It”s not easy following the footsteps and transgressions of past freshmen on the Michigan basketball team. One”s only models to follow over the past three years have been players who have jumped to the NBA, transferred, gotten suspended, or got kicked off the team completely.
It”s no joke. The probability of an incoming frosh of the past three years staying with the program is an embarrassing 57 percent, as six of the 14 newcomers are no longer a part of the program.
The survivors have had their share of problems as well. From violating team rules to criminal activity, Michigan freshmen haven”t had an easy shake.
Even this year”s class couldn”t escape a case of the freshman fallout, as it was rocked before it even got a chance to start. Blue-chip recruits JaQuan Hart and Kelly Whitney were expected to come on the scene and add some depth to Michigan”s bench. But neither could make the cut academically, as each failed to achieve the minimum test scores to fit Michigan”s high standards.
“It was obviously an unfortunate situation,” coach Tommy Amaker said. “But it”s good to hear that the two have turned it into good situations for themselves.”
Hart is attending Ohio State, and will have to gain academic eligibility before playing for the Buckeyes, while Amaker said that Whitney will go to prep school and, ironically, join Amaker”s former program, Seton Hall.
So who”s left to pick up the pieces?
Three Michigan freshmen power forward Chuck Bailey and two guards in Domminac Ingerson and Marcus Bennett survived the storm and will try to save face for a once highly-touted class. Amaker”s plan to revitalize the program depends on the contribution from the trio.
“Obviously because we”re not a deep team, all the freshmen have to be prepared to play,” assistant coach Chuck Swenson said. “I could see all of them getting significant minutes.”
What makes these freshmen any different from the rest? Teammates say their attitude and willingness to learn. Ingerson and Bailey came to Ann Arbor after they graduated and started a Summer Bridge Program that helps students make the difficult adjustment to college classes. They immediately hit the hardwood as well, sharpening their skills and getting stronger .
A new “big brother” system has also been established, matching up an underclassman with a senior he can look up to for advice and guidance, while adjusting to life on and off the court.
“We are just trying to keep their heads straight and they actually listen,” said senior tri-captain Leon Jones, who is Ingerson”s “big brother.” “A lot of times in the past they wouldn”t listen and just brush us off and now these guys are which will help them a lot.”
For Ingerson, having a strong influence in his life couldn”t be more important especially after what he”s been through. While Ingerson was a top-20 recruit nationally last year, most of the buzz surrounding him was a cloud of controversy over his troublesome behavior.
That”s why his coach at Santa Barbara, Jeff Lavender, made sure he knew what he was inheriting when Ingerson transferred from a school in Oakland, Calif. He sat down with Ingerson and his mother, and “called his old coach to try to figure out what was going on.”
What Lavender said he found was a kid who didn”t have an easy life, a guard who “played with a certain type of anger” and “the most skilled guard” he had seen in 17 years of coaching.
Not only could Ingerson pull up from over six feet behind the arc shooting about 60 percent from that range but he could also attack the basket and creatively engineer his offense to the point that he even surprised his teammates.
“I remember over 20 times where he”d pass to a teammate and the ball would hit him in the head or chest,” Lavender said.
Lavender remembers Ingerson exploding for 39 points and six treys against one of the top teams in Southern California. But he also remembered Ingerson”s several suspensions, the time he almost booted Ingerson off the team and the time when Ingerson got kicked out of his aunt”s house and Lavender had to host him for a while.
“He”s a pretty good kid and always showed me respect,” said Santa Barbara assistant coach Adam Sjovold. “Half of his edge is that he plays with a chip on his shoulder and that can also get him in trouble sometimes.”
Ingerson insists that he”s changed, has put the past behind him and has placed himself in a position where he can start fresh with Michigan.
Lavender said Ingerson is maturing and that he will “gravitate to any influences he has good or bad.” Despite Lavender”s thoughts, Michigan”s coaching staff worried about his turbulent past.
“Going into it, quite honestly, I was (worried),” Swenson said. “But having gotten to know him, I don”t worry about him. He”s been a class guy. In practice he”s been tremendous so far as his attitude.”
Teammates agree, and can attest for Ingerson”s new attitude.
“The reputation that he got in high school is not accurate of how he actually is,” said senior tri-captain Chris Young.
As far as Ingerson”s performance on the court, Amaker knows he has a talented kid who can flat out score, as evident in his 11-point debut this past Sunday against the EA Sports All-Stars, when he gave Michigan a “shot in the arm,” according to his new coach.
But Amaker”s worry is the same as Lavender”s Ingerson”s play on the other end of the court.
“He”s going to have serious problems defensively,” Lavender said. “He could cruise here, but at Michigan he can”t.”
Ingerson”s roommate is Bailey (Detroit King), who along with fellow recruit Bennett (Detroit Renaissance) are from down the road in Detroit. Bailey and Bennett played on the same AAU team, The Family, and knew each other for a while before coming to Michigan.
“Playing on the same team and with my father working with his father, we”ve gone through a lot of the same issues,” Bailey said.
Bailey came from a very religious background, with both his parents being “raised in the church.” He even considers his pastor as “a second father.”
“Singing in the church choir when I was younger, being with my church family and going on trips with my youth group were memories I”ll never forget,” said Bailey, who used to invite his high school teammates to his place of worship.
What Bailey”s father won”t ever forget was the time he challenged his son”s leaping ability. Bailey and his father used to go one-on-one, but the elder Bailey told him one day when he was 14 that he wouldn”t play him again until he could grab a telephone wire that was 12 feet off the ground.
Not only did Bailey do it, he left a mark.
“He came running in, saying “I touched it, I touched it!”” Chuck Bailey, Sr. said. “What I didn”t know is that he broke a (street) lamp above the wire.”
Setting his sights high is nothing new for Bailey, who always wanted to play big-time college basketball. But his coach at King, Benny White, said that Bailey was a late bloomer and didn”t start getting the attention from scouts after his junior year.
But one won”t hear the Michigan coaching staff complain, as they feel at 6-foot-7, Bailey can give much-needed spells to LaVell Blanchard and a depleted front line, while also adding some energy on the boards and an uncanny shot-blocking ability.
But the lone freshman that Amaker recruited himself was Bennett, who signed late after Amaker found out that he had an extra roster spot with the departures of Hart and Whitney. Bennett, a candidate for the point and shooting guard position, is surprised and honored to be wearing Maize and Blue and is impressed with Amaker”s straightforwardness.
“To be honest I knew I”d want to come here, but I was very surprised with what he did with individuals,” said Bennett, who compares Amaker to his high school coach. “Most coaches lie and Amaker was up front and was a real guy and that”s what I like about him.”
While Bennett appreciates Amaker”s honesty, the coach”s endearing characteristic doesn”t let the coach off the hook when it comes to one of Bennett”s major talents according to his teammates.
“He”s really the comedian on the team,” Jones said. “He does great imitations of people on the team. In our locker room in a certain corner we all joke around after practice in a”Comedy Corner.
“And he”s definitely the best.”
Word has it that Bennett does a killer Amaker impression.
While Bennett is considered the spirit of the Wolverines, he has a serious side as well especially when it comes to playing “Madden 2002” on Playstation II. In his dorm room in West Quad, Bennett takes on Ingerson for many intense, late night matchups that rival their competitiveness on the court.
As for who wins, the answer is simple to Bennett.
“It has to be Ingerson,” he admits with a smile. “He”s really good.”