The Michigan basketball team is running away. Running away from its 0-6 start, its 22-point loss to Duke, the off-court troubles that have stuck to the program like shoes to a movie theater floor and embarrassing double-digit losses to its biggest rivals. It is running away, and like Lott fleeing Sodom, refusing to look back for fear that it will turn into a pillar of salt.
Just weeks prior to the start of the season , in which coach Tommy Amaker would begin his sophomore campaign with his much ballyhooed freshman class, it was delivered a blow. University President Mary Sue Coleman announced in the Michigan Union that the team would be placed under self-imposed sanctions, foregoing a postseason for the transgressions committed before any of the current Wolverines had graduated junior school.
The Wolverines proceeded to lose their first three games at the Paradise Jam, drop their first two home games and were beaten on national television by Duke. At 0-6, the 2002-03 Michigan basketball team was off to its worst start in school history, with many people smelling the same foul stench that had been omitting from Crisler for the previous four seasons.
“Everybody just felt like it was time to draw the line, and I guess that was the moment where the line was drawn,” freshman Lester Abram said. “Everybody was tired of losing and coming in the locker room sad and with nothing to say. We knew with the talent that we had on this team, and that we shouldn’t be losing that way.”
At that point, the slate was wiped clean and Amaker used the motivational technique of starting the season over. The Wolverines embraced this, and started playing like the team that people thought they would be. They were playing help defense and making the extra pass on offense.
Before anyone knew it, Michigan had won its seven remaining nonconference games with the highlight coming in a five-point win over UCLA on the road. It was Michigan’s first nonconference road victory since 1998.
Michigan then showed the refusal to quit that it hasn’t shown in past seasons when it fought back from halftime deficits against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern. It became evident that players were buying into Amaker’s system and were focused working hard to improve as individuals and as a team.
“They respond in their own way,” said Amaker of his teams response to adversity. “What I love about this team is that when I need to jump them or get them fired up in practice or during the game, I think they recognize that I am telling them the truth and that it is nothing personal. That is my belief and I think that is the connection we have developed.”
This connection, respect and trust had to be earned over the past year and is the fruit of the team’s labor. No coach is able to come in and have an immediacy that can only be developed with time. One of the most evident signs of this development is Michigan’s improved defense, which has been instrumental in all of its comeback wins.
But one of the results of this trust is Amaker’s willingness to break from his man-to-man style and play a zone defense to get a better matchup. In addition, according to senior tri-captain Rotolu Adebiyi, the Wolverines also recognized that they can’t let opposing teams work harder than them and must be more willing to hit the deck for loose balls.
“We started winning games when we started playing defense and stopped giving other teams easy shots or transition buckets and points off of turnovers,” senior tri-captain Gavin Groninger said. “I knew we had a good half-court defense, just at times when we gave up buckets it would deflate us. But now we are not allowing that to happen.”
This style of play has come to form the identity of the team, which bases itself on hard work, hustle and a blue-collar mentality. This attitude has given the Wolverines a toughness that had been absent in the previous year and was often pointed at as the cause for blowout losses to Michigan State and Ohio State.
The team-first attitude has also helped produce an atmosphere where freshmen are not just counted on to produce on the court but also be leaders off of it. None of the freshmen had experienced prolonged losing before the season began – one of the traits that Amaker recruited them for. Consequently, they refused to conform to the quagmire of losing which the program had been stuck in.
“All of us coming out of high school weren’t really used to losing,” said Abram who won two state championships while at Pontiac Northern. “So whenever we are kind of in a sticky situation, all the freshman give their input and how they feel we can win the game because we have all been in those situations before.”
Speaking up on the part of the freshmen is something that the coaching staff has stressed to the team. Abram also felt that at the start of the season, the freshman didn’t feel they had as much to say because the team was losing. But the team started winning, the freshmen felt they could add to what the older players were saying. This acted to create an egalitarian environment, allowing, everyone to contribute and has led to the teams success by increasing their trust in each other.
Becoming team leaders has also helped the freshmen become more confident in their on-court ability. Three of the freshmen start regularly while all five freshmen are in the rotation, making crucial contributions to the 11-game winning streak.
The most integral freshmen is point guard Daniel Horton, who is averaging 34.9 minutes, 15.9 points and 4.5 assists per game en route to two Big Ten Player of the Week awards. Horton is playing with the maturity of an upperclassman and has the uncanny ability to move past mistakes, not letting them affect him. He also demands the ball down the stretch and is unshakeable in dire situations.
But more than his tangible contributions, Horton also opens things up for senior tri-captain LaVell Blanchard, and helps take some of the pressure off of him. Blanchard is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder with 17.2 and 7.1 per game, respecfully, and for the first time in his Michigan career, he seems to fit into his role on the team as a leader and captain.
“None has been bigger than LaVell Blanchard,” Amaker said. He is a “senior captain who is our best player and best worker. He has produced for us. I start with him, and that has been the reason why we have been able to make things go our way so far.”
In addition, this is one of the first times that the team has been absent of personnel problems which have marred team chemistry. Whether it was players transferring (Brandon Smith, LeLand Anderson, Marcus Bennett and Dommanic Ingerson), academic problems (Josh Moore, JaQuan Hart and Kelly Whitney), dismissals from the team (Kevin Gaines, Maurice Searight, Avery Queen) or NCAA violations (Jamal Crawford), the team had previously been surrounded by distractions and smeared with scandal.
“The cohesion is a lot better now,” Groninger said. “There is a lot more focus on being a team now. Four years ago, we had just as much talent with my class, but people might not have been as focused or have been into it for themselves.
“You have to give the freshman credit for the success we are having. The way they handled the 0-6 start and now the winning streak has been phenomenal.”
This new mindset has resulted in something that people have not seen for some time in Ann Arbor – wins. And if Amaker can continue to recruit top talent with up-standing moral character, the Wolverines may only have to worry about looking over their shoulders to see other Big Ten teams chasing them.