NEW YORK - Michigan s players and coaches were ticked off when they were left out of the NCAA tournament.
But the Wolverines rebounded quickly from that disappointment after being selected for the National Invitation Tournament.
And they made the most of their second chance last night by beating Rutgers 62-55 in the NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden.
The victory capped a 5-0 postseason run, a 23-11 season and handed the Wolverines their third NIT title in school history, although they had to vacate the 1997 championship due to NCAA sanctions.
Because of Michigan s strong finish, expectations will be much higher next season, when anything short of Top 25 ranking and an NCAA tournament bid will be considered a major disappointment.
“Those are the things we re working for,” UM coach Tommy Amaker said. “Our players would be thrilled to have an opportunity to be thought of as that kind of program. But you ve got to earn it. I m hoping that along the way, during the course of this season, that we ve earned some things.
“More than anything else, we just need to have our identity. Our identity has been that we re going to guard, we re going to be unselfish, we re going to play with great effort and energy. I think it s obvious that we ve had a blue-collar identity.”
Seven of the top eight players return for the Wolverines next year, including four starters (Daniel Horton, Dion Harris, Graham Brown and Courtney Sims) and three key reserves (Lester Abram, Chris Hunter and Brent Petway).
Horton, a sophomore guard who scored in double figures the last 10 games, was named MVP of the NIT after netting 14 points against Rutgers in the championship game. And Harris, a freshman guard who scored 13 points and dished out five assists, was named to the all-tournament team.
LOCAL FLAVOR: Rossford product Kevin Heck completed his third season as an assistant coach under Gary Waters at Rutgers.
Prior to his current job, he served as an assistant under Waters for five years at Kent State. Heck, 34, also spent two seasons as an assistant at Eastern Michigan.
He earned his bachelor s degree from Wayne State in 1992 and received his master s degree in sports administration two years later while serving as a graduate assistant. Heck finished his career as Wayne State s all-time leading 3-point field-goal shooter.
BIG CROWD: Last night s attendance of 16,064 - comprised mostly of red-clad Rutgers fans - was the largest to attend an NIT championship game in 10 years.
“We anticipated, certainly with the proximity, that they were going to have a great turnout,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “We have a good following in the New York metropolitan area. I think it was great that we had a number of our people [a few thousand] show up. We had a great turnout.”
In 1994, the NIT championship game drew 14,434, but it was part of a doubleheader. Vanderbilt beat Kansas State 86-72 to win the championship and Villanova defeated Siena 66-58 in the consolation game.