Wow, what a week. Work killed me; Wu-Tang killed me; and, of course, Michigan basketball killed me. I was able to handle the work and the Clan, but Michigan sent me over the edge. It wasn't just losing to MSU yesterday as injuries and the myriad facets or an inferior program did in the Wolverines. It was the building dismay and frustration--engendered by the ongoing late-season collapse that will surely keep this team from the NCAA tournament--that were the only emotions I could summon as I watched MSU's better athletes, better depth, and better preparation continue to make Michigan basketball an afterthought both in the state and around the country. The University of Michigan deserves better.
As all fans are well aware, the downward spiral started against Iowa when Michigan showed up in Iowa City ready to play like it were 2001 all over again. The team was lost on offense, horrible on defense, lazy, and without composure. Michigan took terrible shots, surrendered too many open looks, lost the rebounding battle, and got blown out when it couldn't fight back. It came back home for a showdown with Ohio State and needed to play fundamentally sound basketball to beat a good team and reclaim some of the confidence it had lost. While Michigan executed on offense better and received a sensational effort from Courtney Sims, its defense was again suspect and a hot-shooting Ohio State team blitzed UM from behind the arc. Worse than allowing so many threes, though, was that Michigan couldn't muster a response, both because of mental failure and injuries. Michigan finished the game without Lester Abram (going on two years MIA), Jerret Smith (mononucleosis), and Dion Harris (sprained ankle).
Mired in a losing streak and besieged by injuries, Michigan went to bottom-feeding Purdue to try and get healthy on the road. Instead, though, the Wolverines again played horrible defense and committed the most infuriating transgression possible: on the way to getting blown out by a team missing most of its starters, the Wolverines quit. Say what you will about injuries--and yes, they are legitimate reasons for diminished returns, especially on a team that was already undermanned--but there is no excuse for quitting. For accepting the easy way out. For embracing excuses. For effectively admitting mental defeat. Not ever, and really not when you're fighting to make the NCAA Tournament. This has become a disturbing trend for Tommy Amaker-coached teams, and I don't see how even his most ardent defenders can look past this.
Michigan was able to momentarily grasp on to something as its downward slide continued, defeating Minnesota at home on Wednesday. But as is often the case, that was just a fleeting hold on stability as the foundation for a successful year continued to erode. By 6:15 yesterday, the free fall was back in effect.
And so now Michigan is 17-7 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten. It has lost four of its last five games, and no one watching this depleted team can honestly expect that it will beat Illinois, win at Ohio State, or defeat Indiana. I recognize that the Hoosiers are a team in turmoil as well, but it's also a team with more D1-caliber players. Sorry to be a jerk, but I think Michigan closes 0-3 and gets invited to the NIT at 17-10.
The Tommy Amaker fans will point to the latest spate of injuries as the acceptable reason for this late-season slide. As I wrote, I think that these injuries have really hurt Michigan, as Harris was the team's second-best scorer and one of the few who could create a shot for himself; Abram was a reliable, albeit somewhat diminished, scoring option and ball handler on the perimeter; and Smith was the closest thing UM had to a backup point guard. At the same time, though, these absences have highlighted the inadequacies of the Michigan roster. There isn't a legitimate NBA prospect on this team; there aren't ten D1-caliber players; and Michigan has not developed the depth necessary to win consistently. The blame for these deficiencies falls on Ed Martin, Steve Fisher, Brian Ellerbe, and Tommy Amaker. Martin's transgressions during the Fisher era put UM at a reputational and scholarship disadvantage; Ellerbe's mismanagement of the program allowed the team to slip perilously close to obsolescence; and Amaker's mediocre recruiting and inadequate game coaching have prevented Michigan from finding regular competency and even overachieving. The former is a requirement that shamefully hasn't been met while the latter is something that fans might expect on occasion were the coach of their team a capable teacher. But Michigan's offense is still herky jerky and ill defined; its defensive rotations and techniques are still poorly executed; its in-game strategy is regularly questionable (why does this team ever play zone if it doesn't know how to do it?); and most importantly, it is never mentally tougher than an opponent. Those are all coaching problems. Some are born of roster limitations--you play zone if you think it might hide inferior players or help the players rest--but that's also a roster assembled by the coaching staff.
This is Tommy Amaker's fifth season at Michigan, and it will be his fifth season without an NCAA Tournament berth. How many more chances does he deserve?