ATLANTA — These are certainly the good days for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
In reaching the program’s first Final Four since 1993, the Wolverines have set a certain standard. They boast arguably the nation’s top point guard in sophomore Trey Burke and have a star in the making in 6-foot-10 forward Mitch McGary, whose play in March has elevated his status to “NBA draft prospect.”
The Wolverines play in a gleaming, revamped building under John Beilein, a 60-year-old coach who, instead of sticking to old-school principles, adapted and evolved with the nature of college basketball during his 35-year coaching career.
They’ve become another rallying point for the community in Ann Arbor — a traditional hotbed of college football, but a community in which for years college basketball was, more than anything, just a passing fancy.
“It’s terrific to see what this has done for this university, these young men, for all our fans worldwide,” said Beilein, who has coached the Wolverines to three NCAA tournament appearances in his six seasons. “So that really brings a great deal of certainly not relief, but appreciation for all of us, for what we’ve been able to accomplish so far. We’re all just thrilled here. But just like when we went to the Sweet 16, we’re ready to move on and concentrate on the next opponent.”
Michigan (30-7) faces Syracuse (30-9) at 8:49 p.m. Saturday. Yet to get to this point, the program had to endure dark days.
A rollover accident in 1996 involving former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves morphed into a watershed moment in college basketball. It shed the first light on Ed Martin’s involvement with the Michigan basketball team as a booster — and triggered investigations and eventual sanctions by the NCAA and Michigan’s administration, in addition to a federal government investigation and indictment against Martin, all of which uncovered the largest documented payout scandal in NCAA history.
During that time, the Wolverines went 10 seasons between NCAA tournament appearances.
What damaged Michigan basketball, explained Geoff Larcom, who covered college athletics and higher education for the Ann Arbor News for 26 years, was the question of what might happen as a result of an inquiry into the program’s involvement with the booster.
“A cloud of uncertainty and limbo hung over the program,” Larcom said. “It acted as an inhibiting factor. You could recruit against it; you could use it against a program. When the sanctions are imposed, then you can deal with it.”
But not surprisingly, the cycle of violations in college sports — not just in college basketball — continues. Coincidentally, CBSSports.com and the Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard reported last month that Syracuse is under NCAA investigation for a wide range of possible violations primarily centered around the basketball program.
“Whether it’s the NCAA or it’s big business or politics, there’s always going to be a percentage of people who go beyond the rules,” said Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for Sport in Society in Boston. “In any context, there’s always parameters of rules. And there are people who go outside of them. But in the issue with the NCAA and why people do it, there’s a reason we see it magnified in college sports, especially in Division I football and basketball. Those are economic engines, and they’re enormous.”
The onus on the new guard at Michigan is to do things “the right way” — part of a cycle that Lebowitz said is “a push-pull dynamic in college athletics, in terms of operating with ethics, integrity, and the parameters of guidelines.”
But right now, Michigan basketball is sanction-free and seemingly trouble-free. With the opportunity to play for the school’s first national title since 1989, the Wolverines are on the verge of creating a new legacy.
“It was survival now for three or four years,” Beilein said. “Let’s get into the NCAA tournament. We haven’t been in there forever, let alone worry about getting into the Final Four. We realized the expectations, getting in the NCAA tournament, after you start to get there, four of the last five years, it’s not enough, you have to win and advance.
“To me it’s just about continue to grow this program so that we’re in position to be in this position.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.