The Michigan basketball team doesn’t have time to dwell on
“what if’s.” The Wolverines can’t stress
too long about what more they could have done to get themselves
into the NCAA bracket. The folks scheduling the NIT made sure of
that.

The Missouri Tigers stride into Crisler Arena tonight for the
first round of the 40-team postseason NIT. It’ll be
Michigan’s first postseason appearance since the 1999-00
season, when it lost to Notre Dame in the first round of the same
event.

“I think there was naturally some disappointment,”
said Amaker of his team’s reaction to not making the Big
Dance. “But right away we talked about the opportunity that
we had in front of us.”

The Wolverines (9-9 Big Ten, 18-11 overall) gathered on campus
on Sunday night to watch the NCAA selection show together. But even
before CBS’s Greg Gumbel started calling out the names of
other teams, most of the players seemed to have sensed that the
team’s chances were, as Amaker described it, “a long
shot.”

Nevertheless, there was some disappointment when the Wolverines
went unmentioned. Freshman Brent Petway said that he was expecting
the committee to take at least four teams from the Big Ten, since
it had never taken fewer than five. He was surprised when the
brackets revealed just three.

Amaker didn’t want to dismiss the team’s feeling
right away.

“I said, ‘It’s good to be disappointed,’
” Amaker said. “ ‘It’s not all bad to have
that feeling, because you’ve worked hard for
something.’ ”

In Missouri (10-8 Big 12, 16-13 overall), the Wolverines will be
facing a team that was ranked No. 5 in this year’s preseason
AP poll. The Tigers sport a dynamic inside-outside combination of
seniors Arthur Johnson and Rickey Paulding.

Johnson uses his 6-foot-9, 268-pound frame to score many points
around the rim. He had 37 points and eight boards in the
Tigers’ two-point loss to Kansas on March 7. The senior
finished sixth in the Big 12 in scoring with 16 points per
game.

“He’s a big body,” Petway said. “But the
Big Ten is one of the more physical conferences, too, so I’m
used to playing physical.”

Paulding is a threat, as well. He’s an athletic 6-foot-5
guard who can rain jump shots when he’s on. The
senior’s 15.3 points per game was good for 12th in his
conference.

Both players played high school ball in Detroit before heading
to Missouri. Freshman Dion Harris even played against them before
they left for school.

Tomorrow’s matchup will be particularly interesting
because of the coaches. Amaker and Missouri’s Quin Snyder
played together and later coached together at Duke, and have
remained good friends. The two talk often during the season, but
they haven’t had a chance to speak to each other since Sunday
night when they learned about tonight’s matchup.

“Probably the first time that I’ll talk to him is
when they come here for their shootaround (Tuesday), and I’ll
be here to see him,” Amaker said.

The two will have more to talk about than they may have liked.
Snyder’s program has been dealing with its share of off-court
issues, something Amaker can relate to after his team’s
dealings with NCAA sanctions.

Former Missouri guard Ricky Clemons, who was dismissed in July
2003 after being sentenced to 60 days in jail for domestic assault,
accused a number of his former teammates of taking money from
coaches.

The NCAA is still investigating the charge.

“A lot has happened and I think that he’s guided
that program incredibly well through a lot of turbulent times this
season,” Amaker said. “I admire what he’s done.
We can kind of talk about things in similar tones about program
distractions. We’ve had conversations about that. But
certainly he’s done an outstanding job.”

While the Tigers have been forced to play through this season
without Clemons, the Wolverines are dealing with a recent loss of
their own.

Sophomore Lester Abram, who has led Michigan in scoring
throughout the season, injured his left shoulder during the
Wolverines’ win in the Big Ten quarterfinals against Iowa. As
of yesterday, Amaker said that Abram’s status for
tonight’s game is doubtful due to lingering soreness in the
shoulder.

If Michigan wins tonight, it will face the winner of the
Oklahoma-Louisiana State game tomorrow. The site of second-round
games are determined by the NIT committee.

Michigan is resigned to make the best of its postseason
placement.

“We’re one of those teams that still has a chance to
have practice today,” Amaker said. “That’s not
bad. It’s not everything that we wanted, but it’s not
bad and we’re excited that we have a chance to be
here.”

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