In late January of last season, Michigan headed to
Champaign to take on Illinois. Riding a 13-game winning streak, the
Wolverines sat in first place in the Big Ten, and after a solid
first half against the Illini, looked poised to grab a stranglehold
on the conference lead.

Janna Hutz
(RYAN WEINER/Daily)
Janna Hutz
(TONY DING/Daily)

Then, Michigan centers Graham Brown and Chris Hunter got into
foul trouble.

As the number of fouls on the two big men grew, Michigan’s
11-point lead shrank, and Illinois forwards James Augustine and
Brian Cook took over. The Wolverines fell, 67-60.

The same problem surfaced just three days later when Hunter and
Brown struggled with fouls in a loss at Minnesota.

Then the foul bug reared its ugly head one last time in a loss
to Indiana at the Big Ten Tournament.

Michigan’s frontcourt depth — or lack thereof
— proved too much to overcome.

But it’s not a problem the Wolverines expect to have this
year.

That’s because, thanks to coach Tommy Amaker’s
recruitment of Courtney Sims and Brent Petway, and the eligibility
of transfer J.C. Mathis and redshirt freshman Amadou Ba, the
Wolverines are as deep as, well, any team in the Big Ten.

“I don’t know if anyone has as much depth as us in
the frontcourt,” the 6-foot-11, ridiculously long-armed Sims
said.

Sims, a freshman from Roslindale, Mass., may turn out to be the
prize catch of Amaker’s 2003 recruiting class. The youngster
didn’t start playing basketball until his freshman year of
high school, when his natural ability — and a seven-inch
growth spurt — demanded that he do so.

He finished his career at Noble and Greenough School with career
numbers of 23 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks per game. Those
numbers were good enough to make him one of the nation’s most
highly sought-after recruits.

When all was said and done, Sims decided to bring his Chris
Hunter-like game to Ann Arbor.

“I think (our games) are a lot similar,” said Hunter
of Sims’ play. “We really don’t like to be (with
our) back to the basket. We both like to step out and see the
floor. He’s a little longer, but our games are very
similar.”

Brown also noticed the closeness in styles that Hunter and Sims
bring but was quick to point out one difference. The sophomore
claimed that he had never played against anyone who could block his
shot until Sims.

“(Sims) is a little longer, a little better shot
blocker,” Brown said. (Hunter) is more aggressive this year
— you can see his experience helping.”

That experience for both Brown and Hunter came from the
Wolverines’ need for starters after Chris Young’s
graduation left Michigan without a center.

The 6-foot-9 Brown started 25 games for the Wolverines last
season, while the 6-foot-11 Hunter chipped in four starts. But both
players saw action in all 30 Michigan games.

“We’re just trying to teach these guys in
practice,” Brown said. “The freshmen need to learn
where to go and when to be there, but when they do, we’ll be
really special.”

While Brown and Hunter continue to grow stronger after a year in
the Michigan system, the most experienced of the big men is
actually Mathis, an athletically-built, 6-foot-8 forward who played
for two years at Virginia before transferring to Michigan.

The Brooklyn, N.Y. native ended his time as a Cavalier with 4.1
points and 3.1 rebounds per game.

Thanks to his quickness and athleticism under the basket, Mathis
said that he will help the Wolverines most with rebounding and
scoring up front.

The 6-foot-9 Petway, who will split time at power and small
forward, has the ability to jump out of the gym, a feature that
will be helpful when it comes to rebounding and shot-blocking.

The sixth and final member of Michigan’s big man combo
— and perhaps the biggest enigma and best-kept secret on the
Wolverines’ roster — is the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Ba,
who redshirted last year.

“He’s blowing everybody’s mind this
year,” Hunter said of the Mauritania, Africa native. “I
didn’t think he’d do the things that he’s doing.
But he’s showing us a lot of footwork, speed and poise down
in the low post. He’s showing me a lot of things I
didn’t think he could do.”

So while Ba, Petway and Sims continue to develop, Brown, Hunter
and Mathis will be looked to for the veteran leadership that is so
crucial to a Big Ten title run.

Having a six-man rotation up front is something that Amaker is
excited about, but slightly wary of.

“We’ll have more depth there, and when you have more
depth, it gives you more options,” Amaker said. “That
can be good and bad. It’s exciting to know that we have some
options.

“A year ago, I sat here and talked about how deep I
thought we were going to be on the perimeter. Time will tell how
many options we’ll have (up front) and how deep we’ll
be, but as of now, it bodes well for our team that we have
options.”

The seemingly endless supply of bodies also means that the
intensity in practice has been taken up a notch. Instead of Brown
and Hunter constantly matching up with each other, everyone now is
fighting for that all-important spot in the Wolverines’
starting lineup.

“It gets pretty intense,” Brown said.
“It’s still pretty early right now. I can’t
imagine how high the competition will be when we get in the Big
Ten.”

Still, while much will be made of how many big bodies the
Wolverines can plant in the paint, Sims remains impressed with what
Brown and Hunter were able to accomplish in their first
seasons.

“I think they were underrated last year in the
post,” Sims said. “Graham and Chris did a good
job.”

Regardless of how well they performed after being forced to eat
up huge minutes last year, Brown and Hunter will be the first to
tell you that there was room for improvement. Brown says that he
put on 15-to-20 pounds in hopes of establishing himself as a bigger
presence this year. Hunter also added muscle and continued to pound
away at his inside-outside offensive style.

But, despite the personal improvement, the two are happy to have
some friends in the paint with them. And both agree that the
Wolverines’ frontcourt will keep some opposing coaches up at
night.

“I’d be afraid to think what you would think when
you see four, five or six guys who can come in with no drop
off,” Brown said. “We have such a wide variety of
players — shot blockers, guys that can leap, rebounders. I
don’t know what a coach scouting us would tell his players,
you’d have to be ready for so many different
things.”

Too many things, if all goes according to plan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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