DURHAM, N.C. – For seven minutes Saturday, Michigan was better than Duke. Featuring an effort that would have overwhelmed the likes of Virginia Tech and Central Michigan, the Wolverines led Duke 11-10, were shutting down the Blue Devils’ offense and seemed to believe that they could, miraculously, pull an upset at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Paul Wong

Obviously, they didn’t win.

But as Duke slowly began to pull away from Michigan, I stumbled upon some stunning information. One of the game’s timeouts afforded me the opportunity to read through Mike Krzyzewski’s biography in Duke’s game program.

And you know what?

Krzyzewski – or “Coach K” as you had better call him down here – didn’t have very good teams when he started coaching at Duke.

The bio reads: “When Coach K came to Duke in the spring of 1980, he found a program that was searching for strong leadership and a rebirth of the success that Blue Devils fans had come to know and love.”

Sound familiar? It should, because it’s almost the exact same situation under which Tommy Amaker took the helm of the Michigan basketball team.

“I love Tommy, I don’t just like him, I love Tommy,” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s 81-59 victory over Michigan. “Tommy’s part of my heart, part of my family.”

Athletics-wise, there’s a very good reason why Coach K might hold such strong emotions for Amaker. That’s because Krzyzewski’s first team at Duke limped into the NIT. His second and third teams finished 10-17 and 11-17, respectively.

It wasn’t until a sophomore point guard by the name of Tommy Amaker finally came into his own in the 1984-85 season that Coach K finally started dancing come March with a 24-10 record.

That means it took four seasons for arguably the most respected coach in college basketball to get to the NCAA Tournament.

Now Amaker has the reigns of his own team, a Michigan program desperate for a return to national prominence. And before everyone gets all over his case for the Wolverines’ disappointing 0-6 start, here’s another juicy little tidbit from Coach K’s bio: “Success stories do not just happen overnight.”

Like it or not, at 0-6 or 6-0, this team is going to end its season at the same place – in Chicago at the Big Ten Tournament.

Michigan fans have heard for the last several years that the future is going to be brighter, and, for the first time, Amaker has things in place so that that light at the end of the tunnel no longer feels like an oncoming train.

As valuable as senior LaVell Blanchard has been to Michigan for four years and as much as fellow seniors Gavin Groninger and Rotolu Adebiyi have put into this program, it takes some time to build a winner, and everything’s pointing toward winning next year for this team.

The rotation in 2003-04 will likely feature one senior (Bernard Robinson), two juniors (Chuck Bailey and transfer J.C. Mathis) and a combination of 10 sophomores or freshmen.

No, Michigan didn’t beat Duke on Saturday, and no, they are not a bad enough team to be 0-6 right now. But, believe it or not, there are some positives developing in this season.

Center Graham Brown is slowly beginning to look like he belongs in the post. Bailey’s play has not only earned him a place on the court, but also made that scenario unavoidable if the Wolverines are to be successful. Freshmen Daniel Horton and Lester Abram are taking on the look of a four-year starting backcourt.

There is talent here – more than 0-6 talent. Add in new faces like Mathis, Dion Harris, Brent Petway and Courtney Sims and then-eligible Amadou Ba next year, and Michigan – if the NCAA allows it – becomes a postseason threat next year, no doubt about it.

“They haven’t won yet,” Krzyzewski said. “But they’re on the verge of starting to win.”

In the meantime, Amaker and Michigan fans can take heart in the fact that, even for the greatest of college basketball minds in Coach K, it didn’t click right away.

Michigan needs stability and a coach willing to devote himself to making this program great again. Amaker brings both of those qualities, and deserves more than a full season and six games to prove what he can do, just like Coach K has done at Duke.

“It’s something to aspire to become and to be,” said Amaker of the Duke program.

Krzyzewski had three very difficult years, and not until that fourth year – thanks in no small part to Amaker – did he get Duke back on the national map. If Coach K is as close to Amaker as he says he is, maybe that’s a story he can share.

Chris Burke can be reached at chrisbur@umich.edu

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