There’s a swagger to the Michigan basketball team these
days. Some pep in the Wolverines’ collective step.

Janna Hutz
Janna Hutz
Michigan forward J.C. Mathis lays up a shot against N.C. State. (RYAN WEINER/Daily)

They’re 4-0 heading into a road game with Vanderbilt
tomorrow night. They out-scrapped Butler on the road. They beat
North Carolina State at home. Both of those were tournament teams
last season.

“We know that if we come out and do the things that coach
wants us to do, we can play with anybody,” guard Daniel
Horton said.

This time last year, that wasn’t the case. Michigan went
0-4 in its first four games in 2002. It went down to the Paradise
Jam in the Virgin Islands in late November and took a beating
— losing three games by a combined 44 points to teams that
never came within a Caribbean Sea of the tournament.

Then Western Michigan came to Crisler Arena and stole one from
Tommy Amaker’s team.

My how things have changed.

“We’re all on the same page,” sophomore Lester
Abram said of this year’s team. “We’re playing
unselfish. We’re playing good defense.”

Center Graham Brown said that the difference this year is the
early start that the team got in October. Because of a preseason
trip to Toronto, the Wolverines got 10 extra practice sessions to
tune up for the start of the season. Brown said that the added work
has shown on the court early on.

The team is deeper this year. Amaker ran out six guys over
6-foot-6 in the win over the Wolfpack. Horton now has some backup,
with freshman Dion Harris already donating dynamic minutes at the
point. There are four Wolverines averaging double digits in
scoring.

“Last year, we used to come in here and dread
practice,” Horton said. “Now guys are looking forward
to every day having a chance to just get better because we know
that we can accomplish some big things this year.”

Not that the Wolverines are playing their best basketball yet.
Amaker admitted that the team hasn’t shot the ball as well as
it should — Michigan has knocked in a meager 30 percent of
its 3-pointers. And it still needs to improve its half-court
offense.

But the Wolverines are finding ways to win.

“We’re playing good defense, team defense,”
Abram said. “Way better team defense than last
year.”

Tomorrow’s trip to Nashville will be a stiff test. The
Commodores are 4-0 and sport the preseason SEC Player of the Year,
Matt Freije. Despite his 6-foot-10 frame, the senior has a lethal
shooting stroke. He’s already hitting 44 percent of his
3-pointers and 93 percent of his free throws, en route to 21 points
per game.

Memorial Gym, labeled by some as the “Hoops House of
Horrors,” is quirky and loud. The team benches are set up on
opposite ends of the court along the baseline, rather than along
the sidelines. The floor level is raised above the first row on the
sides.

“The basket is still, I’m sure, the same
height,” said Amaker, sounding like Gene Hackman with his
10-foot tape measure at the end of “Hoosiers.”

Michigan beat Vanderbilt last year on the way out of its
season-opening skid. But no one is looking past the Commodores
again.

“(When) we can get to a point where we can say that
we’ve done something that nobody else has done, then
we’ll be happy; then we’ll feel like we’ve
accomplished something,” Horton said. “Now, we still
realize that we’ve got a long way to go.”

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