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Hard to Win Gunfights When You're Throwing Knives

One of the frustrating curiosities about the University of Michigan's athletic department that forces some Michigan fans to examine the outer reaches of sanity is that despite the school's resources, prestige, and heritage, it employs middling coaches to helm its two most important programs. Strong academics, a national brand name that helps to lure recruits, degrees that can get you a job almost anywhere, the third-highest-grossing athletic budget, final fours and national titles--Michigan has these things...and two mediocre and prominent coaches to match. That's cognitive dissonance at work. Even more bizarre, Michigan has excellent coaches in other sports: a wonderful softball coach; excellent swimming and diving staffs; etc.

But not football and basketball. As Frank Costanza might excoriate were the Michigan football and basketball coaches running their own industrial smoothing companies, neither Lloyd Carr nor Tommy Amaker could smooth a silk sheet on a hot date if...I lost my train of thought. But you get the point: neither man is leading his industry.

I've often written that college sports are coaches' games, and I am not backing off of that now. But at the same time, one must also acknowledge that in a sport like college basketball, you can do only so much with the talent that you have: All other factors being fairly equal, superior talent wins.

I couldn't help but dwell on this as I watched Michigan valiantly attempt to win in Champagne on Saturday. As has become a custom during the Tommy Amaker era, Michigan losses are often evidenced by the box scores: too many turnovers; too many missed shots; too many easy baskets for an opponent--the evidence needed to solve the caper is usually found in the numbers. But that wasn't so on Saturday. Michigan shot 46.3% for the game; Illinois, 41.7%. Michigan was 19-22 from the line; Illinois, 20-24. Michigan had 11 turnovers; Illinois, 9. And so on. Yes, there are some statistical differences, but nothing so staggering that one can see an obvious explanation for the outcome.

Well, at least not in the numbers. But if you look to the left, you might actually find the answer to the question, Why did Michigan lose? Simply put: Michigan does not have enough D1-caliber contributors on its roster to compete with well-coached, talented teams like Illinois. Some of this is coaching: Michigan may not be developing its players well enough or employing a system that adequately maximizes each player's respective strengths. I am open to this, and I think both are true to certain, pronounced degrees. But I am also pretty confident saying that Michigan's players just aren't good enough at basketball.

Look at that roster. Daniel Horton is good enough to play at any Big Ten school. So are Dion Harris, Graham Brown, and Lester Abram (when he's healthy, which is suddenly never). And after that...it gets sketchy. Chris Hunter is a mercurial athlete; Brent Petway is a high jumper; Courtney Sims is too weak for premier competition; Ron Coleman does not have the ball skills or size; and the jury is still out on Jerret Smith and Jevon Shepherd. Sure, some of these guys could be quite good, and could be contributing if they were better coached/prepared, but as they are now, they simply don't have the requisite blend of competencies.

This puts Michigan at a marked disadvantage, as it is effectively a team with little depth. Even obvious talents like Harris can spend significant parts of a game doing relatively little and seeming ineffective against other, better teams. All of the rhetoric espoused by observers on television and in preseason magazines seems to be inspired by potential and kindness: People want Michigan and Amaker to succeed, so they look at the athletic kid from Georgia, the long kid from Gary, and the supposed NBA prospect (yes, I am laughing my ass off, too) from suburban Boston and assume that Michigan has the horses needed to run the races. But then the ball goes up and the Wolverines are left with a shoot-first PG who has to score too much; a SG whose success is episodic and sometimes unpredictable; a SF who disappears; a PF who boards and bangs and that's it; and a C who couldn't finish a wide-open dunk in crunch time. That's not the kind of lineup you need if you are going to beat good teams and build confidence. Yet there's no one on the bench to provide significant help

So why did Michigan lose on Saturday? Well, despite playing what was probably the best game that it could, it just didn't have enough guys who can contribute, and that catches up with the few who can.