A four-horse race? That depends who you ask. "Please, you know [the scudetto] is an impossible goal," said the Udinese manager Francesco Guidolin after his team's 2-0 win over Catania, but the director Gino Pozzo – son of team owner Giampaolo – took a different view. "Dreaming doesn't cost a thing," he mused.
No one could blame the Friuliani for doing that after their recent run. The only unbeaten side left in Serie A this calendar year, Udinese have collected 33 points from the past 13 games and gone seven games without even conceding a goal. Furthermore, they already hold the head-to-head tie-breaker over Inter, and have the chance to get the same over both their other rivals, having already beaten Napoli 3-1 at home and drawn 4-4 at Milan. Their return fixture against the Rossoneri comes on the last day of the season.
Guidolin may be saying that the scudetto (the Italian word for the Serie A championship) is out of reach just to tamp down expectations, but he is also being realistic. With eight games to play, Udinese are not just six points off the top of the table; they are also looking up at three teams: AC Milan, Inter, and Napoli. Even if they manage to win out without even a draw, they will still have to rely on three other sides slipping up. This is interesting to me because if Serie A followed the American model, Udinese would be the favorite in the post-season playoff.
Now, contrast Udinese’s current place to that of my alma mater’s basketball program. While not quite as hot as the Friulani, Michigan ended the season on a fairly torrid run. After starting 1-6 in the Big Ten, Michigan’s only losses were a pair of setbacks away from Ann Arbor against #1 Ohio State, a two-point loss at Illinois in which Michigan missed a pair of potentially winning three-point attempts, and a one-point loss to Wisconsin after a Wisconsin player banked in a three at the buzzer. The Wolverines were a classic young team that takes most of the season to figure out how to play together before gelling for a run through the second half of the schedule. (Not that Michigan has any experience with that.) As a reward for this stretch and then a 30-point trouncing of Tennessee, Michigan got a shot at top-seed Duke. That shot ended with Darius Morris missing an open runner in the lane to force overtime.
As excited as I was about Michigan basketball returning to relevance, the whole spectacle on Sunday struck me as odd. Michigan was not good for the first half of the Big Ten schedule, as evidenced by a 19-point loss at Indiana and a 14-point loss at Northwestern. Duke was excellent for the entire season, despite the loss of their best pro prospect. Duke’s reward for being much better was that they got to play Michigan on a neutral court with one day to prepare for John Beilein’s system. OK, Duke got to play in Charlotte, but as it turned out, Michigan had a number of UNC fans cheering for them (or at least hectoring the refs for calls that went against Michigan). How exactly does the NCAA reward teams for being demonstrably superior for a four-month, 30-something game regular season? In Italy, Udinese doesn’t get to forget an average first half of the season. In college basketball, Michigan’s past sins were washed away.