As a Michigan alum, I am downrigth saddened by the continuing turmoil surrounding the basketball program. I am submitting the following column to the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, where I learned my craft for four years.
Junior Manny Harris’ decision to enter the NBA Draft, with one year of collegiate eligibility remaining, simply caps THE most disappointing season in the history of Michigan men’s basketball. It was a squad with four returning starts and a trunk full of high pre-season expectations, including a Top 15 ranking.
The season is completed, left in a crumbled, broken heap, and in all honesty, with few prospects for even a mediocre future. There will be no senior leadership (other than reserve Anthony Wright), no returning starter averaging in double figures in scoring and no one over 6-5 of consequence.
At some point, this mess must be laid at the feet of the person who has been the overseer for the last three seasons – head coach John Beilein. And on a simple “pass/fail” grading system (all the rage in my day on campus), any objective observer would have to scream “fail!”
Accordingly, changes must be made as soon as possible by the new UM athletic administration in order to stop the further marginalization of a once-proud program.
Here is the case to be made:
In his three season, Beilein is 46-63, one of only three UM coaches with a losing record (not counting the 1909 season at 1-4,which then saw the school wait eight years until commencing a fulltime program). Even Brian Ellerbe, who left under a major cloud, had a 62-60 mark and led Michigan to its last Big Ten tournament title in 1998. Some of you were in grade school when that happened.
Beilein’s teams have one legitimate non-conference win in three seasons (the 81-73 home victory over Duke on Dec. 6, 2008). This past season’s win over UConn was versus a team that didn’t even sniff the NCAA Tournament. The win over Ohio State two weeks earlier was against a squad minus the top player in the nation, Evan Turner.
The number of unforgiveable losses requires a second hand upon which to count – including road losses at Indiana and Northwestern and a home setback against Penn State. The regular season-ending loss at Michigan State was downright embarrassing because it was beyond bad; it was non-competitive.
On a good night, the Wolverines looked slow afoot, lacked a strong inside game on offense AND defense and shot horrifically all year long (an absolute curse for a team employing three guards most minutes of the game). A team that depended on three-point shooting as its backbone went less than 30 percent from beyond the arc, yet never altered much of anything during the campaign.
In the Beilein era, there has been no true standout recruit brought to Ann Arbor. DeShawn Sims and Harris were recruited by Beilein’s predecessor, Tommy Amaker, as well as Ekpe Udoh, who transferred away from Michigan after two seasons (including Beilein’s first year as coach).
You might have noticed his power to the bucket and rebounding prowess in a Baylor uniform, leading the Bears to the Elite Eight. That was a team totally destroyed following the murder of one player by a teammate and eventual cover-up by its former coach. That happened in 2003 and Baylor went from a team that only won 36 games from 2003-2007. Now Baylor is a place where players WANT to go, and trust me, Ann Arbor is paradise next to Waco, Texas.
The Michigan program appears to be no longer competitive in prime recruiting areas – Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, or here in North Texas (where I live in the same city that produced Jimmy King, one of the Fab Five). The last McDonald’s All-American to wear a Wolverine uniform was guard Daniel Horton, from a suburban Dallas high school, in 2002. The last first round NBA draft pick was Jamal Crawford in 2000; by all projections, Harris will never reach that level (possibly going undrafted according to ESPN draft analysts).
Now to be fair, if you examine the UM rosters since 1998, you’ve got to shake your head in wonderment about how the talent level has fallen so fall from the 1989 national championship or the aforementioned Fab 5. Look where that squad hailed from – Jalen Rose and Chris (Ho Who Shall Not Be Named) Webber were from Detroit, Juwan Howard came from Chicago, King from North Texas and Ray Jackson from Austin, Texas.
The 1989 lineup had players from Los Angeles (Sean Higgins), Boston (Rumeal Robinson), Flint, which UM used to own as a recruiting base (Glen Rice, Demetrius Calip), Romulus (Terry Mills), Muskegon (Mark Hughes) and Kentwood (Loy Vaught). Michigan was a NATIONAL program, but honestly, not any more.
To be great you have to get great players. Our counterparts in East Lansing do that each and every year; they stand at the point where the Spartans can lose their best player and STILL make the Final Four because Kalin Lucas is surrounded with so much talent.
Finally, Michigan never really appeared to be the best coached team on the court during most games. The squad cratered too many times in second halves, turning close affairs into losses, mostly on the defensive end. The most vivid example, of course, was Turner’s 35-foot buzzer beater to end the Michigan season in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. He was able to take that shot because no one in a blue uniform was within 20 feet of him, permitting an unrestricted path toward that open shot. That’s coaching because it SO appeared to be Michigan’s intention not to guard him.
The same thing happened at home against the Spartans when Lucas was left wide open to hit the winning jumper. Everyone in Crisler Arena knew who was taking that shot and the players should have been instructed to that very fact.
Coaching is a cruel business; nice men often get rolled over by circumstance. But men’s collegiate basketball is also a business and when someone is not doing the job required to produce results, changes must be made. Michigan needs a major injection of youth and talent and that will only come with a change at the top.
If you need some suggested names, try New Mexico’s Steve Alford (who turned the Lobo program completely around and, for some reason, isn’t wanted by his alma mater at Indiana) or Butler’s Brad Stevens, leading his Bulldogs to the Final Four this year. A former Butler head coach, Thad Matta, seems to be doing just fine, thank you, at Ohio State.
Relying on incoming freshmen to lead Michigan back to the Promiseland is an iffy proposition at best and the best players in the state are already committed to East Lansing, not Ann Arbor. Unless they are the likes of John Wall, Carmelo Anthony or Derrick Rose, Michigan fans could be waiting, and waiting and waiting …
As we say in Texas about a certain brand of canned chili, “that’s just too damn long.” It’s time to speed up the clock and it must begin with a housecleaning on the bench.