Wolverines suddenly NCAA-worthy
Tommy Amaker was concerned. The NCAA had just banned Michigan from the upcoming postseason and the school was going to appeal the ruling.
As much as Amaker wanted to see the ban lifted, he had reservations. As Michigan worked its way through, first the investigation of its program and then the penalty phase, the current Wolverines players had to play through a lot of bad news. And Amaker was afraid appealing the postseason ban would become just another event that would leave his players disappointed.
"I didn't want our kids sitting there holding out hope again, I was concerned about that," Amaker said. "But our administration did a phenomenal job presenting our case."
It turned out Amaker, who is entering his third season at Michigan, was concerned about nothing.
In mid-September, Michigan found itself in a very select minority of schools that have won an appeal to the NCAA's infractions committee. Less than five months after banning Michigan from the 2004 postseason, the appeal committee reversed the NCAA's decision.
Now, a year after being one of the Big Ten's surprise teams, the Wolverines have new life for this season. Instead of having to go through another season with little tangible to play for, Michigan can strive to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
"We were very excited, very appreciative," Amaker said. "I think our kids were thrilled to say the least to hear that. It was certainly unexpected. They certainly have deserved some good news and we're very fortunate to receive this and hopefully we can utilize this to the best of our abilities."
After Amaker received the news from the school's general counsel, he had a meeting of the Michigan players. "They were kind of frozen for a second," Amaker said. "They didn't know if I was pulling their leg or what was the trick question or what was the punchline or something. You could just see that they didn't know how to react at first, but we were all very, very surprised."
While all of the Michigan players were happy, senior forward Bernard Robinson Jr. was especially pleased. After all, he's endured a lot of uncertainty and losing since arriving in Ann Arbor as a heralded high school player.
"Me personally, I didn't think realistically we'd have a chance at NCAAs," said Robinson, who has been part of three Michigan teams that have gone a combined 38-49. "It was very far-fetched. It caught me by surprise when I heard the news. I did not expect that at all for the NCAA to turn it around like they did. Michigan did a great job of telling their case.
"It definitely gives us an extra goal and more incentive to go out there and try to prove that you belong. We want to go out and compete every game and work hard. We know we have the NCAAs to look forward to."
Not competing every game is something Michigan will never be accused of after last season. Despite starting 2002-03 with six straight losses, the Wolverines did a good job of playing hard rather than packing in the season as many predicted.
"If that was the case, when we were 0-6, we would've been 0-30," Robinson said. "(Amaker) did a good job saying let's just start the year over. Coach did a great job getting us to believe in ourselves. When you're 0-3, 0-4, 0-5, all that stuff starts seeping into your head and he did a great job saying 'Let's just start the year over. Let's just start from here.'"
While Michigan does have a more defined goal this season, Amaker doesn't expect that his players will play or practice harder. Why? He was pleased with what he saw a year ago.
"I'd be very disappointed to think that we will change our work habit or work ethic," Amaker said. "I haven't seen that and that makes me feel good. I think we were working hard the whole time and we had our own internal standards we lived up to. But I'm nieve to think that it hasn't meant a little something extra for our kids.
"We really played for the right reasons in college basketball last year. We played for the school spirit, we played for the institution, we played for ourselves, and so nothing more was attached to it other than how good can we become? I was very proud of our kids, especially after the start that we had and not having the opportunity to go to the postseason and it looked like, 'What's the use?'"
The Wolverines, who were in or near the Big Ten lead for most of last season before finishing tied for third, certainly have a nucleus of talented returnees to believe that an NCAA berth is very realistic.
Only one returning player in the Big Ten scored more points last season than the 15.2 scored by guard Daniel Horton. In addition, Robinson and Lester Abram each finished with scoring averages in double figures.
This Michigan team should also be improved from the one that finished last season 17-13 for the simple reason that it has more depth. Virginia transfer J.C. Mathis is eligible after sitting out last season. Last season's sixth man Chris Hunter returns and big man Amadou Ba is improved after redshirting last season. If that wasn't enough, the Wolverines add three quality freshmen in Dion Harris (Michigan's Mr. Basketball), Brent Petway and Courtney Sims.
With 11 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, the Wolverines are probably one year and no NBA early entries away from competing for the Big Ten title. However, the Wolverines are certainly a team that can finish in the Big Ten's upper division and they are a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender.
Now, Michigan can not only prove it, but play in that tournament.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com