Defense, defense and more defense. This seems to be the one and only thing on junior Bernard Robinson’s mind as he begins his third year. After spending much of last season weakened by mono, followed by a summer in Europe with the 2002 Big Ten Foreign Tour team, Robinson claims he is in the best shape of his life, and is ready to expand his game to play both ways.
“I want to be a person who changes the flow of the game for the other team,” Robinson said. “I want to be a havoc on the defensive end.”
But what inspired this broadening of focus for Robinson? Has Amaker’s defensive style caught on, has the addition of several scorers shifted Robinson’s role in the offense, or is it just about doing anything he can to win?
Robinson’s 2001-02 campaign turned into a disappointment before it even began, when he learned he had contracted mono during the summer. Although he was able to return for the beginning of the season, his intensity was nowhere near its previous levels.
“Looking back on his year, suffering mono in the latter part of the summer and being held out of everything right until we started practice, I thought he was always trying to play catch-up,” Amaker said. “Right now, he is in a mode where his health has been fine and he has done a good job for us. He has matured going into his junior year.”
The illness prevented Robinson from having a breakout season. Although he played in all 29 games, he started just 20 and shot less than 41 percent.
Another hindrance for Robinson was Michigan’s coaching transition and the adjustments each player had to make. Amaker demanded more from his players, especially on defense. Robinson, who averaged 28.4 minutes per game, did not have the stamina to maintain a high level of defensive pressure.
But this year, things are different.
“I think the team has adjusted 100 percent to coach Amaker’s style,” Robinson said. “We understand how hard and aggressive he wants us to be.”
Robinson says that roles and responsibilities on and off the floor are clear. The team’s leaders have been solidified, and everyone knows what they have to do to set a good example.
Backpacking and basketball
On July 16, Robinson learned that he had been selected to play on the Foreign Tour team with the top players from across the Big Ten. He was the only member of the Wolverines selected.
Although the minutes were not always up there, Robinson benefited from this experience by observing the pace of the European game and role-playing on defense.
“It was a different brand of ball out there,” Robinson said. “It was a slower offense, you had to think more and you had to be more creative to score.”
The main lesson Robinson learned was that with less playing time, he was able to maintain a higher level of constant defensive pressure.
“I was able to put a lot of energy into the defensive end,” he said. “The less I played, the more active I was.”
Robinson averaged seven rebounds and 1.5 steals in 17.2 minutes per game.
Running and gunning
The offense in Europe was slow, but the offense at Michigan is going to be fast. With the lack of depth at the center position and the abundance of athletic scorers joining the Wolverines’ roster this season, Michigan is expected to play a fast brand of basketball – a style that fits Robinson’s game perfectly.
“I think I’m definitely more of an up-tempo guy,” Robinson said. “I like to get to the rim, get other people open and keep things active.”
Robinson’s teammates are also excited about the possibility of him excelling in the new offensive system.
“Bernard is someone who likes to play a fast-paced game,” Rotolu Adebiyi said.
But the addition of quick scorers like Daniel Horton and Lester Abram will allow Robinson to think more about defense.
A transition offense must be accompanied by a quick defense that can defend the fast break. Robinson will only settle for playing both sides of the ball. Just being an offensive threat is no longer enough for him.
“I think my scoring will be there,” he said. “The difference for me in helping this team will be on the defensive end.”
Unselfishness has also been a key characteristic visible in Robinson’s game, and a sign of maturity. He has not hesitated to distribute the ball to give others a chance to score.
“I feel like I can take a person any time, but you have to recognize things out on the floor before you do that,” he said. “I’ve learned to do that. We have so many guys who can score now, I want to key in on defense.”
“I’ve seen a major improvement with Bernard,” sophomore forward Chuck Bailey said. “He seems more focused, he’s trying to make everyone else better.”
While each player has lofty visions and high dreams, Robinson has set many realistic, logical objectives for this season. His main goal for the team is to “be in every game.”
“If we’re in the game, than we can win the game, and that’s my personal goal,” Robinson said.
While many have marked Duke, UCLA and Michigan State as games in which Michigan must make a mark if it wants to earn national respect, Robinson is trying to remain level-headed by focusing on the big picture.
“We want to be able to play in those games, and they are big for us. But if we lose, it’s not going to change the world,” Robinson said. “Before I leave, I want to make it to the NCAA Tournament.”
Whether or not Robinson and the Wolverines reach the Big Dance, his newfound commitment to defense and team-first attitude is exactly what the Michigan basketball program needs to stabilize itself.
“We’ll separate ourselves by defense, and I’ll do anything to help us win.”