WEST LAFAYETTE –
If I could have one person at a funeral, it would be Michigan coach Tommy Amaker. No matter how devastating the situation might be, he’d always find something positive to say.
Granted, the Michigan basketball season hasn’t been as depressing as a funeral, but there have been some moments that have left fans crying – namely the key road losses.
But despite these moments of sadness, Amaker has put a positive spin on his team’s performance.
After the North Carolina State loss: “Our kids really battled. I told them how we were disappointed (with) how we got in that position. But I was equally as impressed and proud of how we battled back.”
After the UCLA loss: “(The team was) just trying to dig it out and trying to do more to help us out. Sometimes when you try to do that it becomes a little bit like quicksand. The harder you try at certain situations, the more it feels like you are sinking down.”
But following Saturday’s loss to Purdue, Amaker looked like a defeated man. His face was marked with a somber countenance. His shoulders slumped in his chair. In un-Amaker-like fashion, he delivered his answers quietly and without a hint of optimism.
“We’ll find something (positive), we always try to,” Amaker said. “Sometimes it’s not there, but we’re going to be very honest with them. … So when we get a chance to evaluate it and grade it, we’ll try to look for things that we’ll be able to utilize in the future to become a better basketball team.”
If you can’t think of something positive in a 14-point loss, from the time the clock hits zero, to the time you step up to the podium, it’s a safe bet that there wasn’t one.
If you didn’t get a chance to watch the game, trust me, that was definitely the case Saturday.
The Wolverines lost to a Purdue team that was trounced by its rival (Indiana) the Wednesday before. It doesn’t matter how angry the Boilermakers might have been. A week’s worth of preparation should overcome any type of emotion the opponent may have.
Michigan committed 17 turnovers against just seven assists. Giving the ball to your opponent more often than your own teammates is a recipe for disaster – unless you’re playing Michigan. (North Carolina State pulled off this feat in a Nov. 27 win over the Wolverines)
But the most depressing thing of all didn’t show up in the stat sheet. It was the Wolverines’ lack of physicality that made me reach for the closest hankie to dry my tearful eyes.
“(Purdue) put us on our heels, and we got in a big hole,” Amaker said. “Climbing up hill like that the majority of the game is a very difficult position to be in.”
For Amaker, every key road loss slides him farther down the hill. And if you take into account his entire career at Michigan, sixth-year coach is looking at something much more imposing.
He’s looking at climbing Mt. Everest.
In his six seasons as a head coach at Michigan, Amaker can lay claim to just two big road wins (at UCLA on Dec. 28, 2002 and at No. 14 Iowa on Jan. 5, 2005). Add to that the reality of a tourney-less program staring back at him, and he’s climbing this self-imposed mountain without an oxygen mask.
For three years, including this season, people around campus have been calling for Amaker’s head. During his first two seasons at the helm, I would’ve called those people crazy.
Even though Amaker’s players haven’t been perfect, (see Daniel Horton and Bernard Robinson, Jr.), nothing close to the Ed Martin debacle has surfaced under Amaker’s reign. Bill Martin’s reasons to retain Amaker made perfect sense. He cleaned up a tarnished program.
But this season might be different, and Amaker’s reaction to the loss may be the first clue. He may finally be feeling the squeeze that many of the fans have been trying to put him in for the past three seasons.
The Wolverines had a chance for a marquee road win, but with another disappointment under their belts, they’re running out of opportunities. Next week, Michigan must travel to Wisconsin and Indiana back-to-back and then to Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois for its next three road games.
Winning two or three of them is what Amaker needs to do to start climbing up that mountain.
But with the way the team has been playing on the road lately, winning one of those games would be a miracle.
Near the end of Saturday’s game, when Purdue had all but sealed the deal, its pep band played Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
It’s an appropriate soundtrack for the rest of Amaker’s season.
– Bosch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.