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Published: Tuesday, 3/30/2004

Michigan mission: NIT championship

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

NEW YORK - Forget about the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple.

Michigan has come to Manhattan on a mission.

The Wolverines have just one goal in mind as they prepare to play Oregon tonight in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament at historic Madison Square Garden.

“We re in it to win it,” coach Tommy Amaker said.

Michigan, making its eighth appearance in the NIT, won the championship in 1984 behind Tim McCormick s MVP performance. The Wolverines also took home the crown seven years ago, but later vacated it due to NCAA sanctions.

Now they re back in the final four and hoping to collect another banner to replace the one from 1997 that was taken down last year at Crisler Arena.

“We would love to be able to come out of New York as the NIT champs,” Amaker said.

Michigan (21-11) is playing in the postseason for the first time since 2000. The Wolverines have not faced Oregon in 33 years, but hold a 2-0 series edge. The Ducks (18-12) are participating in postseason play for the third consecutive season, after 2002 and 2003 appearances in the NCAA tournament.

They are in the NIT final four for the third time, having lost in the semifinals in both 1975 and 1999.

“I think they re a very dangerous ballclub,” Amaker said. “They re a very fast-paced team, a team that has shown an ability to score in bunches, a team that not only shoots 3s, but makes a lot of 3s.”

Oregon is led by 6-7, 215-pound senior forward Luke Jackson. A second-team All-American, he averages 21.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists.

“He s a great player, a great shooter, a great scorer,” Michigan swingman Bernard Robinson Jr. said. “He s pretty good defensively, too. He can pretty much do anything.”

Jackson s performance in Oregon s 77-72 overtime win over Colorado in the first round of the NIT will long be remembered. He scored an astonishing 29 points in a row for the Ducks in the second half and overtime, and 31 of their final 33 overall.

His off-balance 3-pointer with 21 seconds left in regulation forced overtime, and then Jackson scored 14 of the Ducks 16 points in the extra session.

“I think he s one of the best all-around basketball players in the country,” Amaker said. “I think he is similar in a lot of regards to Bernard. He s bigger than Bernard and he shoots the 3 a little better.

“He s just a terrific playmaker.”

Robinson, UM s 6-6, 210-pound senior, second-leading leading scorer (12.2) and top rebounder (5.8), is expected to be matched up against Jackson.

“It s going to take everything I ve got to handle him,” Robinson said. “He s a load.”

Michigan, which went 3-0 in NIT home games and 16-3 overall at Crisler Arena, will be forced to win on the road, where the Wolverines are 5-8 this season.

“The big challenge for us is to be able to leave Crisler Arena and Ann Arbor and maintain the same identity, the same passion, the same discipline - all the things that are necessary when you re away from your comfort zone,” Amaker said.

Despite its road woes, Michigan is 3-1 on neutral courts, and already owns a 66-43 victory over Fairfield on Jan. 3 at Madison Square Garden.

“I thought we played one of our better games there and we won,” Amaker said.

Robinson, in particular, had a big game. He scored 19 points, hitting 9-of-13 shots, and pulled down seven rebounds in 33 minutes.

He s excited about playing in the Garden once again.

“It s the big stage,” Robinson said. “It s the Mecca. It s where all the great stars have been and played basketball. How can you not get pumped up?”

The Michigan-Oregon winner will face the Rutgers-Iowa State winner for the NIT championship on Thursday night.

“We want to win the whole thing and that s how we re approaching it,” Robinson said.

The improved play of sophomore guard Daniel Horton and freshman guard Dion Harris has spurred Michigan s postseason run.

“We ve been waiting for this team to ignite a little bit,” Amaker said. “We ve been sitting on the edge of our seats a lot of times this year when we couldn t stretch it out. We all felt like we were capable of certain things.

“Sometimes youth can hold that back. I think we re through that now.”



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