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Thompson: Once neglected, U-M hoops program now thriving

Nate Thompson • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:25 PM

Just seven years ago, the University of Michigan’s basketball program was in a sad state.

The Wolverines were in the middle of a decade-long NCAA tournament drought. The head coach at the time, Tommy Amaker, was beginning to feel the heat at his inability to get the Wolverines over that hump, yet with what Amaker was working against, it made that task all the more difficult.

I won’t sugar coat things; Crisler Arena in late 2006 was a dump. I remember attending a Wolverines’ home game against Georgetown right before the New Year and being somewhat stunned at how a Division 1 arena at a prestigious state school could be so dark, dreary and run-down.  After an uninspired loss to the Hoyas, I walked to the postgame interview room, where the paneling on the walls was falling off, and the cellar-like room should have been used to store cleaning supplies and mops instead of hosting the media. 

Amaker had to sell this eyesore on a daily basis to potential recruits, because at the time, the Wolverines were one of a few teams in the Big Ten that had no practice facility. He pleaded repeatedly with U-M’s Board of Regents to upgrade its aging facilities, but for a program that was still feeling the sting from the fallout of the Ed Martin scandal, Amaker’s demands were met with deaf ears.

As a result, Amaker couldn’t put together championship-level rosters. Sure, he lured in some nice players — outstanding in-state power forward DeShawn Sims and Mr. Basketball winner Dion Harris to name a few — but his 22-13 record and NIT berth with the Wolverines to close out the 2007 season wasn’t good enough and he was dismissed followng his sixth season.

Amaker’s squads never displayed the consistent execution needed to contend with the best in the Big Ten and with Tom Izzo transforming Michigan State into somewhat of a college dynasty less than 70 miles down the road, the Wolverines were the second, less attractive option, like driving a mini-van instead of a Cadillac.

Now, as the Wolverines prepare to step on college basketball’s biggest stage, the Final Four, for the first time since 1993, U-M’s rise to the Spartans’ level has been somewhat startling.

Amaker has to be pondering what could have been.

Granted, he’s not nearly the precise in-game technician that his predecessor, John Beilein is, nor did Amaker’s squads ever produce the offensive dominance that the Wolverines have showcased this season.

But Amaker has proven that he’s not exactly a slouch of a coach, having led Harvard to a stunning second-round upset over New Mexico in this year’s NCAA Tournament. If you can lead an Ivy League school to a win in the Big Dance, you’ve got my respect.

One can’t wonder how quickly Michigan could have developed into the top-notch program it is today had its needs to succeed not been swept under the rug for so many years.

Beilein said he was alarmed by U-M’s hoops facilities once he step foot on campus, and wondered to himself if he had made a mistake leaving West Virginia. He carried on Amaker’s pleas for improvements and for whatever reason, they were answered. U-M’s Board of Regents signed off on the first step toward respectability in January 2009, when a practice facility was approved.

Maybe it was because U-M was tired of playing second fiddle to Izzo and MSU. Maybe the higher-ups finally felt comfortable with Beilein on board, one of the more respected basketball minds in America.

Whatever the reason, it’s paying off today. Now, potential recruits are likely blown away by the $19.9 million William Davidson Player Development Center, a state-of-the-art two-court practice gym for the men’s and women’s hoops that includes all of the fixings (video rooms, a strength and conditioning room, hydrotherapy).  If a player can soak a sore muscle in a whirlpool immediately after practice, you know you’re living the high life.

Two years later, the board approved over $50 million in improvements to Crisler, which is now a Center, not Arena, and can be considered one of the best, not worst, facilities in the Big Ten. Upon the suggestion of athletic director David Brandon, the main concourse features a waterfall with a sparkling block ‘M’ in its center.

If I know anything, it’s that high school basketball stars dig waterfalls.

Criser is so nice, I wonder when the Michigan High School Athletic Association is going to switch the boys’ and girls’ state semifinals and finals games to Ann Arbor instead of Michigan State’s Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Upgrading facilities has just been one piece of U-M’s revival, and the job Beilein has done securing somewhat unheralded gems on the recruiting trail has been the second vital piece to the puzzle.

Players such as Darius Morris (who is currently a reserve with the Los Angeles Lakers), Tim Hardaway, Trey Burke, and Glenn Robinson were each considered good, not great, recruits coming out of high school. Another freshman, center Mitch McGary, was probably the most sure-thing prospect to land in Ann Arbor, and with his dominant NCAA tournament performance, he’s living up to the hype.

It’s not out of the question that in another three seasons, all five should be on NBA rosters. For a program that hasn’t had a first-round NBA draft pick since 2000 (Jamal Crawford) it’s a major coup to the outstanding job that Beilein has done in developing talent.

You can never move forward if you’re stuck in the past, and trust me, the Wolverines certainly aren’t looking back. But if they’re in search of a theme song for this type of turnaround, maybe they should look back — to the 80s. Something like “The Future is So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”



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