Malaise and Blue? APAmaker needs to give Michigan fans reason to shout.
Tommy Amaker isn't going to shy away from the obvious.
Michigan should have been better last season. The Wolverines should have contended to crack the top three in the Big Ten.
But injuries (not an excuse, but a reality) pushed the Wolverines to a disappointing 4-12 league record (13-18 overall) and out of the postseason yet again.
"It was frustrating for everyone," Amaker said of the Wolverines' subpar record after winning the postseason NIT the previous season. "That's fair to say. We had a solid year [in 2003-04], winning 23 games, won the NIT and had the nucleus back. But I don't think anyone gave Bernard Robinson enough credit for what he meant to this team.
"He allowed everyone else to stay where they were, and I knew as a coach we weren't going to be smooth sailing."
Fine. Robinson's overall presence was a factor. But losing wing Lester Abram (back and shoulder), forward Graham Brown (hernia), guard Daniel Horton (legal problems), center Chris Hunter (ankle) and forward Brent Petway (shoulder) for some or most of the season had a lot to do with the Wolverines' quick demise (losing 13 of their last 14 games).
Now, everyone is back -- and Michigan should be too.
Amaker's first message when we contacted him was that he was hoping the Wolverines could stay under the radar. No chance. Even though cracking the top three in the Big Ten over the past three seasons has been an arduous task for anyone else but Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin, the Wolverines should be in this mix.
"We have a chance to be very competitive in the conference," said Amaker, who's entering his fifth season at Michigan. "With Abram and Horton back, we've got two of our better players who weren't there last year. That's arguably our starting backcourt and they are also two of our most competitive kids. Chris Hunter and Courtney Sims give us experience in the middle.
"We've taken our lumps and our guys are hungry. We have a chance to be very competitive in the upper half of the league."
His colleagues are quick to point out the Wolverines might have the best talent.
"Michigan could be in there if they get everybody back, since they have a lot of talent and experienced guys," Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
"If Michigan gets [its] injured players back, [the Wolverines] have as much talent as anybody," Iowa coach Steve Alford said.
Added Minnesota coach Dan Monson: "Last year, we all felt they would be one of the premier teams in our league and then things went sideways. That showed how small a margin for error it is with them. Michigan should be one of those teams [near the top], but to get to that level, the top three, is difficult."
Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State and, of course, Michigan, would love to get up there as soon as possible. But cracking the top three in the Big Ten isn't like moving to the top of the Missouri Valley or any other league that takes turns atop the standings.
Michigan State will be picked by some to win the national title, let alone the league. Illinois will still be a top-25 team, assuming Big Ten player of the year Dee Brown returns from a broken foot. Wisconsin has a stud in Alando Tucker even though it was gutted when seniors Mike Wilkinson, Zach Morley, Clayton Hanson, Sharif Chambliss and Andreas Helmigk finished their eligibility after last season's Elite Eight run.
But the Badgers were able to redshirt McDonald's All-American Brian Butch two years ago and have a stable of big men in Jason Chappell, Ray Nixon and Greg Stiemsma.
So is Wisconsin's model, building through depth and four-year players, the right one to follow for Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan to crack the league's upper echelon?
Possibly, although Ohio State will certainly leap up toward the top in 2006, when the Buckeyes bring in what likely is the nation's top recruiting class, led by stud center Greg Oden.
But for the rest of them, the answer is yes.
"[Wisconsin] has had older guys and that's the key for them," Amaker said. "[Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan] has done a phenomenal job. They were actually able to redshirt a McDonald's All-American, and I've never heard of that."
Butch actually made that decision more than the coaching staff, but the point still stands.
The Badgers lost Devin Harris and then went to the Elite Eight. A fluke? No, it comes down to experience. Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota should all have it this season -- which may be enough to challenge for a top-three finish.
Iowa will have three key seniors, including Greg Bruner and Jeff Horner, and junior Adam Haluska. Indiana is banking on Auburn transfers and fifth-year seniors Marco Killingsworth and Lewis Monroe to lead the Hoosiers.
Minnesota senior Vincent Grier will be joined by upperclassmen Adam Boone and Mo Hargrow, who are back after one-year hiatuses. Boone was out with injuries and Hargrow temporarily transferred to Arkansas and then returned to the Gophers.
Ryan said the Badgers' buying into his system by January has always been the elixir -- but getting better players never hurts.
"It has helped that Wisconsin is having better players in the state, just like Minnesota," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "[Former coach Dick Bennett] set a good base and Bo is a really good coach, too. They don't turn the ball over and/or foul much. They consistently win on the road, too. They've had the same team for two years now and that helps."
Recruiting hasn't ever been an issue for Michigan under Amaker. The Wolverines have the players. Now they've got to do what the Badgers have done: stay healthy, be consistent, buy into one plan and keep winning.
"Prior to this past year, we did things quicker than people thought," Amaker said of winning the NIT after the NCAA sanctions had finally settled. "Then our legs got cut out from us. It was a letdown, very deflating. We raised the bar."
But the expectation now is to leap back over it into the upper tier of the Big Ten. Anything less would be another setback.
After two modest seasons, our resident Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, sees the league nabbing six bids to the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State leads the way as a No. 2 seed, with three others landing as top-five regional seeds.
Behind the numbers
Bo Ryan won four Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Platteville. He turned around a losing program at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He already has three 20-win seasons under his belt at Wisconsin, including a school-record 25 in each of the last two seasons.
And he gets virtually no national recognition.
Which is puzzling for a coach who has a 58-3 home record at UW, is the first in Big Ten history to win at least 11 league games in each of his first four seasons and has the highest winning percentage (.719) of any coach in the history of the conference (minimum 50 games coached).
"That's our job as coaches," Ryan said. "That's what they pay us for. Those numbers sound great, but I wouldn't know those things. For me, I get a kick out of seeing what the players accomplished in those years."
Some coaches run a system based on what they know. Ryan runs his system based on his players. And every year, he gets the most of out them.
"The players need to know that you are in it for them," Ryan said. "Just being in the gym and teaching the guys, that's what I love about coaching. I don't need people in the stands or accolades. Winning is the result of everything coming together."
Winning might be a little more challenging this season, as the Badgers return only one starter (Tucker) from their Elite Eight team of a year ago.
"It's similar to my first season at Wisconsin," Ryan said. "The first year I was in the league, a guy sent me two expensive rabbits and he tattooed the ears with their names, Jumper and Shooter. There was a note attached. It said, 'You must have pulled some rabbits out of your hats this year.'"
Ryan will need to pull more rabbits this year. With an inexperienced team and a deep conference, every game will be a battle.
But at age 57, Ryan, the oldest coach in the league, is as battle-tested as anyone in the Big Ten. And he, too, trains in the offseason, albeit a little differently than his players.
"I go down to the shore," Ryan said. "I'm a big bodysurfing guy. I love to ride the waves."
Riding the wave of success. It's a beautiful thing.
* * *
Thad Matta grew up in Hoopeston, Ill., a small town about 100 miles south of Chicago.
No wonder he became a basketball coach.
And not just a basketball coach, but a very good basketball coach. So good in fact, that in a head coaching career spanning three schools and five seasons, he's never won fewer than 20 games in a season, giving him the nation's second-best current streak (behind Gonzaga's Mark Few's six straight) at the beginning of a head coaching career.
"I think I'm the luckiest guy in the word," Matta said. "I consider myself blessed with the opportunities that I've had. I'm lucky to be where I am."
And Ohio State is lucky to have him.
Matta is just what OSU needed. After firing Jim O'Brien in the wake of a recruiting payment scandal, the Buckeyes had to find a way to heal their tarnished image.
"The No. 1 thing we had to do when we got here was change the mind-set and the attitude," Matta said. "We needed our players to believe in our system. I give them a lot of credit. They really bought into what we wanted to it."
A 20-win season and a stunning upset of undefeated No. 1 Illinois in Columbus on senior night helped accelerate the process of again becoming an elite team.
While his 2006 freshman class already includes four top-30 recruits, including consensus No. 1 Greg Oden, the focus isn't on next year.
"I think we have some really good players in our program right now," Matta said. "Our focus is 100 percent on this year's team."
That means trouble for the Buckeyes' Big Ten foes. Matta won at Butler. He won at Xavier. And he's winning at Ohio State.
"I don't know what it is," Matta said, "but we are going to continue doing what we do. The one thing we always do is take it one day at a time. We're not where we want to be, we just don't want to be where we were yesterday."
Spoken like a true winner.
* * *
Purdue has the leading returning scorer in the Big Ten in senior Carl Landry, two other starters returning, and is bringing in JC All-American point guard Tarrance Crump, whose quickness has been compared to that of Dee Brown.
That should give new head coach Matt Painter, who went 25-5 in his only season as in charge at Southern Illinois before taking an associate head coach job last year at Purdue, something to work with in an effort to reinvigorate the program after last year's 7-21 disaster in Gene Keady's final season.
Last year's disappointment aside, Painter knows he has big shoes to fill in following Keady's 512 wins and 22 postseason appearances.
"Anytime you follow a legend, its very tough," Painter said. "Its an honor to be the next head coach in Purdue and follow him. He was more than a basketball coach. When you think of Purdue, you think of Gene Keady. He's been like a father to me. ... We want to get back to the top of the league and make him proud."
Painter will have to do some serious work to match Keady's first year in West Lafayette, which ended at 21-11 and in the NIT Final Four. If he wants to aim even higher, the best first-season performance by a Purdue coach in the last 50 years was turned in by Lee Rose, who went 27-8 in 1978-79.
-- Peter Newmann
In their own words"What accounts for [our success]? The players buy into our offense and defense and even though we've had Devin [Harris], [Mike] Wilkinson and Kirk [Penney], our guys don't get away from the team concept. They work together and our better players know the reason we've been successful is everyone willing to play their roles."
-- Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan on the Badgers having contended in the Big Ten the past four seasons.
-- Andy Katz
Indiana coach Mike Davis is ecstatic about the eligibility of Marco Killingsworth. The expectations on the Auburn transfer are immense. Davis said Killingsworth was the best player in practice last season and constantly pushed the team. He said Killingsworth has already played at the highest level, competing in the Sweet 16 and being a target in the SEC every night. Killingsworth has one season of eligibility left.
Minnesota expects monster seasons out of sophomores Dan Coleman (8.3 ppg) and Spencer Tollackson (3.2 ppg) up front. Redshirt senior Adam Boone is expected to start the season on time after sitting out last season with a torn bicep on his right arm. The Gophers also are getting a boost from former player and one-time Arkansas student Mo Hargrow, who had to sit out last season after transferring back. Vincent Grier, a potential Big Ten player of the year candidate, will be the go-to guy.
The reason Iowa is finally feeling like it can make a run is that there haven't been any off-court distractions for the Hawkeyes for the first time in years. Issues with Pierre Pierce and Sean Sonderleiter have disrupted this team's progress the past three seasons.
Paul Davis made a decision that he wanted to focus on his body this summer instead of playing USA Basketball. Tom Izzo, who is on the selection committee for the team, had no issue because he knows Davis has to be committed this season. If Davis is a beast in the post, the Spartans have a legit shot to win the title.
Wisconsin's season will come down to the three bigs: Brian Butch (3.6 ppg), Greg Stiemsma (1.1 ppg) and Jason Chappell (1.0 ppg). Badgers' coach Bo Ryan isn't worried about his best player, Alando Tucker, who's also his hardest worker. The season will hinge on whether the post gets any production.
Purdue coach Matt Painter is getting lauded for his recruiting efforts, but the Boilermakers will need help for next season. The hope is Connecticut transfer Marcus White, who will be eligible after the first semester ends, will be an impact player for the Boilermakers. White, who had back issues during his tenure with the Huskies, had the potential to be a breakthrough player, but never got the necessary minutes.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn't like seeing this season's team getting overlooked by the hyped recruiting class of 2006-07. Matta has a shot to get the Buckeyes in the Dance a year before everyone will expect that to occur. The key will be how much of a dominant player Terence Dials can be in the post and whether J.J. Sullinger becomes a big-time perimeter scorer.
Michigan will be tested early and often (against Miami in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, home against UCLA in Ann Arbor, at Notre Dame, at South Florida, home against Central Michigan, Butler and Miami of Ohio). The Wolverines will also face their nemesis: Boston University, which has beaten Michigan twice in a row in Ann Arbor.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber took the Big Ten touring all-star gig because he wouldn't get another shot for some time because of the rotation of coaches. There was another reason, though, that likely was more pressing. The coach of the team gets to take two players instead of one and this allowed him to get redshirts Calvin Brock and Brian Randle some much-needed minutes on the trip.
Northwestern still hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats were one game short of being postseason eligible last season. Losing T.J. Parker, who opted to turn pro, is another hit that this program can't easily recover from this season. The Wildcats are tough to out, but getting over the hump to the NCAA Tournament seems like a long shot.
Penn State's endless rebuilding project took another step back when Aaron Johnson took his 9.9 boards a game and transferred to New Mexico. The Nittany Lions lost 12 straight games to end last season. Could it get any worse?
Bottom-line business OK, so Indiana didn't get Greg Oden for 2006-07.
Neither did Wake Forest, Michigan State and North Carolina.
It happens. Move on. Duke beat Illinois to Jon Scheyer -- who plays for Bruce Weber's brother in high school.
We're not being an apologist for Mike Davis and IU, but the reality is they won't be judged on whether Oden signed with the Hoosiers.
Oden liked Davis -- a lot. He told ESPN.com back in May. But he liked playing with Mike Conley Jr., a lot, too, and certainly loved Columbus and the Ohio State coaching staff. Why would Oden commit to Indiana when it's obvious to everyone that the IU situation is fluid this season, let alone when Oden would be a freshman in 2006-07.
This was more about timing and it didn't time out well for Indiana.
Instead, the Hoosiers will be judged on whether they can turn it around this season and go from no postseason to the NCAA Tournament.
They should. The Hoosiers (and Davis, especially) believe this is the most talent in Bloomington since Davis took over Indiana five years ago.
"We could probably go nine or 10 deep," Davis said. "We've got three strong candidates for first-team all-Big Ten in D.J. [White], Marco [Killingsworth] and Robert [Vaden].
"With Vaden, Marco, A.J. Ratliff and Lewis Monroe [an Auburn transfer like Killingsworth], I've got guys who I don't have to beg to play. I don't have to motivate these guys to play. This group of guys, at every position, are excited about playing and practicing."
Davis has reason to boast about a front line of Killingsworth, White and Vaden. All three could be Big Ten studs. White was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Killingsworth was one of the better scorers in the SEC. Vaden is a rising star (and a native Hoosier).
The backcourt has potential, even with Bracey Wright gone to the NBA (in the second round). Marshall Strickland, Monroe, Ratliff, Roderick Wilmont (expected back from foot surgery) and JC guard Earl Calloway, whom Davis raves about, are all capable contributors. Davis also is coy about Australian Ben Allen, a big man who could provide much-needed depth up front.
The schedule again will be brutal, with Duke and Connecticut at home and against Kentucky in Indianapolis.
"We're playing a tough schedule, but we're playing [it] with talented players and our front line can compete against any in the country," Davis said.
Davis continues to recruit well and the addition of the Auburn transfers could be the key additions that help guide the younger players like White, Vaden and Ratliff to the NCAAs.
IU should be a top-four team in the Big Ten. It should be in the NCAA Tournament. And it should win a game or two. If it isn't, then you can bring up how they didn't get Oden. Until then, it doesn't matter. All IU can focus on is getting back to the NCAAs.
Davis set the bar pretty high with a 2002 national title game appearance. Don't expect that to be repeated, but a regular spot in the NCAAs shouldn't be a reach, either.
* -- NCAA Tournament
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