Senior tri-captain Leon Jones walked up to Michigan assistant coach Chuck Swenson after a practice late this season and let his emotions spill out.
“I wish I could come back and play another year for you guys,” Jones said.
The sincere gesture symbolized the unconditional willingness and trust that Jones and fellow tri-captains Chris Young and Rotolu Adebiyi brought into Tommy Amaker’s quest to rebuild the Michigan program.
They were, as Amaker calls it, the “glue that kept the team together,” representing the best core of leaders that the Michigan basketball team has had in a while – at a time when the Wolverines needed them the most.
“If I had to put down one or two things that we have to have for our team, leadership would be No. 1,” Amaker said. “It will be essential for the growth of our team and our program.”
But possibly as early as today, all of Michigan’s leaders will be donning their maize and blue jerseys for the final time. With the departure of the captains, along with the “soul patrol” – Mike Gotfredson, Herb Gibson and Ron Garber – most of Amaker’s gritty guys, hustle players and hard workers will be gone.
But most of all, gone is the heart and soul of the team.
Don’t think the Michigan coaching staff isn’t concerned, because it is. And for good reason.
The Wolverines have five talented freshmen coming in next year who will need to be given the proper orientation. And there will still be at least two other underclassmen seeking direction, Dommanic Ingerson and Chuck Bailey, making leadership even more crucial to Michigan’s success.
Someone will need to relay Amaker’s principles, to be the rock that the team leans on, just like Young was. Someone will need to crack the proverbial whip when needed and give a warm smile of confidence when the feelings of “here we go again” are apparent, just as Adebiyi was known for. Someone will need to buckle down and get a key defensive stop or create offensively when the wheels are coming off in a tough road contest, just like Jones was counted on to do many times this year.
And in a task that may be even more difficult, someone will need to have the courage to speak out critically against a teammate – whether he’s an All-Big Ten player, a roommate or even just a close friend.
“It’s not easy to hold your teammates accountable,” Swenson said. “They try to say the right things, but for someone to say something negative to their good friends is tough.
“Saying the right things at the right time in the right way. That’s an art.”
This year’s captains have been successful at just that, mostly because as Gavin Groninger says, “the other 10 or 11 guys actually want to listen to them.”
But who will fill these roles next season?
Next year’s seniors, Groninger and LaVell Blanchard, would be the most logical choices.
But neither has been the vocal type yet. Blanchard has led mostly by example and likes to stay to himself. Groninger has struggled immensely this season and often isn’t the best model to follow in terms of consistency or confidence.
“I think I can be one of the leaders,” said a noncommittal Groninger. “I always put the team first, no matter what is going on with me on the court.”
Team-first attitudes are good. But Michigan needs credible leaders who’ve proven themselves on the court and are willing to speak up and hold people accountable. Michigan needs people to grab a young group of Wolverines by the horns and make sure another 10-18 season isn’t even a possibility.
Blanchard and Bernard Robinson, while inconsistent, have proven themselves on the court, but by their own admission, they don’t speak up too often.
Superstar recruit Daniel Horton, supposedly a stud point guard who can win games by himself, has enough of a burden of expectations on his shoulders without having to add the hefty responsibility of team leader.
Amaker hopes that the “leaders of tomorrow learn from the leaders of today,” and that the exploits and experiences of Jones, Young and Adebiyi rub off on the rest of his team.
Groninger and Young are best friends and roommates, so there’s a start. But the future leader of the Wolverines is still very much in doubt.
“We need to find a leader for next year,” Amaker said. “Sometimes you may not have it. I’m hoping that won’t be the case for us – but it’s always a possibility.”
If that is in fact the case, expect another long season for the Maize and Blue.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.