Last year, new coach Tommy Amaker was brought in to rejuvenate the Michigan basketball program. After several years of disappointment, scandal and poor fan support, the program needed a shot in the arm, and Amaker was supposed to provide that spark. He became the first piece of the new puzzle.
Amaker’s presence has revitalized the program in almost every way. His arrival prompted several positive – and much-needed – renovations to Crisler Arena.
He has worked hard and succeeded in re-establishing connections with high school coaches across Michigan, he attracted a top-15 recruiting class to Ann Arbor and he has generated an optimistic feeling within the program about the future of Michigan basketball.
But now, with a stable infrastructure seemingly in place for years to come, Amaker and his players must begin shifting their focus toward the most important thing – winning. Despite all the excitement surrounding Amaker’s first season, the team finished with just one more win (11) than it did the previous year under Brian Ellerbe.
“I think that it’s realistic for this team to be better than last year’s team,” Amaker said. “I think a winning season is realistic for this team. Postseason is also a realistic possibility. We are not saying that’s where we’re going to be, but I do think that those things are possible.”
The success of the 2002-03 Michigan basketball team hinges on three key factors: locating a source of leadership on the floor, finding a center combination that compensates for the loss of Chris Young and developing the freshman class into immediate contributors.
As Amaker has continually stated, everything begins with senior captain LaVell Blanchard. Visibly bigger and stronger than in past seasons, the senior is finally hoping to live up to the high expectations he brought to Michigan.
“He’s been our best worker and our best player so far,” Amaker said. “I have been very pleased with what I have seen out of him.”
As a senior, Blanchard must share the burden of leadership. Traditionally a lead-by-example type of player, Amaker is not looking for Blanchard to become more vocal, but does expect him to set a high standard for younger teammates.
“I want to go out there and play hard and hopefully everyone else will follow,” Blanchard said.
Chris Young was an emotional leader for the Wolverines last season, often carrying his team for long stretches. For Michigan to have success this season, seniors Blanchard, Rotolu Adebiyi and Gavin Groninger must find a way to fulfill this role.
“The upperclassmen have already showed us a lot,” freshman Lester Abram said. “Looking at how they work on the court, we know we always have to try hard to compete in everything this team does.”
Chris Young’s departure also left a sizable hole under the basket. If Michigan was considered thin last season at center, this season it is almost skeletal. Freshmen Graham Brown and Chris Hunter, along with sophomore Chuck Bailey, will be asked to split time at center. Freshman Amadou Ba was projected to play center this season, but will redshirt instead. Finding a successful combination between these players will be crucial to Michigan’s success.
Finally, Amaker’s first recruiting class is composed of talent, winning attitudes and Michigan pride – all keys to success. But can the newcomers make an immediate impact?
“I think that we are asking our young kids to come aboard to this great school and to be a part of the rebuilding process of this program, to fit in and to work hard,” Amaker said.
Point guard Daniel Horton is the jewel. Heralded as one of the top high school guards in the country, Horton is an up-tempo player who can create his own shot, while simplifying the game for those around him. He’s comfortable running the floor, and like all the freshmen, understands his role.
“I really have not thought about what I would like to accomplish individually,” Horton said. “I want to do what is best for the team first. We had an 11-18 record last year and I just want to do my best to help the team improve on that record this year.”
Abram, who won two Michigan high school state championships at Pontiac Northern, brings a winning attitude. His versatility and defensive intensity should make him valuable. Brown and Hunter will definitely be thrown into the fire right away at center, and must mature quickly and learn to play smart defense.
As the first piece of a new puzzle, Amaker has worked to rebuild the program and find the key pieces lost over the past few years. With the current combination of youth and experience, along with the underlying optimism Amaker has generated in just one season, does he have all the right pieces to turn the Michigan basketball team around?