Talk about a major role reversal.
One week, freshman Chuck Bailey was sitting on the bench for all but four of the 40 minutes that the Wolverines played in watching former walk-ons taking his spot in the rotation during critical situations.
The next week, the freshman forward started the game ahead of his mentor, LaVell Blanchard, and took Blanchard”s spot when the junior fouled out late in a “must win” home game against Minnesota.
Bailey came in down the stretch and made a key block when his team desperately needed a stop. Minutes later, he drained two clutch free throws and, in the waning seconds, found an open Chris Young for the go-ahead basket as the shot clock expired.
“If he doesn”t make those shots, we don”t win the game,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “I mean, he”s 50 percent from the line and he goes 4-for-4 down the stretch that”s maturity.”
The same can be said for Michigan”s other freshman, Dommanic Ingerson. The sharpshooter knocked down a key 3-pointer to even the score with just over a minute left in the Minnesota game. This came just one week after he spent his fair share of time on the bench next to Bailey in two Michigan losses.
Both freshmen had to learn that in Amaker”s eyes, it”s not just what you do in the games or in the spotlight that gets you playing time. Instead it”s how Amaker “feels kids are paying attention, how kids are giving effort in practice and how they are off the court” which will determine who will be a major player in the coach”s quest to rebuild the Michigan program.
Just ask Blanchard, a preseason Naismith Award candidate, and Bernard Robinson. These two, arguably Michigan”s best players, didn”t start against Minnesota, sitting on the bench in the important first few minutes of the game.
Amaker realized that with his team”s limitations, the Wolverines” margin for error is “slim to none” and that “every possession is critical.” But he also knows that he”s not going to sacrifice the ideals of his program, even if that may cost Michigan a few games.
“We”re not going to try to cut corners and be shortsighted here,” Amaker said. “We”re going to look at one or two games or losses for the sake of this program.”
Amaker said that a sign that his players are buying into his philosophy was the inspired play of Blanchard and Robinson on Saturday. Both were benched for the start of the game and ended up with great performances Blanchard with 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting and Robinson with his first career double-double.
In addition, Blanchard was the first one to embrace Bailey after the freshman made two of his key free throws late in the game.
“It was more of a bear hug, not just a tap,” Amaker said with a smile.
In creating a “first-class program,” moments like these are what Amaker seems to value more than huge individual performances, wins or preseason accolades.
“He just tries to treat each player the same way,” said fifth-year senior guard Mike Gotfredson. “It doesn”t matter if you play two minutes or 40 minutes, if you don”t run the line drills as hard as you can, you”re going to be sitting on the end of the bench.”
Gotfedson is a prime example of Amaker”s plan in action. He”s a former walk-on who barely saw any significant minutes in his previous years at Michigan. But he has started 13 of Michigan”s 15 games, sometimes in favor of last year”s starter, Avery Queen.
Gotfredson said he knows his role, and that Amaker has explained it to him. Others, like Bailey and Ingerson, haven”t been so sure in the past of why they were sitting, probably because this is the first time they have had to deal with such a situation.
Bailey has continually said he “doesn”t really know” what he is doing wrong, and that he “hasn”t gotten around to” taking advantage of Amaker”s “open-door” policy and asking the coach for answers.
But Amaker said that when he addresses the team, he is talking to each player individually as well. And sometimes, Amaker said, the players know full well the reasons why they aren”t playing they just don”t reveal them.
“I think they know,” Amaker said. “I”d be disappointed if they didn”t know. Sometimes, as kids, it”s easy not to say, or maybe you don”t want to tell what the real reason was.”
Others including Ingerson have come to Amaker themselves and inquired about the coach”s motives and confidence in them.
“Our kids know that we”re going to do things for the right reasons,” Amaker said. “Everything counts and everything matters.”