INDIANAPOLIS – Michigan played the best game of its season yesterday because its five best players played 35 minutes (or more) each. It’s about time.
All season, coach Tommy Amaker has tweaked his starting lineup depending on who has been hustling in practice, who deserved the honor of starting. He has done so because he wants to create a program where hard work is rewarded and laziness is not. I applaud Amaker for that.
But yesterday, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, Amaker put his five best basketball players on the court, left them there nearly uninterrupted for the entire game and watched them mop the floor with a team – Northwestern – which should never have been a problem for the Wolverines in the first place. Michigan won by 21 points and allowed fewer points (51) than they have all season.
I don’t know who has been working hard behind closed doors recently. I don’t know if LaVell Blanchard is making faces at Amaker at practice, or if Chris Young is blowing off team meetings to play video games, or if Dommanic Ingerson is prank calling the assistant coaches. I don’t care, at least not this weekend.
It’s March, and if a team is not disciplined by now, it probably won’t happen; you might as well go out there and try to make a miracle. If Michigan was going to lose yesterday, it was going to lose with its best players.
The injury to point guard Avery Queen in last weekend’s final regular season game gave Amaker a chance to play the lineup he could have been playing all season: Young, Blanchard, Bernard Robinson, Leon Jones and Ingerson. He could have played that lineup if he were less vehement about instituting a system of accountability.
In the long run, his vehemence will pay off for this program. In the short run (this weekend), Michigan would benefit from allowing this lineup not just to start, but to play as many minutes as they can without collapsing from fatigue.
“I’ll go play right now,” Ingerson said immediately after yesterday’s game, regarding when he would be next ready to play another 35 minutes.
Ingerson was the X-factor for the Wolverines, as the other four had been regular starters in most games. The absence of Queen meant that he and Jones shared responsibilities at the point, and the freshman played well in that role, showing more patience and discipline than he usually does.
He benefited from not having to look over his shoulder for a substitute and not feeling the need to score quick points to stay in the game. The Wolverines benefited from his constant presence on the perimeter, where the Northwestern defense was forced to commit attention that is ordinarily not needed for Queen.
Amaker was able to keep his starters on the floor for so long because of the style of basketball Northwestern employs: A slow, methodical half-court game that does not wear down the opposition physically. The Ohio State team that Michigan faces tonight will not be so forgiving, but it’s March, so I say you run these same five kids for another 35 minutes and see if they can steal another win.
“We came here to be here for a few days,” Amaker said.
Coach, if you’re talking years, reward hustle and hard work. If you’re talking days, reward your best ballers.
David Horn can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.