February 12, 2013

Borton's Blog: Punching In

Michigan strength-and-conditioning coach Jon Sanderson worked the Wolverines' biceps, triceps, thighs, calves and a host of other muscles in preparation for this season. No word on whether or not he's fortified their noses.

For freshmen like Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and others, that's no small consideration on this particular day. They'll require all of olfactory orneriness they can muster.

Without question, they're about to get punched in the nose - certainly figuratively, quite possibly literally.

It's not like they haven't faced a tough crowd before. Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin … all feature varying levels of intimidation surrounding the court, and slam-bangers on it. But this … this is a different level.

For pure, visceral hatred of all things Michigan, it's tough to beat the Breslin Center. That Spartans have been good enough for long enough under Tom Izzo to feel fully energized toward administering payback for 40 years of U-M football dominance.

That span covers most of the adult lives of many in attendance, and double the time on Earth in the case of Izzone denizens. Yes, they exacted a relative blink of revenge when the Wolverines' disappearance from the football scene opened the door, but that door is slamming shut like a bear trap on an off-course calf.

And deep down, a lot of real-world Spartans know it.

Not so much with basketball. While Michigan is finally back up to speed, Izzo isn't going anywhere. He still packs in the talent, still pushes players to maximum effort with a maniacally driven persona, and still commands the Breslin crowd like Arturo Toscanini commanded an orchestra.

Whether Toscanini looked like his hair burst into flames at every wrong note is lost in history. This much is certain - Izzo remains a master at appearing like the cowboy whose dog has been shot at every perceived misstep by the officials.

He reacts in ways ranging from mock horror to bitter disdain to manic malevolence. The orchestra reacts in concert - from the players to the fans, the "you've got to be kidding" looks and cacophony of disbelief rumble throughout the Breslin Center.

That, and very good teams, have gotten the Little Maestro to 250-30 at the Breslin, including wins in 31 of the last 32 games there. Tough task? Put it this way - visitors are about as likely to see Mark Dantonio singing "The Victors" with Michigan wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski as they are to come away with a win.

Given that atmosphere, it's as much street fight as it is basketball game. Forget about complaining on clutch-and-grab tactics. Knocked to the court? Get up and go.

Michigan head coach John Beilein has pre-warned his players not to get sucked into a looking-for-whistles mode.

"They are extremely physical, as much of the Big Ten is," Beilein said. "We've grown in that area a great deal, as we spend more time in the weight room. Our recruiting has given us some bodies that are a little more fully developed.

"But you have to. The numbers of no-calls, right now, in any Big Ten game, is astonishing to me. It's just astonishing. People are getting knocked down and it's just, play on. As a result, you've got to play on.

"We just tell our kids, 'It is what it is. Whatever the officials are calling, those are the rules of that game.' You cannot look at that tape and say they should have called this foul. You've got to play through it."

Two years ago, Michigan played through it. From Zack Novak's six three-pointers, to Stu Douglass' spear-in-the-Spartans triple at the end, to Darius Morris' take-no-garbage attitude, they played through it.

That's what Michigan needs, starting at 9 p.m. or so. That, and an array of nose guards.

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