When you think of what makes up truly special college basketball seasons, only a few things usually come to mind. Miraculous wins, dominant records and championships are all part of what makes a season noteworthy.
The Michigan basketball team’s 2002-03 season did not produce championship banners. It didn’t end with a dominant record (10-6 Big Ten, 17-13 overall), and it featured just a few miraculous victories (one being its 15-point comeback against Wisconsin), but it was definitely special – and the most significant season in more than five years. After years of underachievement and off-court difficulties, this campaign marked the turning of the tide for Michigan basketball.
But now, it’s time to look ahead.
“This season was a great learning experience and will be good for next year,” freshman Lester Abram said. “I can foresee us being a top-20 team. Our added experience is going to be a central factor for us.”
There is a dark cloud in the form of the NCAA Infractions Committee moving toward the program right now, and the Wolverines are hoping it will pass by without thundering down upon them. The committee will make a decision in the next few weeks as to how it will penalize Michigan for the Ed Martin scandal. It could decide to extend the Wolverines’ postseason ban, which would be detrimental to a team with a strong chance of making the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, that’s the worst-case scenario. The committee could also decide to revoke scholarships and increase the financial penalty, which would at least allow the Wolverines to compete in the postseason.
“I think we’re all holding our breath right now,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said.
No matter what happens, Michigan has a lot to build on for next season, and should once again be a force in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines lose senior captain LaVell Blanchard, who has led the team in scoring during each of his four seasons. Blanchard was a potent 3-point threat, and his departure leaves a large scoring hole for Michigan to fill.
“I have never played without LaVell,” junior Bernard Robinson said. “It is going to be tough. We will have to wait and see until next year how it goes.”
Luckily, the freshman class developed more quickly than most people expected. Abram and Horton emerged as a solid backcourt duo, one that is capable of leading this team over the next few seasons.
Centers Graham Brown and Chris Hunter also matured in a hurry. Although Hunter was more athletic, Brown showed a certain toughness and heart that Amaker preached throughout the season and likes in his players. Both were instrumental to Michigan’s success this season, and their contributions are promising for the future. And even in limited minutes, Sherrod Harrell provided solid effort off the bench and should be a key contributor to next season’s guard corps.
“The freshman class grew a lot this season,” Abram said. “We didn’t have a choice but to grow because our team needed us out there.”
With Robinson emerging as a defensive force, he has become Michigan’s best all-around player, and should continue to be so in his final season.
“There were some special kids on this team, and there will be some special kids coming back next year,” senior Gavin Groninger said.
But that’s not all.
Next season, Michigan should answer its depth problems, which became very visible as the season wound down, with its incoming recruiting class.
Guard Dion Harris from Detroit, forward Brent Petway and forward/center Courtney Sims should considerably improve Amaker’s ability to go to his bench. Plus, with J.C. Mathis – who transferred from Virginia and sat out this season – entering the rotation, the Wolverines will be plenty deep up front.
Harris is a talented, moderately-sized guard who will provide much-needed backcourt support to Horton and Abram, who both averaged well over 30 minutes per game this season.
Of course, it would be impossible to predict exactly what will happen for Michigan next season.
“Who knows what the future holds,” Horton said. “All I know is that we have a lot of work to do before next season gets started.”
But as for right now, things are looking up.