Max Marcovitch: A pot of gumbo and an identity

Thursday, November 9, 2017 - 8:53pm

Redshirt sophomore forward Charles Matthews is among a group of Michigan players waiting to prove themselves at the highest level.

Redshirt sophomore forward Charles Matthews is among a group of Michigan players waiting to prove themselves at the highest level. Buy this photo
Sam Mousigian/Daily

“A Coach Beilein team is like a good pot of gumbo.”

Gumbo has a multitude of ingredients. It is often greater than the sum of its parts. It takes time and patience.

Assistant coach Saddi Washington certainly believes the same will apply to this year’s Michigan men’s basketball team.

“You put the ingredients together and just let them stew. By the time you get midway through the season you’ve got a very good meal.”

If player development in college basketball was a perfectly linear process, Kameron Chatman would be readying himself to lead this team. D.J. Wilson would be coming into his own as the versatile stretch-four Michigan coach John Beilein has always envisioned. Aubrey Dawkins would be vital for Beilein’s trademark spacing as a dead-eye shooter. With any luck, Ricky Doyle would be providing consistent minutes as a useful third big. 

For one reason or another, they’re all gone. Who remains?

A two-star senior who has never been more than a complimentary offensive option, a lanky German whose plea to the NBA went unanswered, a graduate transfer from Ohio (University, not State), the rare Kentucky five-star who failed to go one-and-done, a transfer from Division III Williams College, an unproven sophomore point guard and a group of freshmen.

And every single one of them will have to play a major role for this team.

“The attitude has been good by everybody on the team,” Beilein said. “We’re just trying to get better, but we’re not very good right now.”

Individually, they bring the history of their incongruent pasts. Together, they paint a picture that remains wholly unclear. 

For a team that was mere inches from an Elite Eight berth a season ago, expectations are relatively low. Neither the coaches’ poll nor the AP top 25 listed Michigan. The 32-player USBWA preseason watch list for the Oscar Robertson Award was released Monday. There were no Wolverines on the list. And that lack of expectations may have less to do with talent than sheer uncertainty.

It’s a team sandwiched between the graduation of two highly-accomplished, four-year mainstays and an incoming recruiting class brimming with potential. Down the line, this pieced-together crew may leave no trace in the memories of fans.

But maybe — just maybe — it will.

Lack of experience and lack of talent are two different problems. The former may be true, the latter certainly is not. Above all, this team is devoid of certainty.

But it isn’t devoid of motivation. Nearly everyone who steps on the court for Michigan this year will have a desire to prove somebody, somewhere wrong.

Nobody will mistake this team for the “white collar” reputation that has long lingered around the program.

“We all have a chip on our shoulders for multiple reasons, everybody’s reason is different,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “But I think that’s because in games, and things like that going against guys who were projected as five-stars, and going out there and showing them that we’re just as good as you, that stars don’t matter.”

Added Beilein: “This is the most competitive our practices have ever been since I’ve been here, because there’s enough grit. We’ve had quickness, we’ve had talent, sometimes we’re missing some of that grit to compete. We’ve got some competition going on right now that’s really healthy for us.”

That, in and of itself, is an identity.

Call them a group of misfits, expect them to struggle after several key departures, question the professional viability of them all, wonder how well they fit together as a team. To an extent, it’s all rooted in truth.

But the ingredients are in the pot. Beilein is still the chef. 

Now let’s see if this gumbo will sizzle.

Marcovitch can be reached at maxmarco@umich.edu or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch.