Michigan is on the rise

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The recently remodeled Crisler Center at the University of Michigan boasts a new sound system, scoreboard, seating and adjoining practice facility. Everything is shiny and fresh, making it worth a pause to look around the formerly dreary 12,271-seat arena.

"This is really nice, isn't it," Wolverines junior guard Jenny Ryan said. "It's everything we've always wanted."

She scans to the west side of the arena and stops her gaze. Something clearly is not making Ryan happy.

"I can't stand that," Ryan said, pointing to the acute lack of banners on the side reserved for women's basketball. "We really want to be the team that does something about that."

Ryan knows Michigan's history. The team has never won an NCAA championship or Big Ten title, and there are no retired numbers in its 38 years of existence. The Wolverines have been to the NCAA tournament only four times since 1973, never advancing past the second round.

This year's team hopes to seriously contend for the Big Ten tournament title and break a 10-year NCAA tournament dry spell. Michigan (19-10 overall, 8-8 Big Ten) shows signs of being a program on the rise and overcoming its long-standing issues. The Wolverines are the No. 7 seed in the Big Ten tournament, playing No. 10 Illinois Wednesday in the opening round in Indianapolis.

"It takes time to build a program. You just don't come in, snap your fingers, and everything is fine," said coach Kevin Borseth, who took over in 2007. "It's a step-by-step, day-by-day progress. Do your players buy into the changes? Do you change the culture? Do you get the players you need to get to turn things around?

"I think the answers to all of those questions are yes. It's not been easy at times, but I think it's clear we're heading in the direction we want to go. It's all about the work and belief we're putting into this together."

Michigan's women historically have been overshadowed by the successes of the men's program. Banners in Crisler honor the retired numbers of former stars such as Cazzie Russell, Rudy Tomjanovich and Glen Rice and celebrate their Big Ten and NCAA titles. There should be even more banners in the rafters, but the two Final Four runs during the Fab Five era were taken down because of NCAA infractions.

While the men soared at Michigan, the women hit lows. The bottom, arguably, came under former coach Cheryl Burnett from 2004 to 2007, when the Wolverines were 4-44 in the Big Ten.

There have been only 11 winning seasons in school history, but the current crop is showing signs of setting new standards. Borseth, who turned Green Bay and Michigan Tech into winning programs, is doing the same with the Wolverines. Under Borseth, there have been four winning seasons, including this one, and one campaign with 20 wins. Last year's team, which was 17-13, just missed making the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round of the women's NIT to Eastern Michigan.

Borseth's intensity, and his players' leap of faith in his system and themselves, are some of the keys to Michigan's turnaround. Borseth is a force of nature, a ball of facial tics, energy, dramatic outbursts, unusual analogies and sayings, and overt gestures during practices and games. He's even pretty keyed up in personal conversations, intent on making sure his points get across.

His catchphrases are plentiful, such as "Get it done: D-U-N," which gets his point across and makes the players laugh at his alternative spelling. Then there's his recent analogy of comparing an opposing player to a car and another one to a church. ... The players are still trying to figure that one out.

His style is unique, even a bit odd.

"I've had friends ask me about what Coach Borseth is really like -- is he really as crazy as he looks?" senior guard/forward Carmen Reynolds said while shaking her head and smiling. "I can kind of see why it looks that way. He's the best. He's not crazy. ... He just wants us to be our best, so badly, and for us to win.

"It's like he wants to will us to get things done. He knows how to push our buttons, and isn't that what you really want your coach to do? I think he's awesome -- we'd do anything for him because he's doing anything for us."

Michigan's style of play reflects Borseth's personality: intense defensively, leading to tense, grind-it-out affairs. And that's why Borseth is so tightly wound.

"Look at every game we're in, it seems like five points or less, so darned right I am going to be up and yelling and doing whatever I can to help my players win," Borseth said. "If you look at other coaches, the big ones like Mike Krzyzewski, Geno [Auriemma] or whatever, they're able to sit down and look relaxed because their teams are winning games by 30. I'll be relaxed and calm, too, when we are able to win games like that. But we're not there yet, so I am up, and will be staying up, until it's time to sit down."

The Wolverines are not a star-driven team. Any starter or the two key reserves are able to lead the team in scoring. The system is partially by design, as Borseth is a proponent of team chemistry over star power, but also by necessity.

Michigan has not yet landed a star to build a team around, but Borseth and his assistants are hoping more of the state's talent will stay home. The recruiting scene is highly competitive, with Oakland University, Toledo, Michigan State and other Big Ten schools vying with Michigan to snare top players.

Borseth, a native of Michigan, is scouring the state to find that special player or two to add to Michigan's core.

"Look at Delaware and [Elena] Delle Donne. She could have gone anywhere, but she's home, leading that team and being able to have her family and friends around," Borseth said. "We don't have our true impact player yet, and that's what you truly need to contend for that NCAA title. We're hoping to attract that special player from here, who wants to go to a great place like Michigan, graduate with her degree and be part of this team."

It's never easy rebuilding a program from a low point, but Borseth and his players feel confident they have laid a solid foundation for years to come. And the new William Davidson Player Development Center, a 57,000-square-foot facility that cost $23.4 million, will support the men's and women's programs.

The teams have their own basketball floors and video, meeting and staff offices, and share an expanded training room that includes an aqua treadmill and hot and cold plunge pools for therapy.

The women's team loves its spacious locker room, which has iPads built into every player space to review plays, video clips or stats. The players are equally enthusiastic about the extra cubbies in their lockers for shoes, allowing them to tuck their smelly basketball shoes and sloppy snow boots far out of sight.

Senior captain and guard Courtney Boylan is pleasantly amazed at how much progress there has been in her time at Michigan. Her journey has gone from people questioning why the 2008 Minnesota Miss Basketball would play at Michigan, as if it were a lost cause, to now finishing with real hope for bigger things to come for the program.

"You always believe that things can change, and that you want to be part of the change, but until you start seeing it really come together like this ... all you really have is your belief," Boylan said. "The proof is here now, and has been growing for the past few seasons, that we are making a new identity for Michigan basketball, and that we are putting ourselves in position to contend for those things we want. I'm really excited for everybody here to see what's coming in the future. I think we are on our way now."

Joanne C. Gerstner is a staff writer with espnW. She is an award-winning sports writer, having covered the Olympics, NBA and college sports.