Friday, March 17, 2017

March Madness

It’s that time of year. It’s the time for great highs and great lows. Today, I want to write about one of each. The great “low” happened during the Vanderbilt-Northwestern NCAA tournament round one game (unless you’re a Northwestern Wildcat fan, and then it’s a great “high”). The great “high” is what happened with the Michigan Wolverines in their Big Ten tournament championship run.

I want to start with the Vanderbilt game. For Northwestern Wildcat fans, this has been a great year. The team has set a school record for most wins in a season, and they made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in their history, earning an 8 seed against the 9-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores. At the end of the game, Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis inexplicably committed an intentional foul with 14 seconds on the clock and his team ahead by one point. Immediately, he became the reason Vanderbilt lost the game. Northwestern made both free throws and Riley LaChance missed a three-point attempt with seven seconds to go. So in our society of blame, clearly Matthew Fisher-Davis is the reason Vanderbilt lost.

I’ve written about such things before when the University of Michigan’s punter mishandled a snap on the last play of the game against Michigan State, who turned the fumble into a game-winning touchdown. Death threats were made against the punter. I argued that there was lots of “blame” to go around.  So let me make some arguments in favor of Matthew Fisher-Davis. First, the Vanderbilt Commodores snuck into the tournament with a 19-15 record. Who was their leading scorer? Yes, Fisher-Davis. My first argument is that they wouldn’t have even been in the tournament without him. So, the first round game began (with Fisher-Davis on the bench), and he substituted in and simply led the team in scoring with 22 points. The next two high scorers had 14 and 12. Fisher-Davis was 7 for 15 shooting (47%). The rest of the team was 14-40 (35%). With 7:12 left in the game and Vanderbilt down by seven points, Coach Bryce Drew called his last timeout. That meant when his team scored and went ahead with 17 seconds to play, he couldn’t call a timeout and set his defense.

So what happened in those last seven minutes? Well, Fisher-Davis scored eight of his team’s sixteen points, grabbed two rebounds, and blocked a shot. He made two of four field goal attempts and four of five free throw attempts. The rest of the team went three of eight from the floor. In the last minute and thirty-six seconds, the lead changed six times. Video clearly showed Fisher-Davis looking at his coach as Bryant McIntosh was dribbling up the floor after Vanderbilt took the lead with seventeen seconds remaining, and Coach Drew was pointing at McIntosh, so Fisher-Davis fouled him, thinking (he admits this) that his team was behind by one point. After McIntosh made two free throws, Vanderbilt had the ball with fourteen seconds to play and a chance for the winning basket which was missed by a teammate. So, obviously, it was Fisher-Davis’s fault his team lost, right? It doesn’t matter that Vanderbilt managed to get behind by fifteen points in the second half. It doesn’t matter that his team was out-rebounded by seven, that his team made ten turnovers, that his team committed sixteen fouls, or that his teammates missed 26 shots. It doesn’t matter that his coach ran out of timeouts long before the last stressful minute and a half were played or that his pointing at McIntosh sent a mixed-up signal. It doesn’t matter that Fisher-Davis came off the bench and was the best player for Vanderbilt’s team during the game or that he wasn’t the one who missed the game winning shot attempt. All that matters is someone needs to be blamed. I pick that blaming attitude as a low for March Madness. "He's the type of person [who's going to] feel some blame," forward Luke Kornet said. "But in the second half, we have no chance if he doesn't make the shots that he made. We're with him no matter what." That’s great to hear from a teammate, but the blame game from fans happened and will happen again before the tournament is over.

Congratulations, Northwestern, by the way. Your team should get some credit for the win, don’t you think? You know, since you outshot your opponent by 11% and outrebounded them by seven (and had the lead for 39 minutes and 13 seconds of the game) and made go-ahead baskets or free throws three times in the last 1:36?

So now for the great “high” of March Madness. The Michigan Wolverines deserve the nod. On Wednesday, March 8, 2017, the Wolverines basketball team boarded a plane at the Willow Run Airport in the midst of a windstorm. I live in Michigan. I watched siding blow off my neighbor’s house. The metal “For Sale” sign stuck in my front yard was bent in half. My power was out. Wind was gusting up to 65 miles per hour. A light pole outside of my subdivision was blown over. And the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 Aircraft blew off the runway just as it was attempting to lift off. After the aborted take-off, the plane skidded 400 yards, through a fence and a ditch, and stopped short of a ravine. Michigan players Jon Teske and Mark Donnal took the doors off the plane, beginning emergency exit procedures for the 109 passengers. The inflatable chutes were deployed, but wind gusts caused them to flail and flop as the engines smoked and smoldered. Coach Beilein, with fumes pouring in his face, helped hold down the inflatable chutes. The burning engine churned with noise. Passengers ran from the wreckage because they believed the plane was going to blow up. Starting point guard Derrick Walton had to have stiches in his leg. Others had bumps and bruises—and the scare of a lifetime.

Many hours later, they were back on campus with a decision to make. Did they want to forfeit their game the next day at noon or begin another travel day at six in the morning by boarding another plane to fly to Washington D.C.? They took a vote. Some didn’t want to do it, but majority ruled. There was a power outage on the campus, so they weren’t able to practice. Because of the crash investigation, they weren’t allowed to get their luggage, but they repacked, silently took a half-hour bus ride to Detroit Metro Airport, white-knuckled a 7:30 take-off that included turbulence, fought the D.C. traffic to get to the arena for the game which was delayed thirty minutes because of their late arrival, and dressed in their practice jerseys because their uniforms were still on the crashed plane. They beat Illinois by 20, a team that had called the Wolverines “white collar” while the Illini had “toughness” and “together[ness].” Then they beat the number one seed, Purdue, the next day. Then they beat the number four seed, Minnesota, the next day. Then they beat the number two seed, Wisconsin, the next day.

Coach Beilein expressed that the team played “together” with an “appreciation” for the game and each other. They were “blessed” after what they went through to be able to play the games. Derrick Walton, Jr., who was upset that he didn’t make first-team all-conference, outplayed the first teamer from Minnesota by miles. This is a team that fought through the tournament on grit and adrenaline and togetherness and belief and desire. There was an unselfishness about them. The Wolverines didn't seem to care who was scoring or who was in the game. They played with heart. They fought hard from beginning to end. They overcame psychological trauma and together decided they could get over the adversity by playing a game.

March Madness is going to produce some highs and lows, for sure. What’s incredible is how sports demonstrates the spirit of mankind—overcoming adversity, showing heart, dealing with mistakes, meeting goals, working together, and showing incredible toughness. It’s not about excuse making and blaming. But, then again, it’s called March Madness, and crazy things happen, including blaming the best player on your team for "losing" the game in one play.