Team preview: Michigan

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

There are no do-overs in college basketball. If there were, Michigan would have taken its mulligan last year and taken another run at its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.

But coach Tommy Amaker had to play the hand he was dealt, and that meant trying to cobble together a makeshift lineup after nearly all of his top players were sidelined with injuries throughout the season.

When starting wing Lester Abram was lost for the season after shoulder surgery in December, that was merely a sign of things to come. Michigan players lost 86 games to injuries and suspensions last year, leading Amaker to use 16 different starting lineups on the season. With the core of his NIT Championship team returning last year, Amaker was hopeful that the Wolverines would end their NCAA drought, but the endless parade to the trainers' room scrapped those hopes early.

"In the world of sports and college basketball in particular, you can never truly predict what is going to happen," Amaker said. "We were very excited going into the past season after the high of the previous year, winning the NIT. ... But Lester went down at the beginning of the season, and I think, as I look back, that really set the tone for the team."

Abram's injury seemingly opened the floodgates. Guard Daniel Horton missed four weeks with a sprained knee, then was suspended for the final 12 games of the year when he faced misdemeanor domestic violence charges. Horton pleaded guilty, was given two years probation and was reinstated after the season, but he was yet another key player whose expected contributions never materialized last year.

The list of injured Wolverines reads like a bizarre medical school exercise: Graham Brown (four weeks, hernia); Dani Wohl (four weeks, elbow); Chris Hunter (eight games, right ankle); Brent Petway (two games, shoulder); Amadou Ba (six games, knee and back); Ashtyn Bell (five games, broken nose); and Alex Brzozowicz (four games, right ankle). The good news is that at least those injuries are behind them.

"Our guys are getting healthy," Amaker said. "Lester is back playing and healthy. Daniel's knee hasn't bothered him at all this spring or summer. Brent had shoulder surgery and so he's trying to get back to a full recovery and rehabbing the injury. We're still concerned with Chris' ankle, but tests have shown as of late that he is progressing well. As we look forward, I think the guys are going to be healthy, and we're excited about that."

The other good news is that reserves wound up with valuable experience last year, which means Amaker's now got one of his deepest teams at Michigan. "We're going into it with the idea that we'll have the pieces necessary to compete at a high level," Amaker said. "Right now, we have Daniel, Dion [Harris] and Lester returning and Ron (Coleman) has a year under his belt. The incoming freshmen are going to give us some added depth and competition. Hopefully with Courtney [Sims], Graham, Chris and Brent up front, the guys who have been mainstays for us, we have a pretty good nucleus. They'll have to earn time. However it shakes out, it will be based on their performance."

Last year, the Wolverines began the non-conference season with three straight wins, including two in the Preseason NIT, but once they returned to Madison Square Garden, they suffered a heartbreaker, losing to Arizona by one point in overtime in the semifinals, and then to Providence in the consolation final.

A mismatch against No. 4 Georgia Tech could have sent the team reeling, but Michigan rebounded to finish non-conference play 9-5, then opened the Big Ten season with three straight wins, including a two-point road upset of No. 14 Iowa. But that's when the wheels came off—as the injuries piled up, so did the losses, until the streak reached 10 straight. One final Big Ten victory, at home over Penn State, was all the Wolverines managed after Jan. 15, and their season mercifully ended in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament with a loss to Northwestern.

But the past is past, and Amaker has his team looking forward to a new start in 2005-06.

"I think for our team, we have an experienced group, we have an older group," he said. "We should think of ourselves as a team that will be in the thick of the race for our conference championship, and we need to think of ourselves as performing in that way. That's not putting any expectations on anybody; it's trying to uphold the standard that we have here at this program and being honest about where we are. … We need to perform at a level that's up to our potential. We think we can be as good as anyone."

The Wolverines lost only 6-8 forward J.C. Mathis (1.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg) and 5-11 guard Dani Wohl (0.7 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 1.5 apg), who combined to make eight starts last year as part of Amaker's numerous makeshift lineups. But amid the chaos, 6-3 junior guard Harris (14.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.5 apg) emerged as the true gem of the bunch. Harris, who was chosen to the Preseason NIT All-Tournament team, led the Wolverines in scoring, assists and minutes played and was one of the few players to stay healthy last season. At times, Amaker worried if Harris was forced to carry too much of the load, but it was a good learning experience for a sophomore who emerged as a team leader.

"He needed to do a lot for us," Amaker said. "We needed him to be 'Mr. Everything.' I don't know if it was too much. He probably wishes he could have done more, but I thought he did as much as he possibly could. Did he wear down? Probably so, and understandably so. It should benefit him and give him a better perspective going into the rest of his career."

Joining him in the backcourt will be 6-3 senior Horton (12.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.7 spg), who hopes to return to the form that helped him win Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2003, when he set a Michigan freshman record by sinking 74 three-pointers. He'd played in 71 straight games before the knee injury and suspension prematurely ended his season, but Amaker expects his high-scoring playmaker to be ready to go from day one this year.

"He's going to be in there. He's completed his requirements and responsibilities in terms of his court case. We expect him to return," Amaker said. "He's in a good state of mind. He's hungry. He's excited to play and compete. Having been out for 20-plus games, I think he's going to be ready to go."

Also in the backcourt mix are 6-3 senior guard Sherrod Harrell (1.9 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.7 apg), who started a career-high 12 games and averaged 13.9 mpg last year; 6-2 senior guard Hayes Grooms (1.5 ppg, 0.8 rpg in 62 career games), a walk-on who sat out last year after transferring from Lamar; 6-0 senior guard Ashtyn Bell (0.5 ppg, 0.4 rpg), who appeared in 10 games last season; and 6-3 sophomore guard Alex Brzozowicz, a walk-on who earned a roster spot on the last day of practice last year and played in only two games as a freshman.

In the middle, 6-11 junior center Sims (9.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.7 bpg) returns after leading the Wolverines in rebounding and blocked shots. He scored in double figures 17 times last year, including a career-high 25 points against Northwestern, and had a season-high 13 boards in the upset at Iowa. Sims has started 57-of-65 career games and is fast becoming a fixture in the lane on both ends of the court.

Sims emerged last year in the absence of 6-11 senior center Hunter (9.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg), who injured his ankle twice and missed eight games. Hunter led the Wolverines in free-throw percentage the last two years, despite also missing 11 games as a sophomore with a broken nose and a knee injury. If Hunter can stay healthy, he and Sims will provide a one-two punch in the paint that will be hard to penetrate.

Also providing bulk in the middle will be 6-9 senior forward Graham Brown (5.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.9 spg), who has started 73 games over the last three years and posted a career-high rebounding average last season. He fought through a hernia last year, missing his first games as a Wolverine, but recorded his first career double-double (13-10) at Penn State. Brown shot 55.2 percent from the field and a career-high 66.7 percent from the line, and is a three-time winner of the team's hustle award.

The post contingent will be backed up by 6-10 junior center Amadou Ba (1.0 ppg, 0.5 rpg), who has logged 11 career games, including four last year.

On the wing, 6-8 junior forward Petway (7.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.6 bpg) returns after winning the team's most improved player award last season. The high-flying Petway has already earned the reputation as one of the Big Ten's top dunkers, and he'll be back at 100 percent this year after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder this summer.
He'll be joined by 6-6 junior wing Abram (13.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg in 2003-04), who was red-shirted last year after suffering a shoulder injury in mid-December. He played in just three games, and it was clear that the Wolverines suffered from his absence.

"I think it's obvious that not having Lester for an entire year was difficult for our program," Amaker said. "He's such a consistent, reliable player and person and if you take that out of the equation, there aren't that many people that you can count on. You can always count on Lester and now that he's back I think that consistency and the stability that he brings will be valuable to the team."

Also back is 6-6 sophomore wing Coleman (7.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.1 apg), who averaged a team-high 13.0 ppg to go with 3.4 rpg on the Big Ten's all-star tour of Europe this summer. Coleman filled in for Abram and started 24 games, including 15-of-16 Big Ten games, and posted a career-high 18 points in a win over Fairfield.

He'll be joined by 6-5 junior wing John Andrews (3.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg), who started nine games last year and helped secure the victory at Iowa by going four-for-four from the line in the game's final minute. Andrews had minor surgery on both knees this summer to relieve pain from tendinitis and should be 100 percent by fall practice.

Among Michigan's incoming freshmen, look for 6-3 guard Jerret Smith (13.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.3 apg) from Romulus, Mich., and 6-5 wing Jevohn Shepherd (20.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.0 apg at West Hill Collegiate High School in Toronto) to make the strongest run at immediate playing time. Smith was a first-team all-metro pick by the Detroit Free Press last year, when he led Romulus to the state championship game, while Shepherd was a first-team all-city pick by the Toronto Sun the last two seasons.

Also joining the program are 6-8 forward Kendric Price (24.0 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 6.0 apg, 6.0 bpg at Buckingham Browne and Nichols High School in Boston), a 1,000-point scorer over his last two years of high school, and 6-10 center Phillip DeVries (4.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.6 bpg at Utica Eisenhower High School in Shelby Township, Mich.), a defensive specialist who will probably red-shirt to put some bulk on his 215-pound frame.

"The thing with the incoming freshmen is that they will be competitive," Amaker said. "I think that's what their first role is -- compete everyday. Because they are talented, I think they're going to push some of our guys. They're talented enough to push some of those upperclassmen to perform even better."


The Wolverines undoubtedly will be helped by the experience their backups gained last year, but it's hard to look at their dismal Big Ten record and not worry that among the lessons they learned was how to lose. Amaker will have one of his toughest jobs on his hands this year -- mixing the returning players back into the lineup among guys who got used to being on the court last year.

Chemistry will be key for the Wolverines. They've got enough talent to make a run to the NCAA Tournament if Amaker can get everybody rowing in the same direction.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).