When you lose a big part of the whole, things become drastically worse — just like the Ann Arbor bar scene with Mitch’s under construction.
The Michigan basketball team is about to find out that fact first hand, because its entire season will be quite different after Sunday’s announcement that Lester Abram will undergo year-ending surgery.
I know that the Wolverines knocked off the Fighting Irish on Saturday essentially without Abram, who did not score in his nine minutes of play.
But let’s not pretend that the win over Notre Dame is an indication that this team can win consistently against good teams without Abram.
It can’t — not with the type of snags it has already hit this season.
Daniel Horton has been inconsistent, struggling with his shooting (37 percent this season) and his turnovers (over four per game). Courtney Sims has shown improvement — averaging 11 points and seven rebounds per game — but not the type of dominance many believed he would display after adding on 20-plus pounds in the offseason.
And now, with Abram out, Michigan will be without a player it could not afford to lose.
The transition the team had to make after last season — coping with the departure of senior leader Bernard Robinson Jr. — was a tough, but manageable, one. The team still returned four other starters and the bulk of its scoring and talent.
But take Abram out of the equation and it’s a whole different story. Essentially, the team went from a situation it could overcome to one that will likely cripple it. Abram led the team in scoring last year, averaging 13 points a game. Abram and Robinson Jr., accounted for 25 of the team’s 68 points per contest.
That’s a lot of scoring to make up for with guys like sophomore John Andrews and junior Sherrod Harrell stepping in.
Making matters worse, Abram brought much more to the court than just points in a boxscore. He was the team’s only consistent player last year — a player that could be counted on night-in and night-out. While Horton and Dion Harris had their share of ups and downs, the team knew what it was going to get from Abram each game.
And Abram’s court presence was also a vital factor for the Wolverines, as was evidenced in Saturday’s win. Abram did virtually nothing to fill up the stat sheet — he finished the game with zero points and two rebounds in nine minutes — but just his aura on the court seemed to give Michigan a lift that it didn’t have in its previous two games, losses to Georgia Tech and Providence.
So who will step up to fill this void left after Abram’s injury?
Michigan coach Tommy Amaker started Andrews in each of the team’s last two games. And Harrell started two games in a row against Sacramento State and Arizona earlier in the year.
But even if both of these guys were on the court together (that’s right, six guys for Michigan compared to five for the other team), they couldn’t fill Abram’s shoes.
With respect to Andrews and Harrell — guys who work hard in practice and give the team all they’ve got — there comes a point where effort can only take you so far when the talent isn’t there. And while these guys are good enough to fill in minutes here and there while the Wolverines are at full strength, they’re just not talented enough to be starters for a team that has NCAA Tournament aspirations.
Next down the lineup is freshman Ron Coleman, who played well on Saturday, scoring 11 points (10 in the first half). Coleman has the potential to step up and fill some of Abram’s void. But remember: he’s just a freshman, and he shot a combined 3-for-22 combined through the team’s first six games. One strong performance might indicate good things in the future, but it shouldn’t overshadow how tough it is for a freshman to adjust to hoops at this level.
And no matter who steps in to fill Abram’s vacated minutes — he played all but three during Michigan’s first two games this year — the team will need to seriously consider redefining its ultimate goals for this season. At the outset, the team was fresh off its NIT championship and riding high. Anything short of an NCAA Tournament bid this season was going to be viewed as a disappointment.
Now, an NIT berth might not be so bad.
Thus far, the team has floundered against the strong nonconference opponents. While the Wolverines might be able to get through the rest of the nonconference season — against teams like High Point and South Florida — with a decent record, the Big Ten season without Abram won’t be pretty.
Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin have looked much more impressive than Michigan to date. Teams like Purdue, Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern would be tough matchups even with a 100-percent-healthy lineup.
That leaves matchups with Penn State, Minnesota and Ohio State as Michigan’s best chances for wins come conference season.
Pulling together a mediocre Big Ten record won’t be enough for the tournament selection committee — just ask last year’s team.
Making matters worse are the other injuries affecting the Wolverines. Horton is doubtful for tonight’s game against High Point after hurting his knee during practice on Sunday. It is still unknown how much — if any — time the junior will miss.
Graham Brown is out for four to six weeks while recovering from hernia surgery. This is an injury that — with a healthy Abram — maybe the team could overcome. But Brown’s absence will only compound Michigan’s problems in its current state.
So while things looked bright before the season began, now — without Abram and faced with other injuries — things have the potential to get dark really quickly for the Wolverines.
Daniel Bremmer can be reached at email@example.com.