LOCATION: Ann Arbor, MI
CONFERENCE: Big Ten
LAST SEASON: 12-19 (.387)
CONFERENCE RECORD: 5-11 (t-9th)
STARTERS LOST/RETURNING: 2/3
COLORS: Maize & Blue
HOMECOURT: Crisler Arena (13,562)
COACH: Brian Ellerbe (Rutgers '85)
record at school 37-28 (2 years)
career record 71-75 (5 years)
ASSISTANTS: Scott Trost (Minnesota-Morris '85)|
Kurtis Townsend (Western Kentucky '85)
Lorenzo Neely (Eastern Michigan '92)
TEAM WINS: (last 5 years) 17-20-24-25-12
RPI (last 5 years) 47-37-22-10-80
1998-99 FINISH: Lost in conference second round.
Is the glass half-full or half-empty in Ann Arbor? As Bill Cosby's grandmother once told him, that all depends on whether you're pouring or drinking. The Michigan Wolverines have done both. They've experienced the highest highs and seen some of the lowest lows in college basketball, only to reinvent themselves, dodge cannonballs and bellow, "Go Blue!" They won the 1989 NCAA title in Seattle with Glen Rice's incredible shooting and a dramatic overtime victory over Seton Hall. They also made it to the Final Four when the Fab Five were freshmen in 1992 and sophomores in 1993, losing to Duke in Minneapolis and North Carolina in New Orleans, respectively. But they haven't won a Big Ten regular-season crown since 1986. They failed to even qualify for the NIT last season. They've been ridiculed as a bad influence by some of the school's stodgier alumni. And they've had a terrible time keeping their coaches. That problem began in 1980, just four years after an NCAA runner-up finish, when Johnny Orr left Michigan for Iowa State and a financial package he never could've had where football was king. Nine years later, on the eve of their greatest postseason glory, Bill Frieder took a megabucks offer from Arizona State and was promptly banished by Bo Schembechler, who barked, "A Michigan man will coach Michigan!" It should be pointed out that Frieder has two degrees from that school, while Schembechler's sheepskin is from Miami (Ohio).
Faced with no alternative when the Wolverines posed with the trophy in the Kingdome, Schembechler reluctantly let interim coach Steve Fisher put his name on the biggest office in Crisler Arena, better known to football fans as "The Little House." Even while Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose and pals were winning, which they didn't do quite as much as they should have, there were problems. Baggy shorts were one thing. The thought that there might be a bagman on the loose was more than many Old Blues could bear. When a code of silence remained in force, an internal probe proved nothing. But Michigan athletic director Tom Goss knew better and fired Fisher just before practice began in 1997. That triggered a comical search for a replacement that finally made Fisher's new aide, Brian Ellerbe, an interim head coach. After the Wolverines won the Big Ten's first postseason tournament, the "interim" tag disappeared and Ellerbe settled in, never sensing the quicksand. An FBI probe of booster/gambler Ed Martin and payments to players, including star guard Louis Bullock, reopened a giant jar of nightcrawlers. And when Michigan struggled, despite seven victories over Top 25 teams, the rumors were everywhere: Ellerbe was out and Candidate X was in. News flash: Ellerbe is still in Crisler. The NCAA hasn't done anything. And the Wolverines began reloading with arguably the nation's No. 2 incoming class. Half-empty or half-full? You be the judge. Regardless of what happens with Bullock in court, his production (20.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 72 assists, 36 steals, .377 3 PT, .864 FT) on the court will surely be missed. With a Michigan-record 129 career starts and a total of 2,224 points, including a Big Ten-record 339 three-pointers, his loss can't be understated. Last season's perimeter attack often led to three-point tries from Bullock and backcourt partner Robbie Reid, a BYU transfer and another departed senior. Reid (13.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 96 assists, 34 steals, .875 FT) actually had a better three-point percentage than Bullock (.387). Both those numbers are excellent when one realizes where every opposing defense focused. To put it another way, Bullock and Reid combined to average 34.2 points in 1998-99. Thirteen other Wolverines teamed to score 31.4 per game. But there's help on the way from a group of five talented freshmen, including three "Mr. Basketball" winners, and doesn't that sound familiar? This season's veteran standout is likely to be 6-11 junior forward Josh Asselin (8.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 36 blocked shots, .543 FG). Asselin has definite pro potential and was underrated all last winter. But it is amazing that Asselin is listed among the candidates for the John Wooden Award as the national player of the year. Asselin was in every camp but Grenada this summer, as a finalist for the USA's World University Games team, as a pupil at Pete Newell's Big Man Camp in Hawaii and as an instructor at Michael Jordan's camp in California. If he picked up one little trick at each stop, he could develop into an All-NBA player. His frontcourt partner will probably be 6-11 senior center Peter Vignier (6.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 20 blocked shots). He is the Big Ten's top returning rebounder, which only makes one wonder how many he could have had if his hands had been better. The small forward was supposed to be 6-7 junior Brandon Smith (8.3 ppg,2.7 rpg). But the latest in a long line of imports from Texas tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in June and isn't due back until after the Big Ten opener in January. While Smith is out, and maybe after he is back, the starting small forward should be incoming freshman LaVell Blanchard (28.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg) from nearby Ann Arbor Pioneer High. Some saw Blanchard as the No. 1 prospect in the country. If one considers his straight-A academics, it's hard to have him too far down the list. Michigan will need two new guards. And Ellerbe has two he loves in freshmen Kevin Gaines, a 6-4 scorer from Clark High in Las Vegas, Nev., and Jamal Crawford, a 6-6 do-it-all from Rainier Beach High in Renton, Wash. It is a combination that could rival Rose and Jimmy King from the early 1990s, some say. Gaines (27.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg) was the first player in his class to commit to Ellerbe and gave a little-known staff the stamp of credibility. Crawford (22.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 7.0 apg) could give Ellerbe's team the flexibility a dangerously thin roster needs. If they start to drift, as freshmen often do, Ellerbe can call on 6-4 fifth-year senior Darius Taylor,(0.7 ppg, 0.6 rpg) once a walk-on, to set them straight. But leadership remains a question on a team with three starters who've never seen anything like Breslin Center or Mackey Arena. The first player off the bench should be 6-9 sophomore forward Chris Young (2.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg), with 6-4 sophomore swingman Leon Jones (4.3 ppg,1.7 rpg) another possibility with a little experience. Don't be surprised if 6-6 freshman sharpshooter Gavin Groninger (20.5 ppg, .380 3 PT at Plainfield (Ind.) High) gets a lot of Jones' minutes. Then there's rugged 6-8 freshman power forward Leland Anderson (19.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg at Attleboro (Mass.) High), who can throw his weight around for a team that might just have to wait to be great.
Blue Ribbon Analysis
BACKCOURT C BENCH/DEPTH C|
FRONTCOURT B INTANGIBLES B-
Long-range bombers Louis Bullock and Robbie Reid are long-gone. They could also be forgotten in a hurry if Michigan's third megastar incoming class of the 1990s lives up to its impressive billing. Look for LaVell Blanchard to be the Big Ten's top freshman and its second-best newcomer, just behind Illinois point guard Frank Williams. And expect Kevin Gaines and Jamal Crawford, if not Gavin Groninger and Leland Anderson, to play like upperclassmen by the time the Big Ten Tournament arrives. Josh Asselin should be tough to stop. And when Brandon Smith returns, the Wolverines will finally have enough depth for a decent scrimmage. The non-conference schedule is reasonable for a team that's building for better days ahead. If the FBI or the NCAA doesn't unload a bombshell, it's only a matter of time until the glass is half-full again.
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