Michigan basketball rebounds in face of turmoil

Despite suffering from self-imposed sanctions, Wolverines have emerged as Big Ten’s top-ranked team

Anthony Maggio

When Dan Monson arrived at Minnesota in 1999, he was in the same shoes Michigan men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker now dons.

After the Wolverines self-imposed sanctions stemming from investigations of improper loans to former players, Amaker now guides a team with no hopes of NCAA tournament play.

Monson remembers how difficult his situation was three seasons ago, when he took over a Minnesota program which had banned itself from postseason tournaments after the academic scandal involving former coach Clem Haskins.

“It’s tough to keep them motivated when things aren’t going well,” Monson said.

So, Michigan’s 0-6 start should’ve torn the hearts right out of the Wolverines.

But instead, the Gophers face a Michigan squad Wednesday night on an 11-0 tear. The Wolverines (11-6, 4-0 Big Ten) are tops in the conference and one of three teams with an undefeated record in Big Ten play.

The 180-degree shift in Michigan’s results has many asking: how the heck did this happen?

“It starts with our players,” Amaker said. “They have turned things around for us with their belief in one another and their hard work and determination.”

Senior LaVell Blanchard has sparked the Wolverines surge, leading the team in points (17.2) and rebounds (7.1) per game.

But the quick development of freshman point guard Daniel Horton has been paramount in Michigan’s recent run.

“Horton has made a huge difference,” Monson said. “Having a true point guard has really made them tough.”

Horton is the reigning co-Big Ten player of the week after averaging 19.5 points and five assists in the Wolverines last two contests.

So, Minnesota must come out strong in Ann Arbor to have any chance of leaving Crisler Arena with its first road win of the season.

It does help, however, that the Gophers curbed their offensive ineptitude Saturday in their 77-69 win over Michigan State.

“The first win was huge for us,” forward Michael Bauer said. “We just needed to get the monkey off our back and get out there and start feeling better about ourselves on the floor.”

Now that Minnesota has built some confidence rather than another mansion of bricks with jump shots, it must find an answer to its road woes.

The Gophers are 0-3 away from Williams Arena this season and play over half of their remaining games on the road.

“On the road you don’t have the fans picking you up when there’s a lull,” Minnesota guard Maurice Hargrow said. “We have to somehow some way be scrappy for 40 minutes.”

But Bauer’s answer is easier – simplify.

“We just need to go in there and play,” Bauer said. “We’ve worried about other things and didn’t get the win we needed. We haven’t played well on the road. We’ve just got to play like we did Saturday and we’ll be fine.”

If the Wolverines come out on top Wednesday, they will equal their longest win streak since the 1992-93 season. And although NCAA tournament play is not an option for Michigan this season, it can still attain what Minnesota has hoped for since the preseason – a Big Ten title.

Esselink out

Minnesota forward Steve Esselink, who sat out Saturday’s game with a broken pinky finger on his left hand, will sit out again against Michigan.

Monson hopes Esselink will return to action Saturday against Northwestern.

Anthony Maggio covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]