If last night’s game had taken place in the NCAA Tournament, it would have gone down in Michigan lore forever.
The Wolverines’ 87-84 NIT victory over Notre Dame had nearly every element of a great basketball game: two overtimes, a ridiculous game-winning buzzer-beater and two stars (Daniel Horton and Chris Quinn) making unbelievable plays down the stretch and refusing to let their teams give up. I give all the credit in the world to the fans that made Crisler Arena hop, and the players – especially the seniors – who kept their competitive spirit alive despite the disappointment of Selection Sunday. But the game was still missing one major thing:
Last night’s contest was an NIT game. Not a major nonconference matchup, not a key Big Ten game, and certainly not an NCAA Tournament game. Five years from now, no one will remember who won this tournament, and for good reason. It’s a venue for also-rans and mediocre teams, and last night’s exciting, well-played contest doesn’t change that fact. The bottom line is that Oral Roberts, which got rocked in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, has already achieved much more this season than Michigan, no matter how far the Wolverines go.
I wasn’t always so cynical about the NIT. In fact, I was sitting squarely on the Michigan bandwagon when the Wolverines made their championship run my freshman year. But a great deal has changed in the last two years. I’ve broken down some ways that this year’s NIT trip won’t live up to two years ago – even if Michigan once again comes away with the title.
Hope for the future: In 2003-04, all but one of Michigan’s top eight players were freshmen or sophomores. This year, the Wolverines’ seven best players are juniors or seniors. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the distinction between the two seasons.
Two years ago, Michigan’s future seemed bright, and its five-game NIT run only added to the optimism surrounding the program. At the time, many people – myself included – believed the experience of winning an NIT championship would far outweigh the experience of being blown away in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan’s core for the next two years had, supposedly, learned to play together and proved it could stand up to the pressures of a tournament environment. The stage seemed set for an NCAA Tournament trip the next season. And, maybe, a legitimate Final Four run this year, when Michigan’s veteran-laden squad would reach its maximum potential.
Well, that didn’t quite pan out. This year, it’s hard to see what practical purpose the NIT serves for the Michigan basketball program. Seven seniors will be gone next year. It’s hard to imagine Dion Harris, Courtney Sims, Brent Petway and Lester Abram will learn anything new from the experience. Sophomore Ron Coleman and freshmen Jerret Smith and Jevohn Shepherd have already received much more playing time than they deserved at this stage in their Michigan careers. And even if they could learn something from the NIT, Tommy Amaker isn’t really playing them anyway – they played a combined 22 minutes last night. So there’s just no reason to believe this team will improve from its seventh place in the Big Ten, NIT-worthy performance next year.
Fond Farewell: I have to believe that winning the NIT in 2004 was a sweet cap-off to Bernard Robinson, Jr.’s Michigan career. B-Rob saw some tumultuous times during his Michigan career – the explosion of the Ed Martin scandal and the elimination of a head coach – so finishing his career with a championship, even in the NIT, had to be special.
I can’t imagine it would be the same feeling for this year’s senior class. The 2004 NIT Championship was supposed to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, not a precursor to a 13-18 season and yet another NIT berth. Last night’s gutty performance proved that the seniors want to win, and I respect their competitiveness. But unlike B-Rob’s squads, this team was capable of earning not just one but multiple NCAA Tournament bids. The absence of a March Madness trip is a void two NIT titles could never fill.
Belief that Tommy Amaker was a good coach: When I arrived in Ann Arbor, it appeared that the Michigan basketball program and its young, media-savvy coach were brewing up something special. Tommy Amaker had recruited talented, clean-cut players to lead the Wolverines in a new direction. An “anonymous donation,” which at the time was rumored to be from Amaker, made student bleacher seats free of charge. I admit, I was taken in by the little wave and nod Amaker gave the Maize Rage prior to every game. I even naively remarked to a friend that Tommy was “creating something like Duke” in Ann Arbor.
Today, I would slap my former 18-year-old self for making such a ridiculous comment. At this point, it’s clear that Tommy Amaker isn’t building anything Duke-like here. After following this team around the country, from Boston to Minneapolis (but not San Diego for the NCAA Tournament, as I had hoped), I’m hard-pressed to come up with a single area where Amaker is an above-average coach. His last two recruiting classes haven’t been Big Ten-caliber, his in-game coaching is suspect at best (zone defense, anyone?), his players haven’t developed, and the program, while not scandal-racked, hasn’t been squeaky-clean. Any lingering hopes I had about Amaker’s coaching prowess evaporated in the past two weeks. He let his team fold down the stretch against Indiana and then stood on the sidelines and watched them mail in a virtual NCAA Tournament play-in game versus Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament.
Winning this year’s NIT would bring Amaker one step closer to picking up the coveted “greatest NIT coach of all time” title. But I hope that’s not what Bill Martin brought him here for. All the NIT championship banners in the world couldn’t replace victories when it really matters – during the regular season and the Big Dance.
– While Matt Singer isn’t excited about Michigan’s NIT run, his parents are because he might be coming home next week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.