CHICAGO The 2000-“01 Michigan men”s basketball team suffered its first loss before practice ever started when former point guard Kevin Gaines was dismissed from the team. And with the arduous season now technically over, the team may still have another loss on the horizon.
Speculation that Brian Ellerbe will be fired within days of season”s end has shadowed the team, especially for the last month. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale continues to report through yesterday that Michigan had already decided to fire Ellerbe, and that current Seton Hall coach Tommy Amaker is close to becoming the next coach in Ann Arbor.
Throughout the ordeal, Michigan athletic director Bill Martin maintained that no decisions would be made regarding Ellerbe”s future during the season, and that a verdict will be reached with the end of the basketball year.
Following Michigan”s (10-18) season-ending loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament Thursday, Ellerbe said that he has three years left on his original contract with the school, and that he will continue as the coach of Michigan until he hears otherwise.
“I think Bill Martin has made it very clear they”re going to evaluate men”s basketball just like every other program,” Ellerbe said. “I think the University of Michigan has been fair.
“We haven”t excelled the way we would have liked to the last four years. But I also think we”ve been under some unexpected types of situations.”
The toughest strike against Ellerbe may have come in September when he had to dismiss Gaines, who was arrested for driving under the influence.
Between Gaines” arrest and the pending decision on Ellerbe, Michigan labored through a grueling basketball season.
It began in Oakland with a 97-90 loss, a rude awakening for the Wolverines” three freshmen. Foreshadowing future difficulties, the team fell to an early deficit against the Golden Grizzlies and could never recover.
The road got even more rocky in December, when Michigan suffered two crushing defeats at the hands of top ACC foes.
First, Maryland pummeled the Wolverines 82-51 in the BB&T Classic. Then, in a trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke sprinted to a 34-2 lead and cruised past Michigan by 43 points. The team looked disoriented throughout the contest, and the result was demoralizing. Senior Josh Asselin called the debacle, “rock bottom.”
But Asselin may have spoken too hastily, as a 4-12 Big Ten season provided numerous moments to compete for Michigan”s lowest point. Among, the worst defeats were three home losses, by 27 points to Michigan State, 19 to Wisconsin and 18 to Minnesota, eliminating the team from postseason contention.
Adding insult to injury, off-the-court turmoil again found its way into the program. Michigan freshmen Maurice Searight spent the year habitually in Ellerbe”s doghouse, largely for missing practice time. Searight was punished for abuse of team rules during the Oakland and Western Michigan games, and then did not travel with the team as the Wolverines fell to Indiana in Bloomington, Feb. 11. Searight did not play in the team”s final eight games.
Fellow freshmen Avery Queen and Bernard Robinson were also benched for violating team rules.
“I can”t be immature like that,” Robinson said. “I have to grow up fast.”
The media bombardment may have further distracted the young team.
“I don”t think we got a fair chance. The media was looking for Juwan (Howard”s) and Chris (Webber”s) freshman season,” freshman Josh Moore said. “I don”t think that”s realistic.
“You can”t say that the negative things you put in the media aren”t going to distract the players. That”s our community. We read that and we hear that, and it gets to us.”
The silver lining
Despite so much anguish in a six-month period, Michigan has a lot to be optimistic about for next year.
The most obvious reason is that four starters return, including three players who could compete for all-conference honors in LaVell Blanchard, Chris Young and Robinson. Michigan loses just Josh Asselin and his 9.6 points per game to graduation eight of nine contributors from this season will be back.
If the Wolverines can avoid any extracurricular turmoil over the next eight months, the team won”t be rebuilding for the first time in four years.
The team also has to like the way the Big Ten around them will shape up. Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, and Ohio State will all lose their best players to graduation.
Michigan State and Illinois both have key seniors departing and may be hit even harder if the likes of Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson and Frank Williams declare for the NBA draft.
And while the coaching topic remains hot, there doesn”t appear to be a mutiny in store for Michigan. Seemingly all the players want Ellerbe back next year, but if he is fired, the team expects to stay unified.
“I think we are going to all stick together after the season,” Queen said.
And though the young team never expected to have such a dismal initiation to college basketball, the team hopes to use the struggles as fuel for an off-season full of weightlifting and training.
“We should no doubt have a great year next year, and we don”t want to disappoint again,” Robinson said. “That definitely motivates us.”