"A Watershed Event"

Dylan Burkhardt
on

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.

  • MaizeNBlue2

    I agree with the general sentiment of what you’re saying, Dylan; but I can’t remember a Michigan team that had two wins of this magnitude this early before. It definitely will make it a bitter pill to swallow if we don’t make the tournament, but I’m definitely happy with the progress, which I’m sorry to say that I never really saw when Amaker was at the helm. He got us to a certain level and we never got any further. There was never really an offense that was run, minus the occasional back screen-lob-Petway jam set play out of a TO.

    I’m with these guys 100% regardless, but here’s hoping that we have in fact turned the corner. We all can agree that the results so far are definitely promising.

  • Mith

    Nice post, Dylan. I am really glad I discovered this blog, you are doing some excellent work. :>)

    There’s no doubt the Duke win changed my outlook on this team. I went from “I just want to see some improvement” at the beginning of the season to “FINALLY, we’ve got a tournament team!” I may be setting myself up for disappointment, but I can’t help it.

    The difference here is the coaching, though. With Beilein’s offense and 1-3-1 defense, I feel like he can really “maximize” the talent he has available. So even if Michigan didn’t have talented players like Harris and Sims, I feel like they could still be a pesky team. And I like that, knowing that even if they are overmatched on paper, they have the potential to win anyway.

    So, I’m all in! I can’t settle for anything less that an NCAA berth at this point. Even if its one and done, I’ll still be delighted.

  • Evan

    I share your sentiment that Michigan under Amaker was almost there a few times. I have been thinking about that recently, too. There were a few critical junctures during many of his seasons where a very small break going the other way would probably have put Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. 2003-2004 they were clearly building for the future and the NIT win was a big step. Then every season after that was either injuries or a moment where they just couldn’t get over the hump. I seem to recall a Dion Harris injury during a crucial Ohio State game that derailed the team because they were so sensitive to injuries and everyone seemed to be thinking “Oh no, not again!” Losing two games after beating Illinois was just…well, they just weren’t focused on those games and it cost them a Tournament berth. I put that on coaching.

    The difference I would say now is that on both the offensive end and the defensive end, the team appears to be focused on running a system and executing it well. This to me results in their being more even-keeled – they don’t have those eight minute scoring droughts, when the game is close at the end they keep their composure, when they heat up they manage to harness and focus their energy.

    Another difference that I see from Amaker is that players are now maximizing their potential. Amaker attracted talented players, but it is hard to point to great improvement other than simply getting more experience. I would point to Sims and Shepherd as players who were under Amaker and have become vastly better under Beilein – more improvement than I would have expected from experience alone. Shepherd was athletic but didn’t seem to know what to do under Amaker. Sims showed potential but it didn’t appear that he was being taught.

    Players like Horton and Harris came in to Amaker’s program and they were highly regarded. They left after four years without appearing to have really improved. They seemed to excel based on pure talent, and that is what Amaker’s teams seemed to do – rely on their talent. Under Beilein, I see the talent being shaped into a system. Players focus on executing the system instead of focus on somehow beating their guy and scoring. I am the furthest thing from a basketball expert, so maybe I am completely wrong, but that is my personal observation and I have watched just about every game I could have for the past 15 years (fortunately I didn’t have BTN last year, but I even listened to a lot of those games online). With Amaker, I hoped he would do well – it would have made a great story. With Beilein I feel very confident that he will do well based not on hope, but on a proven coaching track record and proven results on the court so far this year.

    Beilein appears to really be managing expectations with the team (when you’re ripe you’re one day from being rotten – love it). Yes, injuries could derail the season. Yes, a team with big post players will be difficult to handle. But Beilein has shown he can find a way and I think we can overcome those types of obstacles. Even if some cataclysm destroys this season, I feel extremely confident that the program is on the right track for the long haul, as opposed to Amaker, where I just kept hoping that next season he would do something he failed to do this season.

    My expectations for this year have changed from being happy with bubble talk and an NIT berth to feeling like we would have really blown it if we aren’t in the top four or five of the Big Ten with an NCAA bid. I don’t think that is unfair. I think it is more than justified by their performance so far this year.

    Go Blue!
    Evan

  • On another note, anyone know how long Bigelowe has been at the A2 News? I just started seeing his name recently I feel like, looked him up and he’s the sports editor?

  • Ky Fox

    I couldnt have said it better Evan. You took the words right out of my mouth. I to share the same outlook as Evan. The Amaker days were all about landing 4 and 5 star recruits, and letting them run motion offense. No player development, and hoping that what talent his players had would be good enough to result in victories. Its sad to say but it doesnt work that way. You look into any major, successful program and you will see at least a touch of player development taking place…it would boggle my mind if there were not. That is exactly what Beilein is establishing right now. Making decent/average players good, and making good players great/NBA, and hopefully soon on down the line we have more of the good to great players signing on.
    The obvious differences between an Amaker coached team and a Beilein coached team is that an Amaker coached team would under achieve and become less talented and dumbed down.. with highly regarded players, while JB is winning with a couple walk ons, freshman and sophmores….and a junior…while they continue to get better. I say JB ups the anty here at UM. He will have better records here than he did at WestVa.

  • Kenny

    Evan and Ky, both well said.

    My expectation is a 10-8 conference record and a possible tournament birth. This team gives you not only the hope but the faith in the players and the coach. I look forward to more improvement from the team this season and a couple of big road wins.

  • bball

    First – great article Dylan. Very thought provoking, timely and well researched.

    I agree with Evan and was thinking a lot of those same things as I read the article. to add a little bit:

    The quality of product Beilein is putting on the floor is miles away from what Amaker threw out there. I’ll take low turnovers and high efficiency any day over turnover plagued rely-on-the-talent teams with horrendous offensive possessions and bad attitudes.

    Beilein seems to be building a solid program with great depth and good character. I was guilty of thinking Michigan was on the way back after that 2004 season, but things unraveled and Amaker’s hold on the program did too. He didn’t seem like he had a plan, rather put his hopes in recruits and talent. Beilein seems to be almost the opposite. He has a proven program and believes whole-heartedly in that program. He is going to go get kids that fit the plan skill wise, but also, and maybe more importantly, be solid character kids that care about the program, the coach and each other. Because of the great development/teaching skill he has as well as all the intangibles, the impact of one injured player should not be nearly as great as the Amaker years, especially after this year when we really have quality depth.

    I thought Amaker could have been given one more year to turn things around, but man am I glad Martin pulled the trigger and got Beilein.
    I couldn’t be happier at how much fun this team is to watch.

    In those years when we were one or two wins (over Minnesota or other beatable teams) and choked, I can remember thinking, ‘Even if we get in the tournament, we are horrible compared to the contenders’. And the ‘teams’ were. On a given night (Horton’s 39) they could beat someone with a great individual effort. The new era of team can beat someone with a great team effort. Big difference in my opinion. And they look to be playing at such a higher level and appear to be able to compete with anyone as a team.

    I have confidence in them and really hope they do well in conference and get to the tournament as a reward for all the hard work they obviously put in this last offseason. And selfishly for myself and being a die hard fan all these years!

    Go Blue!

  • Ken in Vegas

    Fantastic article, Dylan. It’s like having an all Michigan Sports Illustrated at my fingertips. Your hard work will turn into quite the reader base, especially as this program takes off.

    Good points everyone. BBall hit on something that I think rings true. We beat Illinois when Horton scored 39, simply because Horton couldn’t be stopped and scored 39. If he could have been slowed down even the slightest bit, we would have lost. I don’t ever want to see Harris score 39, even though he is the superior talent to Horton. If Harris scores 39, then something went terribly wrong that game, because Beilein’s system is a team first system and Harris has bought into that. Amaker simply didn’t have a system and required somebody to “be the system” for that game. Pretty night and day. Amaker was nothing more than a recruiter really. Somebody who was given an opportunity to coach because he was under Coach K’s wing. Not trying to be harsh, but when you get a glimpse of someone who is a coach in every sense of the word, you realize how mediocre the rest are. Was Steve Fisher even half the coach Beilein is?

    Anyway, I’m off to watch Moses Morgan for the second time here in Vegas. I’ll be providing my perspective on his abilities soon after for you recruiting buffs. Go Blue!!

  • Ace

    Nice article, Dylan. The brief era of Dani Wohl, starting point guard, still haunts me to this day.

    I do believe we will be a bubble team for the tournament this year, but I am really trying to hold back my expectations until we hit the meat of the Big Ten schedule. Beating the Duke’s and UCLA’s of the world is great, but in the end it comes down to taking care of business in conference, day in and day out.

  • JRose

    Dylan, great site! Your hard work is my daily read…Thanks! Go Blue!!

  • aaron

    agreed, this site is every bit as good as a pay site, maybe even better!!!

  • AC1997

    I agree with most of what has been written. Dylan, you did a great job of keeping us grounded after a spectacular start to the season. That’s good because the wheels could easily come off, despite all signs pointing in the right direction.

    I think what is obvious is that Amaker, by all accounts a very good guy, required talented players to succeed because he wasn’t a good enough coach to develop talent. When he had good talent (Abram, Harris, Horton, Hunter, Brown) he was able to have pretty good teams that were at the high end of the NIT field or the low end of the NCAA field. But you NEVER saw any of those player get better from their freshman to senior years.

    The worst example of this is Courtney Sims. He was a talented 7-footer in a conference and sport that lacks many of them. Yet he was always soft and never developed. In just 1.5 seasons you’ve seen John Beilein take an underachieving Sims and Shephard and turn them into very good players.

    I think what stood out to me in this post was that if Amaker would have gotten a commitment from Crawford and/or Hairston would he still be coaching?

  • mrh

    Nice Post. I attended all the UM bball home games from 2001-2005; after enduring those four years right after the ellerbe era, I learned to lower my expectations for michigan bball.

    I will be pleasantly surprised if we make the tourney this year.

  • Giddings

    Jeez Dylan, what a depressing post! Haha, in all seriousness, it’s good that you pointed out the stuff you did because the similarities between now and then are a little scary.

    Having said that, I totally agree with Evan, Ky Fox, bball, and Ken. The simplest way to put it is that Tommy was a good recruiter, while Beilein is a good coach.

    It really is crazy thinking back to some of those pivotal games in the Tommy Era. Some of the ones on my list include (in no particular order):

    1) 2003-04, losing at home to Boston U 61-60 (http://www.mgoblue.com/basketball-m/article.aspx?id=34952)
    – Losing this game might have ultimately kept us out of the Big Dance (we would have finished 19-10, 9-9 in Big Ten) that year… although you could argue that winning the NIT was just as big as getting in the Tourney and going one and done.

  • Giddings

    2) 2004-05, losing in OT to #18 Arizona in the Preseason NIT 61-60
    (http://www.mgoblue.com/basketball-m/article.aspx?id=34736)
    – Daniel Horton missed a layup in the final seconds that would have had us ranked in the Top 25 and earned a spot in the championship game with Wake Forest. Both Arizona and Wake went on to earn #2 seeds in the Tourney that year (although Wake was upset in the 2nd round by JB and the Mountaineers).

    3) 2004-05, losing at home to #24 Wisconsin 74-62
    (http://www.mgoblue.com/basketball-m/article.aspx?id=34638)
    – This was the last game that Daniel Horton played in for the rest of the season. We were very pumped for this game considering that we had a big non-conference win (over #20 ND) and a big conference-opening win (over #14 Iowa on the road), despite another home loss to BU. I remember Daniel screaming in pain on the floor in the 2nd half of this game… we went on to lose 13 of the remaining 14 games.

    4) 2005-06, too many to list really, but how about:
    (http://www.mgoblue.com/basketball-m/article.aspx?id=31268) – we really had a very good chance to win this game, Daniel just missed a 3 at the very end and Illinois made their FTs.
    (http://www.mgoblue.com/basketball-m/article.aspx?id=31222) – Crisler was ROCKING for this game, two ranked teams, the Buckeyes… we’re leading in the 2nd half when Dion gets injured, we end up losing the game and then get blown out at last-place Purdue a few days later.
    (http://www.mgoblue.com/basketball-m/article.aspx?id=31190)
    (http://www.mgoblue.com/basketball-m/article.aspx?id=31184)
    Just pathetic. These losses at the end of the season to IU and Minn can be pinned directly on Tommy for not keeping the team motivated to lock up a Tourney spot (Daniel said after the Illinois win “we’re in”).

  • Giddings

    5) 2006-07: two games cost us the NCAAs this year:
    (http://www.mgoblue.com/basketball-m/article.aspx?id=30946)
    It was after this loss to a vastly-inferior Iowa team at home that I knew Tommy’s time was up.
    (http://www.mgoblue.com/basketball-m/article.aspx?id=30910)
    Amazingly in spite of my above comments, we still could have made it in the Tourney with a win over #1 OSU. You all know the story, we’re up by 6 with under 4 minutes left and OSU finishes the game on a 10-0 run, highlighted by a missed dunk by Courtney and missed 1-and-1 by Dion.

    I guess everything happens for a reason… and if it took these losses in order to bring a guy like Beilein in, well at least we’re better off now because of them.

  • Ken in Las Vegas

    Thanks for letting us relive the nightmares, Giddings. The worst was after that Illinois win. I rememeber thinking “We’re in. Thank God. As long as we don’t fall on our face.” I remember the post game interview with Horton, when the reporter said “How does it feel to be back in the tourney after so many years” or something to that effect. Then we lose to Minnesota in the first game of the Big Ten Tourney to seal are fate.

  • great article man. you’re becoming a bona fide journalist.

  • BJ

    The Key Difference:

    Lavalrumeal Lucas-Robinson-Perry

    LRLRP!

    w00t!

  • Ryan M

    lets just knock on some wood and keep rolling boys! Have faith in the team that they will keep winning and ultimately make the tourney.

  • will

    I can not explain how slow this week is going for me… I all I have to do is sit here and wait for the game saturday. I am out of school and in tampa where I know nobody. Saturday couldn’t get here fast enough. Either could Monday night when I will hopefully be able to watch it clear on BTN.com.

  • will

    there won’t by any chance by an online feed for the game on saturday will there?

  • Will – I don’t think there will be any kind of official online feed b/c of Fox Sports televising the game. However your best bet is probably http://www.justin.tv/timmex and trying to get a hold of him. He’s an MSU guy, but he’s probably the best bet.

  • Maybe im just blinded but I see zero comparisons here! The fact is Amaker teams had no plan on the court, they just dribbled and passed the ball around until something opened up or until the shot clock expired(pretty often), or until Chris Hunter decided to take 3 steps before bothering to dribble. The games were brutal to watch, with 20 turnovers in a game not that uncommon. There was literally almost no improvement/development of players from year to year and in fact many seemed to regress? People relax, coach B is one of the best coaches in the country its that simple. 24 assists to 5 turnovers last game out, I guarantee you that never happened with an Amaker team. I understand the the concern of possibly folding up like those teams did in the past but im here to tell you all, its not going to happen. Theres one reason why, Coaching!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • I remember a few years back when M was 16-4 and looked like a lock for the dance. Losing 7 of 9 and a first round BT tournament game changed that. Let’s see how the Big Ten games go before setting impossible expectations for this team (I’ve heard talk of us getting a 4 seed). This team is good and has us all thinking ncaa tourney but don’t get disappointed if they end up in the NIT. A few months ago the NIT was seen as the next building block.

  • JB2

    Thanks for the recap of the Amaker era Giddings; I’d forgotten some of the hight points. Unfortunately for Tommy, two steps forward was always followed by two steps back.

    For me, it’s all been a blur since dumbass Mo Taylor rolled his Explorer on M-14 thirteen years ago this winter – all in an effort to show Mateen Cleeves a good time!

  • JimC

    Will, I know what you mean. Good thing there will be 2 –good– games every week when B10 play starts!

    Boht, yeah I vividly remember that first round BT loss. It was to MN, a team we had beat by 20 home and away. I think it was the lowlight of the past 10 years!

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