Before the season, the Michigan basketball team was expected to do decently well in conference play — probably not contend for a Big Ten title with teams like Illinois or Michigan State but be just behind them. The Wolverines were expected to earn an NCAA Tournament bid but probably as a mid- to lower-seed.
Now, take the two best players off of that Michigan team, and what do you expect to happen?
You can’t blame Tommy Amaker, like many students and fans are doing, for failing to reach what have become unrealistically lofty goals this season.
At the same time, maybe some of it is Amaker’s fault.
But no matter what you think about the future, don’t forget about what Amaker has already done to help erase memories of a dishonorable past.
The Abram and Horton situations are the root of why Michigan has floundered this season, yet people continue to take their absences too lightly and place the blame squarely on Amaker’s coaching.
The Wolverines have played nearly all season without Abram, arguably their best and most consistent player from last season. Abram may have been a role player when he got to Michigan, but, last year, he proved that he was much closer to a star on the team than just a role player.
Horton’s injury and legal issues have been a huge blow to the team as well. But people try to play off the Horton struggles like they’re no big deal. They say that Horton hasn’t been playing well anyway, so what’s the point whether or not he’s on the floor or suspended indefinitely.
But Horton meant a lot more to Michigan than points or assists could represent, namely with his defense and leadership.
Making matters worse are all of the other guys who missed multiple games due to injury — Chris Hunter, Brent Petway, Graham Brown and Dani Wohl.
Amaker is often criticized for his in-game coaching. Even I’ll admit that I second guess him in certain situations, like when he’s slow to call timeouts while opponents make runs.
But the fact is that he was able to guide his depleted, role-player-laden-with-few-real-stars team to win its first three Big Ten games — as part of a larger six-game winning streak — despite the surrounding circumstances. That says something about his coaching, even if the team has now lost four straight.
You can argue that, if Amaker had more and/or better players around to begin with, the team would be in less trouble after losing Abram and now Horton. Recruiting — which has always been considered to be one of Amaker’s strong points — is something that might have Michigan fans worried.
Amaker was highly touted as a great recruiter when he took the helm of the Wolverines, just a year after he brought one of the top players in the country, Eddie Griffin, to Seton Hall. And in his first recruiting class at Michigan, he managed to bring Horton — a McDonald’s All-American — to the University, despite the fact that the program was under NCAA scrutiny and faced possible sanctions.
Fast forward a few years. Michigan’s current freshman class — namely Ron Coleman, because he’s the only member — has played well recently, but he isn’t having nearly the impact that a top-tier freshman might have made at other schools. And for Amaker’s sake, it doesn’t help that two players that he nearly landed — Kentucky’s Joe Crawford and Oregon’s Malik Hairston, both from Detroit Renaissance — are both playing well at big programs.
As for Crawford and Hairston, you can’t blame Amaker for sticking to his guns and not making promises he couldn’t keep. Both players seemingly wanted similar assurances — a starting spot and/or guaranteed minutes — while gaining face time for a run at a rising NBA Draft stock. That’s even before you consider the three-ring recruiting circus that both of these guys held before committing. Both players will likely leave college after this season (or next season, at the latest) and enter the Draft.
The thinking goes that neither player would have helped the future of the program in the long-haul, so it’s not as big a loss that they didn’t come to Michigan. But it’s hard not to think about what life would be like if the team had a guy like Hairston to fill in for an injured Abram.
The future is just as mirky. None of Michigan’s recruits for next year are highly ranked enough to be considered “blue chip” recruits. Who knows what the future of the program will hold?
All that we know for sure is what has already happened. Looking at the state of the program now, as opposed to when I started out as a student four years ago, it’s amazing to see the difference.
We were a laughing stock of the Big Ten — and maybe even the country — a team without any aspirations and a team that was under NCAA investigation and, later, faced sanctions for the Ed Martin scandal. People were so used to losing in 2001 that people barely cared about hoops at all, let alone with the passion that they do today.
And, while this year might be one to forget, the Michigan basketball team again commands respect and is clean of any NCAA wrongdoing.
So, while there are certain areas of this year’s downfall that you can pin on Amaker, it’s not all his fault, as many critics would have you believe.
Now, as a student, I can only hope that things will look up soon in the future.
Daniel Bremmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.