ARLINGTON, Texas -- I'm here to defend the lack of turnovers even though it's hard to defend something that technically does not exist.
Nobody goes to basketball arenas to see the lack of turnovers. Nobody will walk through the parking lots Friday night toward gigantic Cowboys Stadium and say, in idle conversation, "I'm really hoping we get to see some lack of turnovers." The University of Michigan, the national pioneer in marketing under the late athletic director Don Canham, has never, to my knowledge, deployed billboards or other ads selling the lack of turnovers.
In some ways, though, lack of turnovers might be about as admirable as anything else you can fashion with five-on-five at basketball. It's a fine thing to pull off for any unit, maybe even finer when by any college team, and maybe even finer than that when you consider a team regularly rotating in six freshmen and a sophomore, such as Michigan. So just for this South Regional semifinal, watching Michigan against Kansas, I'm going to watch for the lack of turnovers from the best lack-of-turnover team in the country.
This will be a first, in all my misspent days.
In 35 games, Michigan with its guard Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. has managed to commit only 325 turnovers, an average of 9.3 per game.
"I think that's a big key," Burke said.
Now, the last time Michigan reached this juncture, long-long ago, it had the Fab Five of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. The Fab Five had pizzazz, fashionableness, buzz. It reached the 1992 national title game as five freshmen back when that really meant something. It reached the 1993 national title game again as five sophomores. Sans Webber, it reached the 1994 final eight before losing to Nolan Richardson's mighty, gritty Hogs from Arkansas.
People did walk through parking lots talking about seeing the Fab Five. In the end, the Fab Five even had a part of the grand American tradition known as the NCAA scandal, a knack for which Americans have shown such a thirst through the years that you do wonder why there's no homage to the great NCAA scandals of yore in the Smithsonian.
Nobody who is old enough to have attended Fab Five games and press conferences can ever remember hearing anyone at any of them discuss the lack of turnovers.
Maybe the contrast of the Michigans two decades apart is an emblem in some way. From star-studded and recognizable, college basketball has become more buttoned-down, grinding, anonymous. The emblem dies a bit, of course, when you get to Michigan's 75 points per game and 48-percent shooting, which buck national trends and owe a lot to …
The lack of turnovers.
"We're one of the leaders in the country in getting a shot up every time down the court as much as possible," head coach John Beilein summarized.
"Coach B always stresses the fact that the more turnovers we have the less chance we have to win," Burke said. "We try to take care of the ball as much as possible, try to take the best shots that we can, and just go out there and play within our offense. We trust our offense. And I think our offense allows us to get into a rhythm and allows us to play better defense."
One night in January, against Northwestern, Michigan had two turnovers. To connoisseurs of lack of turnovers, even to bandwagon connoisseurs of lack of turnovers like me, that's sublime, golden, poetic. That night, the Burke, the point guard, said, "We had only two turnovers as a team?" The head coach, Beilein, said, "There's been times we had two turnovers in the first minute." For people who do appreciate the art of basketball, that's the kind of game film you just drag out from time to time when fellow connoisseurs stop by, pop open a few brews, behold the gorgeous lack of turnovers.
You could see coaches sitting around doing this.
Nobody would want to hang out with them, and being in the room might make many wish to run out screaming, but you can see it.
So, no, if you're just joining the college basketball season for the frenzied finish, this might not be the Michigan you remember. For one thing, Burke and other players took pictures as they emerged into the stadium, with Burke saying, "Who wouldn't take pictures coming out and playing at this stadium?" Well, for one thing, the Fab Five might not have since, as infectious as they were, their quotations might have gone, "Who wouldn't take pictures of us coming out and playing at this stadium."
Besides, they had no mobile phones, no mobile-phone cameras, no Twitter. (Can you imagine Fab Five tweets? What a loss to our culture in that time. What knuckle-dragging prehistory.)
Further, this Michigan team, while possessing a star (Burke) in a sport that doesn't really have stars anymore, not in the Fab Five way, is best admired for its astuteness. While the Fab Five had that at times, nobody much noticed in all the clamor. Watching that astuteness against Kansas, a 31-5 team that has 504 turnovers in 36 games, will be worthwhile. It's an important part of basketball, you know.