More so than any other sport, college basketball is a coach's game. Unquestionably, the NFL and the NBA are about their players, and while college football is also about coaches, no sport allows a coach to control the action like college basketball. Don't be foolish: You need great athletes to win at the highest levels. But Cincinnatah had tons of tall, fast, strong guys during the Bob Huggins era and you never saw the Bearcats cutting down the nets (never mind that the Ryan Fletchers of the world were probably too stupid to use scissors).
No, successful college basketball requires good coaching because the talent is diffuse, fundamentals can still trump athleticism to a certain extent, and styles are such a important determinant in deciding match ups. It isn't a coincidence that a guy like Rick Pitino can take Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville--diverse teams with varying levels of talent--to the Final Four.
With all of the player issues that derailed Michigan's season last year--injuries; beating up girlfriends; walk-ons playing major minutes--you'd expect any respectable Michigan basketball preview to begin with an extended examination of a full, healthy, relatively deep roster. That's fair, but there is already a lot of that, courtesy of some excellent bloggers:
Before you go running to the message boards at TheLloydCarrIsTheGreatestEver.com or GoBlueWolverineAndEffABlog.com and point out how many haters can be found there, I just want to say two things: 1) Those sites do NOT represent reality (in a number of ways); and 2) Your average Michigan fan seems to think Amaker is OK.
I mean, what's not to like? He buys the students tickets; he invites the Maize Rage to practice; he went to Duke(!); he sends nice letters to high school coaches; he gets the crowd moved closer to the floor; he won the NIT; and he went to Duke(!). Notice anything(s) conspicuously absent? Like, oh, I don't know, praise for his teaching? Or praise for his strategic wizardry? How about praise for his dedication to fundamentals? Praise for how well prepared his teams are? Yeah, I didn't see those either. And that's because they don't exist. All I ever read about Tommy Amaker is how nice he is, how he knows how to win because of his pedigree, and how hard he is working to bring back Michigan basketball. Well, guess what? That's all great stuff, and Amaker is the basketball coach I'd most want if I were organizing that one event Steve Martin used to talk about, the one with all the kids around the world holding hands and singing. Bob Knight would not be right for that. But if I had to win a basketball game, I'd call Knight hours before I called Amaker.
Now, before I keep going, I know what you're thinking: Here we go again. Joey hates on a Michigan coach. Well, this is not the same thing. I think that many of Michigan's football problems are Lloyd Carr problems, but I am open to the possibility that I am somewhat unfair in my evaluation of Carr. But not with Amaker. No no. Winning basketball and losing basketball are discernibly different, and Michigan is not taught and does not play winning basketball. And that's c-o-a-c-h-i-n-g.
Look, we all know the Tommy Amaker story: A promising Duke assistant and potential Coach K successor got put on at Seton Hall in 1997. He stayed there until 2001, making the tournament four times. In 2001, the rising star left to rebuild a Michigan program that had fallen into infamy and disarray. He will surely be a success because, well, he went to Duke and he's really nice. What people like to leave out is that Amaker left Seton Hall following a season during which his Seton Hall team--a preseason top-ten outfit featuring the best freshmen group in the country--came within one Rutgers loss of missing the Big East tournament. That team closed the year on a 4-11 tear.
These same people also like point to Amaker's increasing win totals (11-18; 17-13; 23-11; 13-18*) while ignoring that Michigan is usually an inefficient, disorganized mess on offense that often fails to adequately box out, rotate on defense, move the ball, and penetrate. And let's not even talk about offensive production in crunch time, situations that require excellent preparation and clear understanding of basketball strategy.
There is, of course, a chance that Tommy Amaker knows what he's doing. As mentioned above, he finally has a healthy roster wholly populated by his players. And perhaps his increasing win totals are indicative that his players are learning. However, I remain a resolute skeptic. Show me an Amaker player who has become appreciably better during his time in Ann Arbor; show me an Amaker post player in possession of an actual low-post skill set; show me an Amaker team that plays organized offense; show me an Amaker team that knows what a good shot is and how to get one in crunch time--should I continue?
There are a lot of players who have things to prove this season: Can Daniel Horton become a real, reliable point guard? Is Courtney Sims ever going to be anything more than an awkward-running beneficiary of summertime hype? Will Lester Abram come back healthy? Has Graham Brown finally figured out that he should probably stop posting up on the side of the basket that forces him to lean into his shots with his shooting hand out in front of his body? Those are all important questions that will factor into the success that this Michigan team enjoys. But they are all secondary to the real question of importance: Is Tommy Amaker a championship-caliber coach, or is he just a turtleneck-wearing Duke graduate with an aversion to ties?