2008-2009 Season

"A Watershed Event"

Michigan Fans Rush Court after Win over DukeIn only his second year at Michigan Tommy Amaker managed to knock off a Michigan State team that had beaten Michigan 8 times in a row and won the last three contests by an average of 31.5 points, including a 51 point drubbing in 2000. Amaker arrived in 2001 and inherited a program that was left in ruins by Brian Elerbee. Similarly to John Beilein, he built it from the ground up and didn’t take shortcuts. The 2003 win over Michigan State was Michigan’s 13th in a row and it was a statement that Tommy had this program headed in the right direction:

“It’s exceptional,” Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin said. “Tommy (Amaker) has done exactly what we wanted him to do, and a lot sooner than I expected. And to have the rivalry with (Michigan) State, it’s very exciting.”

Michigan was ineligible for the tournament that year but it appeared clear that Michigan was headed back in the right direction. Amaker had another top 20 freshman class locked up for the next year and four days after Michigan’s win over Michigan State, all-american Joe Crawford gave Amaker his verbal commitment. The consensus at the time was clear: Michigan had started to turn the corner:

All the bad memories this rivalry has given Michigan basketball fans were washed away with yesterday’s win, and, more importantly, with the thought of what this team can do in the next few seasons. All people could see was Daniel Horton being hoisted up at center court following the buzzer, one finger pointed straight into the air, as fans rushed toward him to celebrate what seems to be a changing of the guard.

Fast forward 5 years, John Beilein and this year’s team pulled off a similar upset against a Duke team that has absolutely dominated Michigan in recent years. It came on the heels of a win over UCLA and the common refrain is that Michigan basketball is back. Pete Bigelow of the Ann Arbor news wrote a column about Martin’s reaction:

“It’s been a long time with me and basketball,” he said.

That ragged list of history was on Martin’s mind when John Beilein beat Duke, the celebration ensued and the tears welled. Finally, a tangible reward. Finally, a taste of success. His long-awaited return of the Michigan basketball program to relevance certainly merited his reaction. It was, after all, what Martin called, “a watershed event.”

John Beilein has shown that he has Michigan headed in the right direction but are the circumstances really that much different than they were 5 years ago? You can point to his proven track record but his teams were never dominant in the Big East, only once did he post a conference record better than Amaker’s 2003 tally of 10-6.

What happens to this year’s team if Manny Harris or DeShawn Sims get hurt? How does this team deal with losing a couple games in a row? Can they win on the road in the Big Ten? Can they avoid upsets? What about the lack of post depth?

Daniel HortonClearly the disappointment of the Tommy Amaker era makes it hard to remember the positives but there were several times when it appeared Michigan had turned the corner or at least were close.

  • In 2004 Michigan was just left out of the dance and went on to win the NIT.
  • 2005 appeared to be the year Michigan would finally make the tournament until the season was marred by injuries and suspensions. Only Dion Harris, Ron Coleman, and Courtney Sims played in every game.  Lester Abram missed the whole season and Daniel Horton was suspended for the 2nd half. Chris Hunter, Graham Brown, and Brent Petway all missed games and Dani Wohl, John Andrews, and Sherrod Harrell all started games that year.
  • In 2006 Daniel Horton scored 39 points to lead Michigan past Illinois, the #8 team in the country, and a tournament berth looked imminent.

I am just as confident as the rest of you that Beilein has this program on the right track but I am still scared to jump the gun. There are so many games left this year that I think it’s too soon for Martin to call this a “watershed event”. The goal isn’t one or two big upsets every year, the goal is to establish a program that can compete for Big Ten championships and be a contender year in and year out.

There are still myriad issues surrounding this basketball program and two marquee wins in November and December aren’t going to make them disappear overnight. Some much needed improvements to Crisler Arena have been implemented since Beilein has arrived but faciltiies still rank among the worst in the country. I think it’s clear that Martin is putting more work into the basketball program but the reasons behind this are up for debate. Maybe he made promises to Beilein when he hired him or maybe he’s just realizing the necessity of facilities upgrades. Regardless, it appears that a practice facility is waiting in the wings and may go before the regents as soon as January.

The bottom line is that while this program is headed in the right direction, it would be crushing to not make it over the top yet again. I just hope everyone remembers there are 22 more games left to be played and anything can happen.

These two wins along with the addition of Laval Lucas-Perry have changed expectations from “the NIT would be nice” to “NCAA or bust”. Expectations can wear on a team, especially a young one that hasn’t dealt with them before. The next four months are when contenders are separated from pretenders and when Michigan needs to truly make their mark.

As Michigan fans we know all too well that it only takes a few mental lapses, injuries, or bad losses to ruin a season that once looked so promising.

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