With coach Tommy Amaker an unwilling Lemony Snicket to Michigan’s ridiculous unfortunate series of events, the Wolverines have had to traverse more land mines than should be allowed for one team during the course of a season. They’ve been forced to use 11 different starting lineups this season due to injuries.
And that was before starting point guard and team leader Daniel Horton found himself on the wrong side of the law this week.
So tonight, Michigan heads into Michigan State standing on the brink.
One more nudge in the wrong direction and the Wolverines could go plummeting off the cliff — give up the NCAA Tournament dreams, lose several games on the way out, maybe head back to the NIT and chalk up the season as a disappointment.
But nothing that this current roster has done in the past would suggest that they’re about to throw in the towel.
In 2002-03, the Wolverines were nailed with sanctions and started the season 0-6. They then finished by winning 17 of their last 24 and nearly won the Big Ten title.
Last season, Michigan was snubbed by the NCAA Tournament after an 18-11 regular season — and responded by winning the NIT championship.
Now, the challenges are mounting again. It looks like there’s too much to overcome — like the Wolverines would be best surrendering to those obstacles.
So which Michigan team will show up tonight and the rest of the season? Nobody knows.
But we’re about to find out.
There is some part of you — whether you think Amaker is a good Big Ten coach or not — that has to feel sorry for the guy.
He was brought in here after former coaches Steve Fisher and Brian Ellerbe took the program, broke out the gasoline and burned it to ashes.
Amaker arrived four years ago with about as little talent and as little hope as the Michigan basketball program has ever seen. On top of that, he started his second season with a postseason ban and the erasure of some of the program’s greatest memories from the history books.
So Amaker was faced with the gargantuan task of restoring the team to the point where it could compete for titles in the Big Ten and returning the program to respectability around the country.
He’s done both.
There are those who will argue that now-graduated Bernard Robinson Jr. should have faced stiffer penalties after assaulting a female in 2003. And there are those that are already arguing to never let Horton set foot on the Crisler Arena court again.
Here’s something you can’t argue with: Amaker has earned respect — from his team, in the University community and across college basketball.
How he’s initially dealt with this Horton situation is indicative of why that’s the case. With his Wolverines firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble and heading into their biggest game of the year to date in East Lansing, Amaker didn’t even bother to consider Horton’s lingering knee injuries — instead sitting the junior down until his off-the-court issue is resolved.
Amaker was asked to be the face of Michigan’s revival as a top-notch basketball program and — at least off the court — he has never wavered and rarely disappointed.
On the court, there is still ground for Michigan to cover. Since the Wolverines hit the skids during Ellerbe’s reign, their yearly matchups with Michigan State have been the team’s measuring stick.
The gap between the two programs closed significantly two years ago when Michigan stunned Michigan State in Ann Arbor. It stayed tight last year when the Wolverines had the Spartans on the ropes again before watching a 12-point lead slip away.
Tonight, minus Horton and injured Lester Abram and possibly banged-up Chris Hunter, Michigan could be in for a beating. It might look like Michigan State has re-established an insurmountable gap.
Don’t buy it.
If and when this team ever gets healthy and puts its whole lineup on the floor (like, say, next season), my guess is that Michigan will be pretty darn good.
And the biggest reason for that is that this current group of players — save for the Horton incident — has been exactly what Amaker wanted when he recruited them: talented basketball players, solid students and good people.
Yes, the Horton situation is unfortunate and a black eye for a program just pulling itself together. But what we’ve seen from Amaker and from these players is that one setback — or one setback on top of several injuries on top of a couple of disappointing losses — will not completely destroy the foundation that is being laid.
It might not come as expediently or smoothly as people might hope, but it will come.
And with Ed Martin and the Fab Five vanishing into the background, it’s important to not let this latest incident overshadow all of the good things that have been happening in Amaker’s four seasons.
For all the work Amaker and the Wolverines have put in trying to rebuild Michigan basketball, they deserve from the public — at the very least — the faith in knowing that those efforts aren’t going to stop.
Where will those efforts lead from here? Nobody knows.
But we’re about to find out. And I’m thinking we’re going to find out something good.
– Chris Burke can be reached at email@example.com