It has become a running joke for Michigan fans.

Scott Bell
Michigan recruit Manny Harris will look to restore the past glory to the Michigan basketball program with the help of Oak Hill Academy star Alex Legion. (ALLISON GHAMAN/Daily)
Scott Bell

The Wolverines’ home away from home is Madison Square Garden. Repeatedly, the Maize and Blue seem to end its season at the NIT Finals in New York City.

Now Michigan sits at 16-7 with no marquee wins, and the chances the NIT will come calling increase with every game. Michigan has already missed eight-straight NCAA Tournaments.

But all that might come to an end with the Wolverines’ 2007 recruiting class. The future of Michigan basketball is banked on two standouts who are barely old enough to watch R-rated movies legally.

Their names are Corperryale Harris and Alex Legion, but their arrival on campus could depend on the return of Michigan coach Tommy Amaker.

The question remains: Can two teenagers make up for nearly a decade of struggles and save a coach’s job?

Just watching Harris and Legion play, it’s clear how talented they are. Each dominates the viewer’s attention with their hardwood skills. They are currently rated as high four-star recruits, according to rivals.com, and both rank among the top-40 players in the nation.

Harris, known as “Manny” by friends and family, is well on his way to winning Michigan Mr. Basketball award this season. Starring for Detroit Redford High School, the 6-foot-4 guard has led the Huskies to two straight City Championships and also took them to the state semi-finals last season.

Just last week, Harris exploded for 37 points in a highly publicized matchup with rival, city powerhouse Detroit Renaissance.

But more than just scoring, Harris demonstrated all the intangibles that make talented players great.

In that matchup, Harris wasn’t your ordinary high school superstar. He was a coachable superstar. He was the one hustling on defense, collecting numerous steals for easy dunks. He was the one getting to the foul line and sinking his free throws. He was the one who took control when the game reached crunch time. And anybody who was at that game will tell you: Harris could have scored 50 or 60 if he wanted. But many times, he set his teammates up for easy lay-ups because of the attention he was drawing.

“I want to win,” Harris said. “If I average six points a game, but we still win, it doesn’t matter.”

He followed up his strong showing against Renaissance with a 41-point outburst in a win against Mumford High School, which secured Redford a spot in the city playoffs this season.

In a nutshell, he’s exactly the type of player this year’s Michigan squad needs so badly: A leader who won’t disappear when the game and season are on the line.

“He leads by example,” Redford coach Ken Flowers said. “He came in here at 5-foot-10, so he’s always had the point-guard mentality. But once he got his growth spurt, the ballhandling never left him, but the maturity has just grown. With a guy like Manny, you have to listen.”

Legion, also 6-foot-4, is a slightly different type of guard than Harris. At 200 pounds, he is big enough to handle contact inside, and is a deadly 3-point shooter. And he’s enjoying success at the highest level of high school basketball.

Legion starred for local prep school Detroit Country Day his first three years of high school, where both Chris Webber and Shane Battier played high school basketball. He then transferred to nationally known Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. Oak Hill is regarded as the premier basketball prep school in the country, and has produced NBA stars Tracy McGrady and Carmelo Anthony.

But in an environment where most players are likely to move onto Division-I college basketball, Legion has continued to outshine the rest. Earlier this season in a nationally televised game, Legion led Oak Hill with 23 points in a loss to Simeon High School (Ill.).

The duo of Harris and Legion could turn into one of the best guard combinations in college basketball. Jerry Meyer, the senior basketball analyst for Rivals.com, believes that Harris and Legion could be a perfect match on the basketball court.

“I think they have skills that complement each other,” Meyer said. “Legion is a very good shooter and a very good shooter off the dribble. He knows how to create space, and he has the size to shoot over his man.

“Corperryale, he’s just one of those guys who always seems to be making an impact on the game in a lot of different ways. He has a knack for coming up with the ball and scoring. He just has a great feel for the game.”

Things used to be different for Michigan’s basketball program.

During the 15 years preceding the current eight-season drought, the Wolverines were an NCAA Tournament-regular. Over that stretch, Michigan missed The Dance just three times. And these weren’t one-and-done appearances. The Wolverines lost just twice in the first round. They made it to the Sweet 16 or further five times, including two consecutive losses in the championship game (1992 and 1993) and a national title in 1989.

There had to be some driving force behind those 15 years of teams. It wasn’t a legendary coach, as the 15-year run was made under the guidance of three different head coaches. And it wasn’t a specific athletic director, because Michigan had six of them in that 15-season span.

That driving force was NBA-caliber talent.

Glance at the rosters of those 15 years, and it’s a who’s who of Michigan basketball greats. Roy Tarpley, Loy Vaught, Glen Rice, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Maurice Taylor and Robert Traylor all played extensively in the NBA, some to great acclaim.

Recent Wolverines are noticeably absent from the current NBA landscape. During its eight-year absence from the NCAA Tournament, Michigan has produced just two players who currently grace NBA rosters (New York Knicks guard Jamal Crawford and Charlotte Bobcats guard Bernard Robinson, Jr.).

To be fair, some of those NCAA Tournament misses were due to sanctions resulting from illegal recruiting during that successful 15-year run. Those sanctions, and even the probations that followed, are now complete. They can’t be used as a crutch any longer for a program that is clearly not even the best in the state anymore. That distinction deservedly belongs to Tom Izzo and Michigan State.

The Wolverines have been close to breaking the run of postseason failures, most recently with last season’s 22-11 squad. But without a primetime performer to carry the team down the stretch, Michigan has found it troublesome to get over that proverbial hump that is the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Even during Michigan’s current drought, it hasn’t been for a lack of nationally ranked recruits donning the maize and blue.

Current seniors Dion Harris and Courtney Sims were highly-regarded high school players. And last season’s leading scorer, Daniel Horton, was considered a can’t-miss prospect out of Texas. But all three have failed to live up to their reputations out of high school. None has played in the NCAA Tournament, and none has reached All-American status.

According to Meyer, Legion and Harris may be Amaker’s best recruits during his six-year tenure. But will their potential translate to college-level success?

“I think Harris and Legion are ready to play and make an impact right away,” Meyer said. “I don’t think you’re going to have to wait around for those guys. It will be interesting to see.”

But what made Harris and Legion pick Michigan over the endless list of possible suitors? It couldn’t have been the Wolverines’ recent performance on the court. And Amaker certainly isn’t the greatest at recruiting in-state talent.

This year’s college basketball powers are littered with players from Michigan who are starring at schools outside of the state. Florida forward Al Horford, Kentucky guard Joe Crawford and guards Tajuan Porter and Malik Hairston of Oregon were all heavily pursued by Amaker and his staff in past years.

“You are going to get criticized if you don’t go after top players, and then you get criticized when you don’t get them, when you try to get guys that are out of your reach,” Meyer said. “It is hard to recruit at the level Michigan wants to recruit at if you haven’t been winning at a high level. The type of kids you do have to get when you are a struggling program is the in-state guys.”

For Harris, the desire to stay close to home was the deciding factor. He usually has 20 to 30 family members at each of his games, and he wanted to make sure they would all still be able to watch him play at the next level.

“We have a big family, and we wanted him close to home,” said James Carter, Harris’s father. “Everybody likes to participate and go to the games and show support.”

It also didn’t hurt that current Michigan senior Dion Harris, of no relation, also starred at Detroit Redford. The two have talked on a regular basis about Michigan and what it would be like.

“Manny used to go to (Michigan) and talk to Dion, and Dion came (to Redford) a couple of times and talked to Manny,” Carter said. “So Dion did have a lot of impact on the decision.”

Legion’s decision was more complicated. After originally committing to Michigan during his junior year, Legion backed out immediately following the Final Four last April. Recruiting websites had him drawing serious interest from powerhouses like North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA. At that point, it seemed inevitable that the Wolverines would lose one of their most talented recruits.

But luckily for Michigan, Harris’s commitment convinced Legion that the Wolverines were an up and coming program – at least in recruiting terms.

“They didn’t really have anyone in that class when I first committed,” Legion said. “When Manny committed, that gave me more of a sense to go back because it’s another player who complements my game real well.”

Recently, Amaker has faced mounting criticism concerning his inability to lead the Wolverines to an NCAA Tournament berth. Following last Wednesday’s loss to Iowa, the media had a feeding frenzy on the man who led Michigan out of the dark days of NCAA sanctions. Many were calling for athletic director Bill Martin to fire the coach.

But if he is fired or forced to resign, the Wolverines could lose out on two players who have the talent to finally give Michigan the NCAA Tournament berth it so desires.

Even though both Harris and Legion have signed National Letters of Intent, they are allowed to renege on those contracts if Amaker is not around. However, they would both have to sit out next season if they took that path.

Harris said he is committed to Michigan no matter who the coach is. But with Legion, his agreement may be contingent on Amaker still holding the reigns.

“Coach Amaker had a lot to do with me coming to Michigan,” Legion said. “Him and my mom are real close. His charisma and his personality are what brought me to Michigan. If he’s not there, it would kind of hard for me to stay because he’s one of the big reasons why I decided to come there.”

And in Amaker’s defense, he has shown the ability to recruit, especially with Harris and Legion, at a high level while also steering clear of NCAA violations. That is something the successful Michigan teams of the past can’t claim.

So the Wolverines face a big time dilemma. Fire Amaker because he hasn’t been successful on the court, and Michigan faces the real possibility of losing out on a top-flight in-state recruit. Keep Amaker, and the team could wallow in continued mediocrity.

The Wolverines’ class of 2007 recruits, which also includes Kelvin Grady, a point guard out of East Grand Rapids, could turn out to be the best thing for Michigan basketball since the Fab Five arrived on campus. But with four seniors graduating from this year’s team, Michigan fans will find out quickly if Corperryale Harris and Alex Legion will lead a basketball renaissance in Ann Arbor.

“I want to bring the tradition back,” Legion said. “I think that’s why (Manny and I) decided to stay in the state: to bring Michigan basketball back to the top.”

Maybe then the Wolverines can find a new home away from home – on top of the national rankings.

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