortunate. A special combination that suggests North Texas. They took every possible blow from a talented albeit youthful Wolverine squad and responded. As I’ve noted many times on PacHoops, it isn’t necessarily what you do but how you respond. As Arizona needed a moment – a stop, a basket, a something – they got it. I’ll note my two favorites:
- Cuffed by foul trouble and general bouts of ineffectiveness, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was not enjoying his time in Crisler. The new rules were being called to the T and RHJ had tapped a few too many players. Four to be exact. But with Arizona down a deuce and everyone beginning to recognize that the Wolverines might really knock #1 off, Nick Johnson found a streaking Hollis-Jefferson who found his way by a Wolverine, absorbed the harm, and finished. Perhaps it was the two points and/or extra point Brady Hoke couldn’t find but Hollis-Jefferson scored one basket on Saturday and it gave Arizona their first lead since early in the first half.
- I was tempted to tell someone – twitter or text or the guys next to me – but I thought the better. I wanted to see things play out, see the mettle of these Wildcats, before I started looking for pieces that might not be so obviously there. Because a season ago it Mark Lyons’ ball. Now I say that knowing it didn’t matter if there were 15 seconds or 15 minutes remaining but for better or worse, Mark and everyone else knew that he was going to be making the play in the moment. We loved him for it. We hated him for it. For my money Lyons was our guy and I liked it. Alas, I refrained from putting my thoughts into the public space. What I was thinking was that Arizona could really use a Lyons-type in these final two minutes. Where was the ball going to go? The Wolverines twice had gone to Nik Stauskas and that makes good sense because he’s good. I suggested Arizona try and steal him back to Tucson. They did not. But with the score standing about equal and the clock sprinting for zeros, where was the ball going to hang out? Arizona had run its offense deliberately for 38 minutes and with sound effectiveness. But could that work in the hectic moments of a monster game? Well what came to be didn’t necessarily surprise but rather should scare the hell out of the rest of everyone. Brandon Ashley took the ball at McGary feigned his way to the right, muscled McGary off, and banked in the Wildcats’ 64th and 65th points. Needing a basket, Arizona went to Brandon Ashley and he made a professional grade basketball play. I said that to the strangers next to me and was later informed by friends that they too immediately called it an NBA move. Now that’s coming from the kid that I’ve long thought whatever you get from him is icing on the cake. That’s not necessarily a knock on Ashley, but more a recognition of the consistent and solid output of Johnson and Gordon. Arizona’s third option became its go to option and he made a play that no other player on the roster could make.
It was a wonderful display of competition performed by the maize and red teams. John Beilein is a fantastic coach and Stauskas can play. I tend to take anything a fan base says about their own with a grain of salt but all of the “Glenn Robinson III is as talented as anyone” talk wasn’t hyperbole. UM fans are right that he could take games over – and he did such in the first half – with a more assertive mentality. McGary isn’t an All-American but Caris LeVert sure could be. The Crisler Center was beautiful and a great place to take in a ball game. It wasn’t the rowdiest place I’ve been but we were there for the wrong sport. I walked away understanding very clearly that we were at a football school. Had the game been next door and played by 11 players a side, 110,000 people would’ve showed up to watch outside through a miserable snow storm. Six total inches of snow fell during my stay. I asked countless locals how we could sneak into that stadium but eventually succumbed to the cold and liquor. We had a town to paint red.
But even with regards to that, we didn’t last long. Waking up at 830am local time (EST) equates to 530am home time (PST) and there just wasn’t enough gas in the tank. Bed was acquired by 11pm and I never made it to the famous Zingerman’s. We did make it, however, to Rick’s Friday night. The place was a riot. It smelled of college and if you don’t know what that means then go buy a 12-pack of cheap beer, cheaper whiskey, and a plastic bottle of vodka. Get some food coloring, seven-up and a colorful looking soda that’s definitely off brand. Do not spend more than $20 on these items and pour them all over the ground with remixed hip hop, your best dance moves, a crumpled one dollar bill, a shred of hope, some invincibility, and none of your maturity. If available, include vomit and sweat in this adulteration. For authenticity. Jump up and down on this in your oldest shoes with a hat on backward and that’s the smell of college. Rick’s was everything I’d been warned of. Who’s coming with me next weekend?
Enter at your own risk.
Yes we got the full Ann Arbor experience and our team won, too. It was a great weekend and this flight I’m on right now hurts. Most specifically my head but I’ve got an Arizona shirt on and I couldn’t disagree with the man in the bathroom line when he told me “that Sean Miller has got one fine ball club over there.” I couldn’t disagree with him one bit.
Back to that tunnel. With Byrne all smiles and family members giddy to see their game winning sons, we just sort of hovered. Basking in victory and the excitement of it all, we heard a familiar voice from behind us, “Quite a turn out from you Arizona fans. Well done.” Well I like compliments so that’s nice. We turned to thank the voice.
“I’ll see you all in Dallas,” said Jim Nantz.
He might be right. Do they have Rick’s there?