Part of what makes sports so fun to follow is the sense of ownership that comes with following one’s team. Every year we all get that feeling of excitement when the start of the season is right around the corner. Unfortunately, it has been hard for Michigan basketball fans to muster that type of anxious anticipation in recent seasons. The specter of possible sanctions along lopsided defeats put the program into a state of atrophy. Brian Ellerbe was saddled with issues that would hinder the success of even a veteran coach. Because of those issues, he felt he had to take shortcuts in order to get the team to a winning level. That said, what he gained in skill he often (seemingly) sacrificed in character. Whether he could have succeeded with another method is debatable. However, what isn’t debatable is the fact that his approach was that of the quick fix variety. He was looking to build a TEAM.
Tommy Amaker, who was saddled with just as many inherited problems, chose to take a different path. He chose to purge talent in favor of keeping and recruiting character. While he could have easily taken the same shortcuts, he chose instead to progress toward building a PROGRAM. His long-term vision was part of what really appealed to recruits. Using Duke as a paradigm, he beat the recruiting trails and signed Daniel Horton to help pilot his ship out limbo. “He told me that he wanted me to be the first piece to rebuilding Michigan’s basketball program like he was for Coach K at Duke,” Horton said speaking of his recruitment by Amaker. “That’s something that I take pride in.” That same pride permeates through each of the players. These kids care about what and whom they’re representing. That is what enabled them to go out and play at such a high level last season when everyone outside of the program thought that they had nothing to play for. They set their own benchmarks and used those to define their success. That type of focus is what will allow them to continue to meet, or at the very least, put forth the level of effort it takes to meet not only their expectations, but peripheral ones as well. "I've always viewed 'expectations' as an external word, and we like to view our basketball program in terms of the word 'standard,' “ Amaker said. “That is an internal word. We are about our own internal standards, and believe it or not, most of the time our standards are going to be higher than anyone else's expectations. Whatever the expectations may be for Michigan basketball, you can rest assured that our standards are as high or even higher.”
When a team plays for pride, the reward for playing isn’t as important as the process itself. That’s why Coach Amaker scoffed at the notion that the team would be easier to coach this year because the ban had been lifted. “Certainly last year was a unique year in that regard,” Amaker said. “We approached every game and every situation, because we were playing and Michigan was involved, like it was extremely important to us. It goes by our internal standards and not what the expectations are or what someone says we’re eligible to play for. We had a saying last year that we may not be eligible, but we can deserve. We’re big on earning and deserving. I thought that was critical for a young team. We are eligible for something this year, but we still have to earn it and deserve it. That’s never going to change for our program.”
Getting the team to buy into that, or any philosophy is often a result of getting the team leaders to do so. That was certainly true in the case of Bernard Robinson. When speaking with assistant coach Charles Ramsey earlier in the year, he indicated that Robinson was one of the players encouraging the team to continue to look ahead and not give up despite the newly imposed ban. “The coaching staff is a great staff and they instill things in you that made you just want to be around them,” Robinson said. “I knew that when they put the ban on us that we still had goals. We still wanted to win games. We still wanted to win the Big Ten Tournament. We still wanted to win a Big Ten championship. People would still respect us for that. I just wanted to tell those guys that we couldn’t hang our heads that early in the season. We still had things to play for, even if they were our own goals. Plus, I just felt that things were going to get better for us if we stayed positive… and they did.”
It should come as no surprise that a group of young men that stayed together through a lot of adversity would be even closer now that things are looking up. They spent a lot of time playing together over the summer and those highly competitive, but friendly, games only helped to cement their bond. “I think we’re real tight because over the summer we got to know each other more,” Robinson said. “All of the attitudes really meshed. The team is very close right now…closer than any team I’ve ever been on. That’s really going to help us on the court.”
The camaraderie and sense of purpose that currently exists in the program are undoubtedly a testimony to the coaches that are leading it. Whether you’re a basketball fan or not, seeing the metamorphosis that has taken in the building next to the Big House has to revive a few dormant emotions. Even if the majority of the Michigan fanatics don’t feel it, Coach Amaker certainly has gained a great deal of satisfaction from what has been, and still is being built. “I’m excited for our kids,” Amaker said. “I’m excited about our basketball program and the direction that we’re going. Certainly we are going to have some speed bumps, potholes, and all of the other things that come with the nature a season when working with kids, and coaching. I like to think that we’ve created a fun way to play. I think that they have enjoyed being a part of this school and have represented it in a fine fashion, for the most part, in the things we should expect from them. I think we have developed a hard working, blue collar attitude and I think that they like it.”
So do we, Coach. So do we!
For Coach Amaker's full presser comments, click here.
Stay tuned for more media day photos later in the day (including a few
dunk requests from Brent Petway!)