Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Michigan's catch-22 with Amaker

The Michigan basketball program has finally taken a step, albeit a small one, towards respectability as a college basketball power. While this years team is likely to make Michigan’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years, the overall state of the program is not as promising as it seems. After Michigan served probation for its involvement with Ed Martin, many fans, including myself, thought that Michigan’s return to dominance would be aided by the “snowball effect”. It was reasonable to think that, each year, Michigan’s recruiting classes would get better and better until they mirrored the dominating classes from the 90’s. Unfortunately, Michigan’s recruiting has improved negligibly each year to the point that it’s necessary to use a magnifying glass to recognize the improvements. Granted, the Brian Ellerbee era did not help Michigan’s recovery from probation as it was plagued with suspensions and transfers. Ellerbee’s reign marked the first chance for Michigan’s return to dominance. His failures gave way to Tommy Amaker who also failed to turn the program around as fast as most anticipated.

I was convinced that Michigan would be able to sell its basketball program on name alone after the scandal. Before the Ed Martin scandal, no college basketball school could claim a better recruiting program than Michigan. That includes Duke. A lot has been made of Michigan’s inferior training facilities. Supposedly, that has kept Michigan from bringing in the top caliber high school recruits. Sure, top-rate practice facilities are a must for any top basketball program. However, the fact of the matter is that high school recruits don’t choose Michigan St. over Michigan in basketball because of the facilities in the same way that high school football recruits don’t choose Michigan over Michigan St. because of Michigan’s training facilities. Success breeds successful recruiting classes. Michigan’s problem was that it had to start over from zero. For all intents and purposes, Michigan’s basketball program was wiped out as we knew it. It had nothing to sell to high school recruits in the name of competitiveness. As a result, nobody wanted to commit to four years of uncertainty.

Michigan is not the only major college basketball program to be crippled by a recruiting scandal. Kentucky went through the same situation in 1988. They were put on probation that barred them from post-season play for two years. Like Michigan, Kentucky had to start from scratch. The big difference is that Kentucky’s first hire to fix the problem ended up working out pretty well (Rick Pitino). Kentucky did not have a 3-4 year gap where it toiled in mediocrity while bringing in players with questionable character. Michigan could’ve followed Kentucky’s lead by bringing in a high-profile coach to keep the program’s momentum going. That mistake by the Michigan Athletic Department proved to be too much to overcome as the program is still paying for that gaffe today. Pitino came on board and managed to bring in highly-rated recruits such as Jamal Mashburn almost immediately. Had Mashburn burned out at Kentucky after his freshman year and Kentucky got blown out on a regular basis, Pitino would’ve had a difficult time selling the program. Brian Ellerbee exacerbated the problems by failing to move the program in the right direction immediately. That is a must for a program recovering from NCAA sanctions. Nobody ever got a chance to forget about Kentucky because they addressed the need for a big-name coach immediately. The same can’t be said for Michigan.

As a result of the 3-4 year gap that was plagued by Ellerbee’s incompetence, Michigan St. had unfettered access to virtually all of Michigan’s former recruiting fields. Michigan St. was dominating Michigan on and off the court which led to an even bigger recruiting advantage. Having to justify a recruiting scandal to recruits is one thing but being out-performed on a regular basis by another school is a whole different monster. Kentucky had enough on its hands having to explain how the program would return to dominance to recruits like Mashburn without having to convince kids that Kentucky was a good basketball school. Imagine if Kentucky was regularly losing by 30 and 40 points to LSU and Florida over a 4-year span. I doubt they would’ve rebounded in the same successful manner.

The decline of the Michigan basketball program is allegorical to the days where a gunshot wound to the leg or arm would kill the victim more times than not. It wasn’t the shot that killed the person; rather it was the infection that followed. The recruiting scandal was like a gunshot wound. The recruiting scandal did not kill the program. It was Ellerbee’s dereliction that destroyed the program. Michigan’s plan for recovering from the recruiting scandal was deplorable. Ellerbee had no big-time college basketball experience. His name had no drawing power among recruits. It was a terrible and program-debilitating move by the Athletic Department.

Even though Tommy Amaker has been a breath of fresh air for the UM Athletic Department and fans that had to weather the dark days of the late 90’s and early 00’s, his tenure has also been plagued by a run of unfortunate situations and recruiting missteps. Four years is a long time for a basketball program to be rebuilding. Thad Matta took over the Ohio St. basketball program which went through a recruiting scandal as well. In just two short years, Matta has made the Buckeye basketball program the hottest name in the country. Ohio St. is poised to make a run into the NCAA Tournament this year and has the number one recruiting class in the nation coming in next year. That all happened within one year of Matta’s arrival. Amaker is in his fifth season as Michigan’s coach and still hasn’t matched Matta’s accomplishments in just one year.

Amaker is essentially taking his second shot at turning around the basketball program. The last four years have been a lesson in not “rocking the boat”. It seems like Amaker’s number one goal is to compete hard and avoid scandal. That might actually be enough for the Athletic Department. They can sleep well at night with Amaker at the helm. However, Matta and Pitino were much more cavalier about their task of bringing their programs to prominence. Amaker’s recruiting classes have been marginal at best. I talked about the “snowball effect” earlier. Well, Amaker’s recruiting is equivalent to the snowball rolling down a hill with a 3% decline. Even now, Amaker is bringing in one high-impact recruit per season at the most. Michigan’s number one high school basketball player this season has committed to play for Michigan (DeShawn Sims). Similarly, Michigan’s number one high school basketball player in the class of 2007 (Alex Legion) has also committed to Michigan. However, each player is the only marquee recruit in each class. Remember, back in the 90’s, Michigan’s recruiting classes were sometimes good enough to make the NCAA Tournament by themselves. The Fab Five, the 1994 class (Jerrod Ward, Maurice Taylor, Willie Mitchell, Maceo Baston, and Travis Conlan), and the 1995 class (Robert Traylor, Albert White, and Louis Bullock) dwarf anything that Amaker has been able to reel in. In fact, Brian Ellerbee’s 1999 class (LaVell Blanchard, Kevin Gaines, Jamal Crawford, Gavin Groninger, and Leland Anderson) is also better than any class Amaker has been able to bring in.

I suppose it’s possible that I’m asking for too much. Amaker has brought in good basketball players who also double as kids with good character. Players like Brent Petway, Graham Brown, Courtney Sims, and Ron Coleman have the desire to improve and the athletic ability to keep Michigan competitive. I root for them and I’m proud of their resiliency as they had to pay some of the price for the Ed Martin scandal. However, I can’t help but to think that the Michigan basketball program is capable of bringing in top 10-15 recruiting classes on a regular basis. Here are the big-time recruits that Amaker has brought in at Michigan:

2002 Daniel Horton
2003 Dion Harris
2006 DeShawn Sims
2007 Alex Legion

Four big-time recruits in five year leaves a lot to be desired at a school like Michigan. Granted, Michigan’s momentum was crippled by the de-commitments of Joe Crawford and Al Horford in 2004. Had those two players not left Michigan with only one recruit in 2004, the Michigan basketball program would be running on all cylinders today. I certainly don’t blame Amaker for inconsiderate behavior elicited by 17 year olds.  However, the program shouldn’t be relying on one or two recruits per year to keep things afloat. It’s been five years and what is still missing from Amaker’s resume is a dominating recruiting class. The irony of the situation is that Michigan had no problems recruiting in the 90’s but lacked execution and stability. Now, Michigan has a stranglehold on stability (and possibly execution depending on your feelings of Amaker’s X’s and O’s) but lacks recruiting prowess.

Year after year, the state of Michigan produces a crop of top high school basketball prospects. Year after year, Michigan manages to secure one of those prospects while the others either flock to MSU or out of the state completely. Kentucky, Memphis, Oregon, Syracuse, Florida, and Notre Dame have all come into Michigan and taken players right in Michigan’s backyard. Meanwhile, Michigan St. is still bringing in top recruiting classes with its focus on Michigan and Ohio. Tom Izzo likes to say that there is enough talent in Michigan for both the UM and MSU basketball programs to thrive. If high school kids from Michigan could only choose UM or MSU, then he would surely be right. However, with other top programs raiding the states best talent, there are clearly not enough players to go around. Amaker needs to do something about that. Whether it’s making a stronger sales-pitch to in-state players or expanding his recruiting base to other states, something needs to change. Remember, Michigan’s recruiting base was limit-less in the 90’s. Steve Fisher built his classes from the top talent in Detroit (Taylor, Mitchell, Traylor, Webber, Rose) and complement them with players from various parts of the country (Howard, King, Jackson, Bullock, Ward). Michigan will not return to dominance until Amaker addresses Michigan’s recruiting problems. One impact player per year will not get the job done.

It is easy to think that the Michigan basketball program is picking up momentum. I pretend that’s the case more times than not. However, the reality is much different. Michigan is off to a solid start this season. The Wolverines are about to break through the barrier that has kept them from the NCAA Tournament over the last eight years. However, this might be the best Michigan team of the next four years. In two years, the Michigan roster might not be any better than it is today, if not worse. Here is a look at the potential roster for 2007-8:

Ron Coleman Sr.
Kendrick Price Jr. (redshirt So.)
Jevhon Shepard Jr.
Jerret Smith Jr.
DeShawn Sims So.
Klen Morris So.
Chris Wright So.
Alex Legion Fr.
Kelvin Grady Fr.

Plus another recruit in the ’06 and ’07 classes

I don’t see how that team could possibly be better than this year’s team. Coleman is a role player who will likely improve over the next two years but I don’t see him ever being better than Lester Abram. Price is a mystery. Shepard is a mystery. Smith looks to be no better than former Michigan and Rice player Bobby Crawford. Morris could end up being a solid role player. Sims could be pretty good but likely won’t have a tremendous impact as a sophomore. Grady and Legion will likely have up and down freshmen seasons as most do. My point is that for a program that is gaining momentum, two years from now should look a whole lot brighter. Granted, with Coleman being the only graduate that season, the 2008-09 season should be one of considerable depth and talent (assuming Sims and Legion don’t leave early). However, that’s three years away. That would put Amaker’s tenure at eight years with nothing more than a sniff of success. Considering the state of Michigan is a breeding ground for big-time basketball recruits, Amaker’s track record so far has to be listed as a disappointment. The group of players coming out of Michigan in 2005 and 2007 were/are some of the deepest in the states history. Michigan has very little to show for it. As long as that trend continues, Michigan will never be better than MSU was during the early 90’s when Michigan was dominating. Unless MSU bails UM out (like UM did) with a recruiting scandal, I don’t see the Michigan program ever rebounding to the way things used to be. I would’ve never said something like that two years ago.

The answer to Michigan’s problem is obviously easier said than done. I’m sure Michigan’s troubles are not from a lack of effort on Amaker’s part. The first thing Michigan needs to do is weaken MSU’s strangle-hold on the state’s top high school players. Whether this means bringing in assistants with ties to Flint and Saginaw or recruiting that area harder, something needs to be done along those lines. The result would be a slight drop-off in success at MSU. That would make it easier to entice a recruit to come to Ann Arbor. Remember, pre-Ed Martin scandal, Michigan was the place to be. MSU had to settle for seconds. At the same time, Amaker needs to extend Michigan’s recruiting scope to a national level. I admire his creativity in recruiting Canada and Boston over the last few years but the program needs a national identity. Amaker needs to recruit Ohio and Chicago with fervor. Lastly, Amaker needs to own Detroit. Detroit has been a breeding ground for Michigan’s basketball program in the past. In the last few years, no less than six difference-making recruits have come out of Detroit and ended up somewhere other than U of M. To sum it up, Michigan has to:

1). Own Detroit
2). Have, at least, a presence in Flint/Saginaw
3). Establish a national recruiting presence

I’m sure the response to this from most Michigan fans would be “duh” but clearly these things are not getting done or Michigan wouldn’t be in its current predicament. Success in college basketball is 90% recruiting and 10% coaching. Steve Fisher proved that. The Fab Five proved that. Teams can win on talent alone in college basketball. Sure, teams that can combine coaching and recruiting like Duke and MSU will be standing at the end of most tournaments but teams with top talent also do well in basketball. Amaker’s number one objective for the rest of his time at Michigan should be recruiting. That is the only way Michigan will return to prominence. I want Amaker to stick around and be responsible for Michigan’s return to glory. Unfortunately, if he doesn’t turn things around on the recruiting trail, Michigan would be better off bringing in someone like Bob Huggins who would immediately bring in top high school recruits on name alone. Huggins would get things done. Amaker needs to do the same. Recruiting well in college basketball is probably the most important job that any coach from any sport has. The margin for error is miniscule.

I’ll leave you with a list of top 100 players that Michigan has missed out on from its own state over the three most recent recruiting classes:

2005 Joe Crawford, Malik Hairston, Al Horford, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Marquise Gray, Eric Devendorf
2006 Tom Herzog, Tory Jackson, Ramar Smith
2007 Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, Darquavis Tucker


Anonymous said...

How about UM the part about being absent during an era when turning pro right out of high school became mainstream? Also, the AAU culture went to new levels during the 90s...a terrible time for BE to burn bridges with pretty much everyone in the state of Michigan. BE pissed away the UM brand name bringing in his "national talent." I'm afraid that UM's turnaround will have to be like Maryland's under G Williams...a very slow process that was done under the leadership of a dedicated coach and for the most part without McD's AAs.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity, who will be UM's bigs next year. Aren't Sims, Brown and Hunter all seniors? Can they possibly be good next year with the loss of Horton too, who I might add, is playing like the player I expected when he was a freshman?

Jake said...

I think Maryland is a good comparison but Maryland went to the NCAA Tournament its first year off of probation under Williams and didn't miss it until last season. At this point, I would gladly take Maryland's path. I just don't see it happening. One or two guys isn't going to get it done. One guy on Michigan gets hurt and the team falls apart. It's not for a lack of effort but rather a lack of talent. Michigan needs big-time players. I think you're right about getting it done without McD's AAs. It's going to take a long, long time.

As far as UM's big men for next year, Sims is a jr. so he'll be back. Brown and Hunter will be gone. Petway will be back. So, UM will have one center and one power forward. That could be a problem.

Anonymous said...

Amaker stunk at Seton Hall and he has stunk it up here. Every team has injuries, and last year was very unfortunate. The way this team seems to be crumbling is unforgiveable, and the defense has been atrocious the past three games. I've been on his back for two years, but like with Carr, I think they are content with Amaker not to fuck things up.


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