When the Michigan Wolverines take the court in tonight's NIT title game, they will be squaring off with a team with which they have a great deal in common. South Carolina followed Michigan's 2004 NIT title by winning it in 2005. Like the Maize and Blue, they were looking to build on that success and make 2006 a season when they finally stepped into the Big Dance. Unfortunately for Dave Odom's squad, injuries and inconsistency helped contribute to an up and down year. The Gamecocks had big victories over Florida (twice), Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama, but lost twice to SEC cellar dweller Georgia. Their 6-10 conference finish left them on the outside looking in when selection Sunday rolled around.
After putting behind them the disappointment of missing the NCAA tournament, the Gamecocks set their sites on becoming the first back-to-back champ since St. Johns did it over 60 years ago in 1943 and 1944. What has made their run so improbable is the fact that they've done it despite being undermanned. Top reserve Antoine Tisby missed the last three NIT games after being suspended for a violation of team rules. In addition, seldom used big men Ousmane Konate and Kevin Palacios have both missed the latter part of the year with ankle and foot injuries. The short bench would surely be problematic over the course of a season, but it may not be as troublesome over a five game tournament.
"On the short term I think it is an advantage," Odom said. "It can be an advantage to have less people on the bench because you have fewer problems. You don't have as many people vying for points, minutes. In the long haul you don't want that. I think it can be an advantage."
Michigan headman Tommy Amaker certainly isn't counting on lack of manpower being an issue for the Gamecocks. The athleticism of the players that will play as certainly left him with a lot to worry about.
"They aren't as deep, but those kids that are out there know they are going to be out there," Amaker said. "They're a very athletic team, long and rangy. I think they're a very confident team. They play with a great deal of confidence and you're able to see that. Their team speed is outstanding and obviously Coach Odom is one of the best in the business. They've been on a tear here down the stretch and they were on the verge of winning their conference tournament before coming up a little short. They've gone on the road to win some big-time games in this tournament, at Cincinnati and at Florida State. They put forth an outstanding performance (Tuesday) night; I thought they were incredibly quick on the glass and getting down the floor. They are a very confident group that seems to play well together."
Throughout the NIT, Tommy Amaker has pointed to the tone set by his seniors as the reason for his team's success. That certainly was the desired effect when he started five of his elder-statesman in the opening victory versus UTEP…and in every game since.
"We wanted to start our seniors," Amaker said. "I thought I owed that to our kids and our program. We were going to go as they go. When we got into postseason play, when we got into this tournament we told those guys we were going to as far as they take us. I made that decision right away. I thought that was something that brought us together. Everyone knew they were going to play. The seniors have been able to lead our team. Their leadership and maturity and having ownership in the final stages of their career has made a little bit of a difference for us this part of the season."
"I am biased to our seniors," Amaker continued. "I am very much
attached to that group of players. They are the type of players you always want
to be in your program. They have done anything and everything we have asked
them to do. The fact is that they lead this team to this point and we thought
we owed that to them. They earned it; we didn't give it to them. They have earned
everything in their careers. (Tonight) we have a chance to raise another banner."