CHICAGO – The school that proudly proclaims to be the “leaders and best” has become satisfied with second-rate. Placated by pedestrian. Appeased by being no better than average.
Michigan basketball means mediocrity.
It’s a sad truth, but one that must be addressed after the team missed the NCAA Tournament yet again, the fourth straight time under Michigan coach Tommy Amaker (not including the two years Michigan was postseason ineligible).
There is arguably no other sport where the coach has as much influence over a program as college basketball. Just look at what Bobby Knight at Texas Tech and John Thompson III at Georgetown have done with struggling programs.
Amaker was hired to rebuild the Michigan program, both in terms of image and on-court results. He has succeeded on the first count.
Amaker is a first-class citizen. There have barely even been rumors of scandals since he’s been here.
So it’s not surprising that Amaker has proven himself as a good recruiter. I can imagine that recruits have an incredibly hard time saying “no thanks.” Many have cited his earnest approach as a reason they come to Michigan.
After bringing the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class to Seton Hall, Amaker has continued to have success recruiting at Michigan. He stole Daniel Horton from the state of Texas and convinced Dion Harris – the nation’s second-best shooting guard not named LeBron James in 2003 – to pick Michigan over Michigan State and Louisville, among others.
But despite these and other highly rated recruits, Amaker’s teams have fallen short of the NCAA Tournament every year.
And it’s because under him, unexceptional is accepted.
That’s apparent in everything that has become Michigan basketball, from the plays the Wolverines run to their unimpressive conference records and missed tournaments.
People complain about the bland Michigan offense. I don’t have a huge problem with the motion offense as a basic set, it’s something that can work well if the players execute. But I do take issue with the set plays Michigan runs, or the lack thereof.
Most teams run set plays for their best players to get the ball in scoring positions when the ball is out of bounds under their opponents’ basket. Especially after timeouts. Indiana pounds it in to D.J. White or finds a 3-pointer for Roderick Wilmont. Ohio State sets up a Greg Oden post play. Michigan State gets the ball to Drew Neitzel anywhere.
Michigan? It used to have that alley-oop to Brent Petway coming down the middle of the lane. Then teams figured it out. So now the team lobs the ball to half court, where somebody catches it and starts running the motion offense again. Sometimes Harris curls around a screen at the 3-point line, but he never gets the ball.
This isn’t the worst thing in the world. The half-court lob is almost always a safe pass, and it provides an easy outlet for the inbounder. But it’s not a great play, not one that gets Harris or Courtney Sims a good look at the basket. And Michigan ran nothing else throughout the final games of the regular season and in the Big Ten Tournament.
Let’s move to bigger things, like player development.
Harris arrived at Michigan as Amaker’s best recruit. He was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, as polished as they come offensively.
But plagued by inconsistency in his senior season, Harris garnered only a spot on the All-Big Ten third team. For Amaker’s best recruit, a player prognosticators foresaw leading Michigan to the NCAA Tournament, that’s disappointing. And it’s not just Harris. Sims fell far short of reaching his potential, and fifth-year senior Lester Abram just finished the worst season of his career.
None had bad careers here. But none exceeded, or even realized, expectations. A coach’s job is to get the most out of his players, to continuously put them in positions to succeed. And while those players were far from a detriment to the program, none became what everyone thought they could.
Michigan’s so-so seasons are another example of the sub-par results standard under Amaker.
Everyone expected the Wolverines to make the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years. As Amaker’s heralded first and second recruiting classes became upperclassmen, the team should’ve contended for the Big Ten title. Instead, it finished both regular seasons 8-8 in conference play. A collapse down the stretch last year kept them from the party, while this year’s team never broke inside the bubble throughout the Big Ten season.
8-8 isn’t bad. It’s passable.
But for the University of Michigan, it shouldn’t be OK. This shouldn’t be a program crossing its fingers on Selection Sunday, it’s one that should be hoping for a five seed rather than a six.
Some people will say that Amaker had to deal with NCAA sanctions and postseason eligibility. But so did Thad Matta, and his team is the best in the country after just three seasons, while Amaker has had six.
Some will say that the poor facilities make it difficult for Amaker to get the recruits that can take the Wolverines dancing. But he’s had good recruits (Horton and Harris come to mind). Maybe they aren’t capable of winning a championship, but they should have made the team a contender in the Big Ten and certainly should have obtained a single at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in the past six years.
Some will say that in order to make sure we keep next year’s highly rated recruit Alex Legion, Amaker should be given some more time.
But he’s already proven that he won’t get the most out of these kinds of players.
He’ll have them running mediocre plays while becoming average players during a run-of-the-mill season.
And for Michigan, the purported “champions of the west,” that doesn’t sound like the best leader.
– Bromwich can be reached at email@example.com.