Thursday, November 30, 2006

Six years of rebuilding is too long

I’ve seen enough of Tommy Amaker to know that he isn’t the kind of coach that will lead a program to consistently successful seasons over the long haul. I’ve given Amaker every excuse in the book for five years. He inherited a mess. The roster he was initially stuck with was riddled with lower-level talent. He had to deal with a reduction in scholarships per the probation that was handed down by the NCAA. He was put into a position where he had to try to sell the UM basketball program over the Michigan State basketball program with nothing but smoke and mirrors. He had heartbreakingly bad luck with the Al Horford and Joe Crawford decommitments. Every year that passed, I felt like Amaker was one step closer to bringing Michigan back to the elite of the Big Ten. But that hasn’t even come close to happening.

The problem with giving Amaker all of those excuses is that you can find yourself five or six years down the road cheering for a team with absolutely no identity. I give Amaker all of the credit in the world for sticking with this thing. It had to be maddening at times. He has brought in some decent talent. But, I have no clue what the Michigan basketball team is about. I don’t know if it is a high scoring team or a low scoring team. I don’t know if it is a post team or a three-point shooting team. I don’t know if it is a defensive-minded team or an offensive-minded team. What exactly is Tommy Amaker’s coaching style? It’s been five years and I have no idea. I know what his style supposedly is but I haven't seen anything that would indicate a particular style other than confusion and disorganization.

The NC State game on Monday was the breaking point for me. NC State had six scholarship players to start the game. Two of its best players did not suit up. A few minutes into the game, NC State’s starting point guard pulled a hamstring and was out for the game. As a result, NC State played nearly the whole game with just five scholarship players. From what I saw, there wasn’t a player on NC State that looked any better than an average role player. I don’t mean any disrespect to the Wolfpack but NC State suited up a bunch of scrubs. The Wolverines jumped out to a nice start by racing to a 12-2 lead. At that point, it looked like Michigan might win by thirty points or more. NC State looked terrible. I was convinced that I was watching the worst NC State team I had seen in my lifetime. Then how is it that Michigan proceeded to get embarrassed? The answer is that Michigan has no identity. Michigan never plays well. If it wins, it wins in an ugly game. Michigan never gets “hot” or exceeds expectations.

Michigan lost to NC State for the same reason that it lost to a terrible Minnesota team in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament last year which killed any shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. Michigan doesn’t pride itself on anything other than having a common interest in liking basketball. There are at least 20-30 coaches in college basketball that could take a team of the same talent level as Michigan, and turn it into a tournament team with quality coaching. Do you think George Mason would turn down the players on the UM roster? Heck, no! Bob Huggins will take over the Kansas State Wildcats basketball program (which has been a doormat in the Big XII for years) and within a year or two, that team will make the NCAA Tournament. And I would be willing to bet that within the first week of practice that team had an identity. Duke has an identity. Michigan State has an identity. Every top 25 program has an identity. And in every case, that identity comes from the coach. The Tom Osbourne-coached Nebraska teams of the ‘90s ran the option over and over again on their way to multiple National Championships. Osbourne’s teams were good at running the option and that’s what they did. They had an identity. Amaker’s teams aren’t good at anything. So when it comes down to crunch time or a match-up against a good team, Michigan crawls into a shell because it doesn’t have anything to fall back on. That is why Michigan needs to go into a different direction.

I like Tommy Amaker. He seems like an outstanding guy. I always hoped that he would be able to turn the Michigan program around. He agreed to come on board when the program was at its darkest point in the history of Michigan Basketball. I feel bad that the decision to come to Michigan will probably end as a red mark on his resume. He gave his heart and soul to the university and I am thankful for that. I just think that you can only stay stagnant for so long before you start to go backwards. Another missed Tournament is just another reason for big-time recruits to go to other schools. There really isn’t any more of a reason to go to Michigan now than there was five years ago. Even if Michigan can somehow manage to take advantage of a down year in the Big Ten and sneak into the Tournament, it will only act as a diversion of the truth. It doesn’t take a good coach six seasons to leave a stamp on a program. I truly believe that if Amaker had something to show, we would have seen something by now.

The problem with parting ways with Amaker is a) he has worked tirelessly for Michigan basketball and it’s extremely hard to punish a guy as upstanding and loyal as he has been and b) he is in on some big-time recruits including a pretty good recruiting class already in the fold for next season. It’s often the case that when a program changes gears, that year’s recruiting class takes a big hit. Michigan can hardly afford to come up empty on a recruiting class. But, I don’t see a future with Amaker. Even with a talented roster, I don’t see them having any semblance of cohesion. Even bad teams can show cohesion at times. Michigan has never had any in Amaker’s five years.

I don’t really care which direction the Athletic Department goes in if it does decide to bring in a new coach. It could go for a big name or try to pluck an up and comer from a mid-major. There have been so many programs that have reached a new stratosphere by bringing in an accomplished coach from a mid-major that it definitely seems worth looking into. Ohio State, much in the same way it attained the top football program in college football, brought in a relatively unknown coach to run the basketball program which has paid immediate dividends. There are solutions out there. It is up to Bill Martin and his staff to find those solutions. Unfortunately, the longer Amaker sticks round, the longer the fans have to watch him try to fit a square block into a round hole.

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