The Michigan men’s basketball team won’t make the NCAA Tournament this year, and … What’s that? You already knew this? Well, let me finish. …and injuries won’t be the reason.

Ken Srdjak

Yes, the Wolverines have played virtually the entire season without Lester Abram and have gone extended stretches without Daniel Horton, Chris Hunter and Graham Brown. And yes, players who were never supposed to set foot on the floor are playing and even starting.

But just two weeks ago, Michigan was playing its best basketball of the season, 3-0 in Big Ten play and heading into Bloomington. The Wolverines seemed to have survived all the injuries and were set to take off.

But the Wolverines lost a game that was closer than the final score (62-53) indicates. While a lot of people immediately wondered who would have won if Abram and Hunter had been healthy, I thought exactly the opposite.

No matter who was healthy and who was injured, Michigan was going to lose, and it was probably going to be a close game. That’s just what always seems to happen to Michigan against Indiana, even though both teams have been pretty much mediocre the last couple of years.

But then that’s pretty much where Michigan basketball is right now. Year after year, nothing seems to change.

Entering the season, the Wolverines were widely expected to take the next step and, at the very least, make the NCAA Tournament.

They were losing a solid all-around player in Bernard Robinson and bringing in only one freshman, Ron Coleman, who was hardly expected to be a high-impact player.

But all of Michigan’s returning players were supposed to be a year wiser, a year stronger and a year better. Horton was supposed to have gotten over his sophomore slump, as he seemed to do during the team’s postseason NIT run. And sophomores Dion Harris and Courtney Sims were supposed to have settled into their roles and were supposed to become forces in the Big Ten.

But what happened last year to Horton is happening this year to Harris and Sims; players that came to Ann Arbor with the highest apparent ceiling seemed to have abruptly leveled off after their freshman year.

Horton’s troubles, both legal and injury-related, are well-documented, but both Harris and Sims have been healthy this entire season and have failed to fully establish themselves despite appearing ready to take their games to the next level. Harris raised his level of play late last season when Abram gave him his starting spot, and Sims, who seemed to run out of gas as the season ended, gained 25 pounds of muscle to address the problem.

But little has changed. Like Horton, Harris never seems truly comfortable running the offense and far too often finds himself with the ball late in the shot clock trapped behind the three-point line. Last season, and at the start of this season, Harris seemed like the kind of player who would welcome the chance to take over games, the way his team needs him to without Abram and Horton. He seemed like the type of player who would play better with the ball in his hands more and more. But not only hasn’t he taken charge, he’s hitting just 35 percent of his shots and has just 74 assists to go with 60 turnovers.

Sims’s role on the team also seems to fluctuate all the time. After a strong start, Sims’s playing time took a dive until Michigan’s other big men got hurt, and Michigan coach Tommy Amaker had no other choice but to play him.

But no matter what Sims does, he leaves everyone wanting more. He’s currently hitting 57 percent of his field-goal attempts and 72 percent of his free throws, yet only takes about seven shots a game.

Michigan’s role players have been impressive this season. Coleman bounced right back from a bad start and has been reliable ever since, and sophomore walk-on John Andrews has done a solid job. Big men Brown, Hunter and Brent Petway have done a great job providing Michigan with toughness, scoring and explosiveness, respectively.

But in the end, role players can only do so much. Stars matter more in basketball than any other sport. When the shot clock is running down, when the game is coming to an end, teams need reliable players to get the job done in crunch time, and Michigan just doesn’t have that right now.

Maybe expectations were too high for Horton, Harris and Sims. Though they seem to play hard, they might not want to be great players badly enough. Maybe they don’t know how to get better, and the coaches don’t know, either. But one thing is for sure: Until something changes, Michigan just won’t be that good.

Sharad Mattu can be reached at smattu@umich.edu.

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