Once-mighty Michigan on rebound

by Murali Balaji

There was a time when the mere mention of the Michigan men’s basketball team struck fear in the hearts of opponents.
The Wolverines were an indomitable force in the country, dispatching both Big Ten and nationally-ranked teams with an ease that matched their style. The 1989 NCAA title team and the fabled Fab Five of the early 1990s elevated the Michigan standard of basketball to a level without peers in the Big Ten.
This year’s team, which has huffed and puffed its way to a .500 record (9-9 overall, 3-2 Big Ten), provides a striking contrast to the Wolverine teams of lore. Hurt by recent subpar recruiting efforts — due in large part to the emergence of intrastate rival Michigan State as a Big Ten powerhouse — and premature departures, Michigan has struggled to re-establish itself as a legitimate force in conference play.
However, the team took one step toward advancing its cause in an 84-74 upset of No. 21 Ohio State over the weekend. Sophomore forward Josh Asselin showed flashes of being a big-time player in the paint, scoring a career-high 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
Michigan’s developing frontcourt, accentuated by the 6-foot-11 Asselin’s emergence, has made Gophers’ coach Clem Haskins wary of overlooking the Wolverines.
“Michigan’s front line is a front line not a lot of people are talking about,” Haskins said. “Josh Asselin really stepped up for them against Ohio State, especially on the offensive boards. We really must do a great — and I emphasize great — job of keeping Asselin off the offensive glass.”
But Wolverines’ coach Brian Ellerbe downplayed the progress his frontcourt has made, calling for more consistency from players like Asselin, sophomore small forward Brandon Smith and center Pete Vignier.
“When we get good post-play we can be a better basketball team,” Ellerbe said. “We’re searching for balance right now. We’ve got some good play from our frontcourt in certain games, but we need to get more consistency from them.”
When Ellerbe talks of balance, he is referring to finding a complement to his all-star backcourt of Robbie Reid and senior Louis Bullock. Bullock, one the last holdovers from the Steve Fisher era, is averaging 21 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, and is one of the top candidates for the conference’s Player of the Year honors.
“(Michigan) has two great backcourt players, so this is going to be a very difficult matchup for us,” Haskins said.
However, one thing working in the Gophers’ favor is their superior depth. Haskins said he expects to deploy the same strategy of throwing in various combinations in order to wear down Michigan’s starting five.
“Our bench is the key to winning,” he said. “If we can get good play from our bench, we’ll have a chance of winning every game.”
Another key for the Gophers will be to keep delivering the ball to forward Quincy Lewis, regardless of what the Wolverines do to try to contain him. Lewis, who has been almost unstoppable on offense this season, said he expects Michigan and other Big Ten teams to focus their defensive schemes on stopping him.
“I knew coming into the season I’d be the focus of opposing defenses,” he said. “I take that as a challenge.”