As Michigan senior Lavell Blanchard walked toward the lockerroom door following Friday night’s loss to Indiana, the emotion in his eyes was mixed. The sting from the loss was evident, but there was more than pure disappointment.
There was a clear sense of pride. Pride from knowing that he’s leaving the program in better shape than when he came. Blanchard has given more to the Wolverines in his career than just numbers. His dedication to winning and love for the program has made a strong impression on the younger players, which is just as important to him than individual accomplishments.
“I think he’s passed on the passion and the will and drive to work hard,” freshman Daniel Horton said. “He stuck with it and played hard all year. (The seniors) have passed down a lot that hopefully we can pass to the people coming in after us when we graduate.”
Horton, whose ankle injury was easily bad enough to keep him out of the game, said he decided to play because he didn’t want to let his seniors down.
“I couldn’t let their careers end with me on the bench,” Horton said. “I met LaVell before I came here, and he was a great guy, and I had to be a part of this for him.”
Blanchard had one of the most successful Michigan basketball careers in the history of the program. The senior became the only Wolverine in history to lead his team in points and rebounds for four straight years. He finished sixth on the all-time scoring list with 1,818 points, and is one of just seven players in Michigan history with over 1,800 points. Blanchard also finished seventh on the all-time rebounding list with 845 boards.
But unfortunately for the Ann Arbor native, his accomplishments were not always the focus, given the turbulence within the program during his career.
“Everything didn’t go as well as he wanted coming out of high school,” assistant coach Charles Ramsey said. “But I think he dealt with it very well.
“I think our younger players have learned a certain humbleness from him. He’s had a productive career, he’s graduating in May and I think the kids appreciate and respect that.”
Blanchard entered Michigan as part of a highly touted recruiting class, composed of fellow senior Gavin Groninger and former guards Kevin Gaines and Jamal Crawford. Within a year, Crawford and Gaines, who were supposed to be Michigan’s one-two punch in the backcourt, were off the team.
That was the first blow dealt to Blanchard. The Wolverines finished 15-14 overall that season, but went 6-10 in the conference and lost in a first round NIT game at Notre Dame.
Blanchard continued producing over the next two seasons, but the team continued to struggle, as attention was directed toward off-court issues, mainly the replacement of Brian Ellerbe with current coach Tommy Amaker.
And finally, the biggest blow was dealt when the Wolverines banned themselves from the postseason prior to this season, guaranteeing that Blanchard would leave Michigan never having the chance to play in an NCAA Tournament game.
But again, the senior persevered, leading Michigan to a 17-13 overall record and getting selected to the First Team All-Big Ten for the first time in his career.
“I respect LaVell a lot,” Michigan freshman Lester Abram said. “When we found out we weren’t playing in the tournament, he could have laid down and went for his individual stats, but he still played with the team, and he played hard every game. He didn’t have to do that, and I respect him for that.”
But what has the senior learned from his experience at Michigan?
“I’ve gone from an 18-year-old kid to a 22-year-old man,” Blanchard said. “It’s been a major change, but I have matured so much and grown up a lot.
“It’s all gone by very fast. I think I’m going to miss going to practice and spending time with the guys the most, because we had a great group.”
Blanchard went on to say that even though he won’t be a part of it, the future of Michigan basketball is secure in the hands of Amaker and Michigan’s freshmen. He’s also said he’s tried his best to pass on the lessons he’s learned over his career to Michigan’s youth.
“You try to teach them as much as you can about and tell them about your experiences,” Blanchard said. “Whatever they absorb, they absorb.”
But looking at the heart and passion the Wolverines played with this season, it was clear their captain rubbed off on them.
“I just want to tell him thank you for everything he has taught me and for leading by example,” Abram said.