How do you define a rebuilding season? Take a close look at this year”s Michigan basketball team, and you”ll see how.
I didn”t really notice this until a week ago tonight, when I sat in the Crisler Arena tunnel after the Wolverines stomped IUPU-Fort Wayne. Talking to the Mastodons coach, Doug Noll, I couldn”t help but be taken aback by what people think about this Michigan team.
Let me pause here and say that I”m no die-hard Michigan basketball fan. I”m not nave enough to think that this team is any better than it is.
Still, I was shocked when I saw how angry Noll was, not because his team lost by 30 points, but because it didn”t beat Michigan.
I kind of laughed to myself. Here is a guy who coaches a team that has been Division I for three weeks, whose team came into the game with an 0-6 record and who coaches several players that in the Mastodons” media guide list the Wolverines as their favorite basketball team.
This guy was upset that his team couldn”t beat Michigan?
But shortly before tipoff in the Duke game, it hit me. These Wolverines have already lost to Western Michigan and Bowling Green. Who”s to say that they can”t lose any game? Has this team proven that a win against IUPU-Fort Wayne should be a given?
The basketball program is not like the football program. Many would consider this football season to have been a down year. The team lost its entire offense in the before the season. But Miami (Ohio) didn”t come into Ann Arbor on Sept. 1 with a win on its mind. It might have told the media that it doesn”t play to lose, but all the Ben Roethlisberger magic in the world couldn”t have given the RedHawks a victory.
Small-time football programs love a chance to play Michigan. They strive for the chance to run onto the Michigan Stadium field, to line up across from the winged helmets and to appreciate the fact that they”re playing in front of the largest crowd watching football that afternoon.
No-name basketball teams love facing Michigan for another reason the chance to win. It doesn”t matter if Michigan doesn”t win more than 3 games this season if IUPU-Fort Wayne had beaten the Wolverines, that program would be bragging about it for the next 60 years, particularly emphasizing it when Michigan finishes rebuilding. You don”t think that Oakland is still milking its victory over Michigan last year for everything its worth?
Back in Crisler, I proceeded to watch as my fears became realities. Before I could write that Michigan won the opening tip, the Blue Devils were ahead 34-8 and looking to show how little had changed since last season.
Duke made something very clear to the Wolverines a new coach doesn”t make up for a lack of talent, doesn”t automatically extinguish what was a miserable team attitude.
Michigan heard the Blue Devils laughing. And the Wolverines, made to look like fools, went on a tear of their own, outscoring Duke 79-77 from that point on.
And then, for the second time that afternoon, my opinion of the team changed.
Michigan”s going to need to hear a lot more laughing this season. The team is going to have to pay heed to the fact that it”s not very good. This is still Brian Ellerbe”s program, with Brian Ellerbe”s players. Tommy Amaker might have his name in the scorecard, but Ellerbe”s impact will be felt for years.
So how do you combat that? You rebuild. You listen to the people that laugh, and beat them at their own game.
When you know that you”re not very good, you can surprise a lot of people when you play well.
Michigan is going to need to pay more attention to Noll”s comments regarding the fact that his Mastodons should have won, and find a way to ignore Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski”s claim that this team is vastly improved from last year”s.
They need to listen to Amaker. They need to be patient and realize that the wins will come. Michigan has a system now, for the first time since Steve Fisher was forced out. They need to use it.
This Michigan team will impress a lot of people this season. Maybe not in the won/loss record, but these Wolverines are developing the foundation to be special again.
Just don”t tell them that.
Jon Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.