The backdrop to tonight’s contest with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights is the match-up between the head coaches. Three years ago when Brian Ellerbe was fired, then Kent State head coach (and Detroit native) Gary Waters openly lobbied for the job. In his five seasons as the Golden Flashes head man he compiled a 92-60 record, including 71-25 his final three seasons. Furthermore his ties in the state of Michigan, especially in the Detroit area, gave him a firm recruiting base in-state…something Michigan struggled with during Ellerbe’s tenure. When athletic director Bill Martin decided to go to the East Coast and nab then Seton Hall head coach and former Duke assistant Tommy Amaker for the job, Waters was vocal with his displeasure.
In an interview with the Detroit News’ Terry Foster on March 29,2001, Waters made it known exactly how he felt about the situation. "I thought I was the best person for it," Waters said to the News regarding the Michigan coaching position. "Tommy Amaker is a good name. I will agree with that. But tell me, what has he done? He has not done anything, to me. My concern is the state of Michigan is out of control now. Izzo is controlling it all the way. If they want to get it back, they are going to have to do some things. You've got to be able to get in there and they (high school coaches) have to let you in there. I think that was one of the issues that hurt Brian Ellerbe. They never allowed him in and he was never able to make inroads."
Gary Waters (Getty Images)
Three years later both men have improved their programs each year they’ve been in charge and will now face each other in the NIT Championship game at Madison Square Garden. Knowing Tommy Amaker, this will probably be the furthest thing from his mind while prepping for the game or once the contest tips. On the other side, Gary Waters has changed his tone a little. In today’s Detroit News he told Jim Spadafore that the Wolverines made the right hire. “Today, it’s not even a thought in my mind,” Waters said to the News. “Where I’m at right now I’m excited about. And Tommy has done a tremendous job. Michigan got the right guy. He’s going to take it to another level. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to take it to another level.”
Even though things have now calmed, one has to think that either man would draw a small measure of vindication with a victory tonight.
Keys to the game
Gary Waters brought in his most heralded recruiting class last year, and two current starters came from that impressive crop. Six-foot-five inch Marquis Webb, who is Waters’ biggest in-state signing to date, has come in and become an effective floor leader. His ability to make the transition from primarily a scoring guard to one that has most of the distribution responsibilities came as a surprise to many Rutgers followers. His 7.3 points and 3.0 assists per game have been a very steadying on-court presence. Webb’s classmate, however, has made an even bigger splash.
Six-foot-three inch Quincy Douby was the Scarlet Knights 3rd leading scorer (at 11.2 ppg) during the year, but he has erupted during the NIT after being inserted into the starting lineup. The Brooklyn native has averaged 24.0 points per game while shooting 60.4% from the field and 45.5% from 3-point land. His most recent outburst came in the overtime win over Iowa State in the semifinals where he scored 35 points, including 6 from long range. He has teamed with regular season scoring leader, 6-4 junior guard Ricky Shields, to make an extremely formidable 1-2 punch. Shields, who averages 15.0 points per game on the season, has increased his scoring output to 19.3 points per game, while shooting a whopping 69.7% from the field and 53.8% from behind the arc. Both players obviously have the ability to stroke it from the outside, but each is also effective at putting the ball on the floor.
As was the case in the last game versus the Oregon Ducks, the Wolverines must play excellent perimeter defense. Despite constant double teams of Duck star Luke Jackson, the rotations were prompt and the majority of times there was a maize and blue hand in the face of Oregon’s sharpshooters. With two hot three point threats in Douby and Shields, and another that averaged nearly 40% from the arc during the season in Webb, the Michigan defenders will have to be just as fluid.
Bernard Robinson Jr. will likely draw the duty of defending Douby, but could spend time on Shields as well. When in man to man sets, it will be up to Dion Harris and Lester Abram to step up to the task of defending whomever Robinson isn’t on. Michigan’s senior leader understands the importance of containing Rutgers’ backcourt. “Their guards are really fast and they can shoot,” said Robinson. “We have to make sure that we get out on them on every shot and make sure we get back on defense because they are a very explosive team.”
Bernard Robinson Jr.
The Scarlet Knights are more versatile that the Ducks in that they have an effective inside presence in 6-10 215 lb. Herve Lamizana. Lamizana, a third-team All-BIG EAST selection, is second on the team in scoring (13.4 ppg.), first in rebounds (7.7 rpg.), and first in blocks (2.9 bpg). He’s flanked by 6-8 235 lb. senior captain Sean Axani. Axani was second on the team in rebounds on the year with 6.3 per game. However, he turned in a commanding effort on the boards versus the Cyclones, grabbing a game-high 17 caroms. Though the Wolverines have outrebounded opponents by more than 4 per game on the year, they trailed Oregon in the first half in that category. Furthermore, they have had trouble effectively boxing out at times when in zone defense. Michigan needs to continue their trend of controlling the boards in order to limit second-shot opportunities for their hot-shooting counterparts.
On offense, Michigan must take advantage of its athleticism and push the ball at every opportunity. If Amaker’s bunch can get out and run (on makes and misses), it could result in a number of easy baskets. The Scarlet Knights have struggled with transition defense this year…so much so that Gary Waters has made it a point of emphasis with his ballclub.
Finally, the biggest advantage Michigan may have over Rutgers is depth. With key reserves that can fill in at both backcourt and frontcourt positions, the Wolverines have a greater capacity to absorb foul trouble. Conversely, the drop-off between starters and reserves for the Scarlet Knights is stark. If any of Waters’ starting five were to get in foul trouble, it could cause his team serious problems. That being the case, the Wolverines must make more of a concerted effort to get to the foul line by attacking the basket. Their conversion rate from the charity stripe has improved during the postseason and it’s important that they maintain that efficiency this evening.
“It certainly is going to take a team effort,” Amaker said in response to what it will take to beat the Scarlet Knights. “Having the balance that we've had the past few games will be critical for us. I think that's when we become a very dangerous team, a team where you can't key on one or two guys because there are many other weapons that can hurt you. I think the team is starting to feel that and is playing really unselfish right now."
Amaker gets his point across
There were over 12,000 fans on hand at Madison Square Garden for the semi-final match-up between Rutgers and Iowa State, most of which were Scarlet Knight fans. Even more Rutgers faithful are expected to be on-hand tonight. For the Wolverines, that makes this more like a road game and less like one played at a neutral site. During the regular season, the pressure of playing away from Crisler was often too much for this young Michigan team. However, there has been a great deal of maturation over these past few weeks…enough so that they’ll play over the partisan crowd. If this game were at a neutral venue, the Wolverines would win by 10. Because it’s in the Scarlet Knights backyard, Michigan prevails 66-61.