After Saturday’s loss to Ohio State, desperation set in for the Michigan Wolverines. It was a frustrating night that saw six seniors (who are models of the system coach Tommy Amaker is trying to implement) lose for the sixth-straight time. Michigan had shown promise early this season, teetering around the .500 mark, but this late collapse has left the team with the same number of wins (10) as last season.
The arrival of Amaker to Ann Arbor bought the new coach some time, as fans were willing to wait patiently for him to turn the program into, say, Duke. But the reality is that the last three weeks of Michigan basketball have been painful to watch and probably painful to coach, and Amaker realizes that while long-term promises are great, Michigan needed something big to happen this season – a major upset, a winning streak, a Big Ten Tournament run – to keep questions from being asked during the offseason.
Nothing has happened. The Wolverines won two-straight games to begin the Big Ten season, but they were against two of the conference’s worst teams. Michigan’s biggest win was at home on Feb. 2 against Wisconsin, but that’s hardly an upset on the scale of Illinois or, say, Duke. Michigan has lost the games it was supposed to lose, and lost a number of games they ought to have won. Michigan has lost 17 games this season, and these last six have been particularly devastating. Prior to Saturday’s Ohio State loss, the Wolverines had lost their last four games by an average of 24 points.
For a time, if you had criticism of the team’s short-term failures, you could shout it from your rooftop. Amaker didn’t care.
But all of a sudden he realizes that his team hasn’t done anything immediately worthy of praise. The patience of fans is a precarious thing, and needs some food in the short term to keep its appetite from raging in the long term. Amaker came in preaching defense, but his team has not been converted. Last year Michigan’s opponents shot 44.9 percent from the field; this year they are shooting 47 percent. Last year opponents averaged 33.6 rebounds per game; this year they are averaging 34.4. The Wolverines have regularly allowed teams to score in the 70s.
So with little to show for themselves after a rebuilding season, Amaker and his players began hinting at playing spoiler at this week’s Big Ten Tournament.
“When you get to tournament play, when it’s one-and-done, crazier things have happened,” Amaker said. “And we’re still holding our hope that maybe some things can happen for us this season.”
“I’m in it to win it. I ain’t in it to lose,” sophomore Bernard Robinson said of the Big Ten Tournament. “This is a team that can surprise a couple of people. It’s a tournament and coaches and players start to get tight because you’re in the tournament and it’s one game and you’re out, so you never know what happens in the tournament – it’s a whole different environment.”
All of a sudden the attitude is “hey, you never know,” and that desperate optimism is something that has not been heard much around Crisler Arena this season. Previously, when Amaker had been pressed to reveal his expectations regarding wins and losses, conference seeding, or postseason possibilities, he has been stoic and reserved, confident in his system and unconcerned with such short-term and unpredictable matters.
There are two types of criticism that Amaker is aware of. One is short-term. Why didn’t Dommanic Ingerson get more minutes in this or that game?
The other is long-term. Questions about where the program has been, and where it’s going. Questions about why scholarship players drop out of the program, and how long it might take for Michigan to return to a position of national prominence.
Amaker has shrugged off the short-term, while establishing himself as someone who ought not to be questioned about the long-term. His mantra is, “I’ve got a plan -stick with me.” His plan is a long-term one, and he has asked players, fans and the media to excuse the short-term for now as he builds for the future.
But while Amaker can ask for patience all he wants, something extraordinary will need to happen this week in Indianapolis for the pundits to grant Amaker another year of patience.
David Horn can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.