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Daniel Bremmer: Chance is there for 'M' to meet preseason goals

BY DANIEL BREMMER: GARDEN STATE OF MIND

Published March 9, 2004

After winning its appeal of a postseason
ban just before the start of this season, the Michigan basketball
team had a simple plan: Earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Now,
with two days to go until the Big Ten Tournament begins, the goal
no longer looks so easy to attain.

With sloppy road losses and inconsistency throughout the season,
the Wolverines will now have to win two games in the Big Ten
Tournament (putting them into the finals) just to be back on the
bubble. Winning three games and taking home a conference tournament
title is the only way to guarantee a berth.

Quite a change from a few weeks ago, when people thought the
Wolverines would need just one win in the tournament to solidify
their NCAA résumé.

Dropping road games at Minnesota and Iowa earlier in the season,
and losing more recent decisions to Michigan State and Indiana,
criticism has flowed over the past few weeks. These voices are
quick to point out what’s wrong with the team: Tommy Amaker
can’t coach. Daniel Horton was better last year. Bernard
Robinson is more of a role player than a team leader.

Now, Michigan has a chance to silence its critics and put its
season back on track.

Winning the tournament and earning a trip to the Big Dance would
be a chance to prove to critics (and to themselves) that the
preseason expectations weren’t set too high.

And Michigan may have the right ingredients to turn some heads
in the Big Ten Tournament.

The Wolverines have enough talent and depth to make a run. When
Horton, Robinson, Lester Abram, Dion Harris and Courtney Sims all
bring their ‘A’ games, Michigan is a tough team to
beat. And when contributors like Brent Petway, Graham Brown and
Chris Hunter are chipping in and offering support, again, things
look extremely bright for the Wolverines. Since the team winning
the tournament will need to prevail in three games in three days,
Michigan has the depth that could make such a run possible.

The Wolverines also enter the tournament with a little bit of
momentum and confidence, coming off of a win at Northwestern. The
Wildcats are no longer a JV team — they beat Illinois and
Wisconsin, and had dropped just one other Big Ten game at home
before Saturday.

And perhaps the most important dynamic for Michigan in the
tournament: the Horton factor. After his Big Ten Freshman of the
Year campaign, Horton has pulled a Houdini act for much of the Big
Ten season in his sophomore year, watching points disappear, while
he has settled for long jumpers game in and game out.

But on Saturday at Northwestern, Horton looked like his old self
in the first half of the game. Possession after possession, the
6-foot-3 Texan got into the lane and to the rim for easy looks en
route to 6-for-8 from the floor in the half, a far cry from his
usual 4-for-12 or 3-for-11 lines, which had become all too
familiar.

If Horton can piece together a few games in a row where he
returns to last year’s form and busts out — something
which may be overdue now — Michigan has to like its
chances.

Michigan will also have to come out and play intense, urgent
basketball — something which it has failed to do in its last
two games. In its upset of Wisconsin two weeks ago at home,
Michigan played with a determination and will to win that put it
over the top. The Wolverines wanted the game more than the Badgers.
It showed, on the court, and on the scoreboard.

Fast forward to Michigan’s last two games, two must-win
road contests. Had Michigan knocked off Indiana at Assembly Hall
and then Northwestern in Evanston, it would have been in prime
position to win a Big Ten Tournament game or two and put itself
into the NCAA Tournament.

But Michigan came out flat against Indiana, and failed to turn
it on down the stretch, when they had chances to take the game away
from the Hoosiers.

The Wolverines also played uninspired basketball for much of the
Northwestern game, and was on the losing side of the aggression
battle. Fortunately, they stepped up down the stretch and benefited
from key Wildcat misses to pull off the win.

But playing just a few minutes of high-intensity basketball
won’t be enough to knock off the conference’s
elite.

The Big Ten Tournament also gives Michigan a chance to show the
selection committee that it deserves an at-large bid into the Big
Dance by giving it the chance to play Big Ten regular season
champion Illinois. Should the Wolverines get by Iowa on Friday,
Illinois would be next. Facing the Illini certainly wouldn’t
be a cakewalk for the Wolverines, but Illinois is not a team that
is out of Michigan’s league, as is proven by their one-point
nail-biter win against Ohio State on Sunday. Besides, the Illini
have already locked up an NCAA berth and will be playing for
nothing more than seeding in Indianapolis. If the Wolverines come
with the right attack plan, an upset isn’t out of the
question.

Michigan needs to put it all together at the right time, play
with determination and receive a contribution from Horton and his
companions. If they do this, the Wolverines would sit in a position
where an NCAA Tournament berth isn’t out of the question.
Even if it’s not an easy road at this point, it’s still
a road in the right direction.

But if Michigan comes out flat against Iowa or Illinois, it can
kiss its hopes of a Tourney bid goodbye and will have to start
coping with the fact that it failed to meet its biggest goal this
season.

Daniel Bremmer can be reached at "mailto:bremmerd@umich.edu">bremmerd@umich.edu.