At first glance, this year’s Michigan basketball team looks a lot like last year’s squad.
Like their 2005-06 counterparts, this season’s Wolverines have started the season 16-4.
Both used two important conference wins at home to get their record to 16-4.
And each has relied on its seniors for success.
But in reality, these teams couldn’t be more different.
The success of last year’s team was dependent on individual performances. Michigan had three signature wins last season – consecutive home victories over No. 11 Michigan State and No. 23 Wisconsin, and another home win late in the season over No. 8 Illinois.
Against Michigan State, senior Daniel Horton scored 23 points, and fellow senior Chris Hunter exploded for 13 second-half points to deliver the win.
Against Wisconsin, then-junior Dion Harris hit five 3-pointers and exploded for 23 points, his highest total of the season. Then-junior Courtney Sims converted on 8-of-10 field-goal attempts to add 18 points to the cause.
And against Illinois, Horton put the team on his shoulders and scored 39 points, carrying Michigan to victory.
In all three of these wins, there were two notable variables that remained consistent.
The Wolverines recorded more turnovers than assists in each contest.
But outstanding individual performances enabled Michigan to earn victories in all three games.
Two constants also appeared in this past week’s convincing wins over Penn State and Purdue.
In each contest, the Wolverines assisted on 19 of their 24 field goals.
And each game saw significant offensive contributions from at least four players.
In the Penn State game, eight players scored more than seven points, and every person that played for at least 10 minutes recorded an assist.
In the Purdue game, four players reached double figures, and point guards Harris and sophomore Jerret Smith combined for 12 assists.
For the root of this team-based success, look back at the loss to Purdue on the road, which came directly before the consecutive home wins over Penn State and the Boilermakers. In the loss, Michigan had just seven assists against 17 turnovers, and just one player (Harris) reached double figures.
After the Penn State win, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker pointed to his team’s newfound willingness to share the ball as the reason for the victory. Following Saturday’s win over Purdue, senior Brent Petway elaborated.
“We all got on the same page,” Petway said. “We met with each other, as a group, and talked about it, and we’re all on that same page now. We’ve basically just become unselfish. I think we were getting a little bit selfish for a second there, and we’ve all calmed down and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”
So it’s clear. For the Wolverines to be successful this year, they need everyone contributing.
But why is it so different? Why did last year’s team thrive on individual successes, while this year’s squad plays its best when everyone helps out?
To answer this, simply look at the leader of each team.
Last year, it was the superstar Horton who “willed the team to victory,” as Amaker put it after the Illinois game.
This year, it’s Petway who Amaker has referred to repeatedly as “our heart and soul.”
Horton was an individual marvel. He didn’t need anyone to put him in position to score, the plan was often just “give him the ball and get out of the way.”
But Petway’s effectiveness hinges entirely on his teammates. His incredible dunks almost always result from a pass from his teammates. And when he takes a charge or blocks a shot on the defensive end, he is often covering for a teammate’s mistake, or helping a teammate out.
“It’s all about team,” Petway said. “The alley-oops, the guards always look for me. We got each other’s backs, so when they give me the alley-oop, and one of their guys gets past them, I’ll try to block the shot for them. We just help each other out like that.”
The plays Petway makes are the plays that the fans want to see. The exciting dunks and blocked shots invigorate the crowd. The fans’s excitement is contagious, and players like Smith and junior Ron Coleman feed off that energy, and their effectiveness on both ends of the floor increases. And these are the players that make Petway better. It’s a circle, as opposed to last year’s team, which was more like just a collection of points.
This year’s squad has evolved into exactly the team Amaker said they would before the year. Michigan is a strong defensive team (third in the conference in scoring defense, second in field-goal percentage defense and first in blocks) that doesn’t have just one superstar, but relies on contributions from everyone.
Both this year’s and last year’s teams expected to make the NCAA Tournament before the season started. Just like last year’s squad, this team appears poised to do so after 20 games.
But this one is built to do it.
– Bromwich can be reached at email@example.com.