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Published: Friday, 1/24/2003

Amaker pumps new life into UM

Earlier this season, as the Michigan Wolverines tripped out of the starting gate with six straight losses, coach Tommy Amaker said his team still had to learn how to win.

Fact is, the Wolverines had to learn how to run the offense.

Similar to that which Amaker learned as a player and assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, UM's offense is an unstructured, motion variety where a player's ability to react to defenses and make good decisions is paramount.

There are no specific X's, no specific O's, no specific spots on the floor where every player has to be during every possession. Read, react, decide.

Michigan's basketball program has some baggage, thanks to busted booster Ed Martin and NCAA sanctions that, coupled with the team's start, hinted that this would be another in a recent series of lost seasons.

Buried in all that, folks may not have noticed that the Wolverines also are blessed with some talent.

Senior LaVell Blanchard will finish as one of the top seven or eight scorers in school history. Junior Bernard Robinson is on the verge of 1,000 career points and is among the better, smoother athletes in the Big Ten.

It is the newcomers, though, who have made the difference. The Wolverines start three freshmen. One of them, point guard Daniel Horton, plays more minutes than anybody on the team and has already twice been named Big Ten player of the week.

Horton, Lester Abram, Graham Brown and sixth man Chris Hunter, also a freshman, may not be the Fab Five. They may not even be the Fab Four. But they're pretty good.

They give UM a dimension of skill that has been lacking for a few years. They know how to compete. They probably even knew how to win.

All they had to figure out was how to run the offense, to be comfortable with one another, and to make sure their effort at the other end of the court was just as intense.

It took a while. Six games, to be precise.

Then the Wolverines caught stride, the schedule softened for a stretch, and by the time foes again became respected, recognizable names, UM was playing with utmost confidence.

What is now a 12-game winning streak won't last much longer. It figures that before all is said and done, the cream of the Big Ten - Indiana, Illinois, perhaps a couple others - will rise to the top.

But the Wolverines, the only remaining unbeaten with the conference schedule about one-third completed, aren't going to disappear either. They're too talented and, slowly, they are regaining the home-court edge for which Crisler Arena was always famed.

The season's largest crowd, 11,468, saw a 75-63 win over Minnesota on Wednesday night, and the expectation is that the joint will be sold out for Sunday's game against Michigan State. The last time Crisler was filled to the brim was when Duke visited and drew 13,751 fans on Dec. 8, 2001.

So yes, it has been a while. But it has also been a while since UM fans had a reason to be agog over the men's hoops team.

“It's very exciting to have that kind of atmosphere,” Amaker said after the win over Minnesota. “You could see how our team fed off the enthusiasm and emotion of the crowd.”

The Wolverines also have fed off Amaker, a slight, quiet, cool customer who read and heard all the assessments of how he was in a dead-end job.

But he knew otherwise. He knew he had recruited well enough to put a strong starting five on the court. The depth is still iffy, but he is in only his second year on the job. Another solid recruiting class can solve that problem.

He just patiently went about the business of teaching and making his team better.

And when things started clicking on offense, when the light came on and everything started to make sense, the Wolverines were ready to prove they knew how to win.

“I think you're seeing a team that believes,” Amaker said. “It is a team that not only prepares to win, but now expects to win.”



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