Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Resurrection of Michigan Basketball

Between 1989 and 1993, Michigan basketball played in 3 of the 5 National Championship games.  Led by Bo Schembechler's "Michigan Man" Steve Fisher, the Wolverines won the '89 title game over Seton Hall.  Fisher was named the coach prior to the 1989 tournament after Bill Freider announced he was taking the Arizona State job.

In 1991, Fisher landed one of the greatest recruiting classes in college basketball history, the so-called Fab 5.  As a 6 seed, Michigan made it to the National Championship game, actually leading Duke at half before the Blue Devils ran them off the court in the second half en route to a 20 point win.  A year later, Fisher & Co. made it back to the title game before losing in the infamous Chris Webber TO game to North Carolina.

One could say Michigan took a 20 year timeout after that.  Though they made it to the Elite 8 in 1994 before losing to eventual National champ Arkansas, the slide of Michigan basketball had begun.  Chris Webber and Jalen Rose had left for the NBA after the 1993 season and Juwan Howard followed suit after the Arkansas game.  Ray Jackson and Jimmy King remained and there was hope Steve Fisher had landed his second "Fab 5" in 1994-95 when Maceo Baston, Travis Conlon, Maurice Taylor, Jerod Ward & Willie Mitchell arrived on campus.

They couldn't recapture the magic, finishing that season 17-13 before losing in the 1st round of the tournmanet to Western Kentucky.  Then Robert "Tractor" Traylor came to campus.  It all fell apart after that.  Michigan made it back to the tournament but again lost in the 1st round, this time as a 7 seed to Texas in Milwaukee.  During that season, Traylor was involved in a car accident with recruit at the time, Matean Cleaves that ended Traylor's season and brought the name Ed Martin to the attention of the Michigan Athletic Department and the B1G and NCAA.

An investigation into Martin's relationship with Michigan's program commenced and the Wolverines fortunes on the court weren't much better.  They missed the tournmanet but would win the NIT behind an MVP performance from Traylor.  The investigation ultimately lead to Fisher resigning just weeks before the beginning of the 1997-98 season.  Though he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, Fisher was still held responsible for a "lack of institutional control."  Assistant Brian Ellerbe was named interim coach and he guided Michigan to the first B1G tourney title and a 3-seed in the tournament where they were bounced by UCLA in the 2nd round.  It would be Michigan's last appearance until 2009.

Ellerbe had the interim tag removed after the success of 1998 but was a colossal failure at Michigan after that.  His record the following 3 seasons was 12-19, 15-14 (NIT) & 10-18.  On top of that, the Ed Martin case was blowing up as the Feds got involved busting a numbers game racket involving Martin and workers at auto plants.  Records showed Martin had laundered that money through Michigan basketball players.  Among those were Webber and Traylor.  Webber would eventually admit to it but lied under oath originally.  As it turned out, Martin had been funnelling money to Webber and Traylor dating back to their middle school days.  Martin had also received perks such as hotel rooms and tickets.

Michigan would lose scholarships, 4 in total and were placed on probation and were ineligible for post-season play in 2002-03, which would be the only time pre-John Beilein they had a winning conference record under Tommy Amaker who replaced Ellerbe in 2001-02.  The rest of the decade was not kind to Michigan as they tried to work their way out from under sanctions.

Amaker had some success at Seton Hall before taking the Michigan job but never was able to get over .500 in the conference.  He would win the NIT title in 2004 and were runner-ups again in 2006 but never reached the Big Dance.  Despite the anger of Jay Bilas, Amaker was removed following the 2007 season.  Enter John Beilein.

Beilein has been successful at Canisius, Richmond & West Virginia before arriving in Ann Arbor.  His first year was a bust, finishing 10-22 (5-13).  A year later, Michigan returned to the NCAA tournament finishing 21-14 (9-9) making it into the 2nd round.  They took a step back a year later despite ranking 15th in the pre-season polls.  They finished that year 15-17.  They made it back to the dance in 2011, taking Duke to the final horn of the 2nd round but team MVP Darius Morris would declare early for the NBA. 

Morris was the PG and Michigan would be replacing him with Mr. Ohio PG, Trey Burke.  Burke was a 4 star recruit and Top 100 recruit but no one expected him to have the impact he would.  Burke won the B1G Frosh of the Year and led Michigan to a share of their 1st B1G title in decades.  The euphoria was short-lived as Michigan was upset by Ohio in the 1stround of the tournament but the future was bright as Michigan had landed their best recruiting class since the days of the....Fab 5.  And now, they are playing for a national championship on Monday.

20 years ago, Michigan was a basketball power.  Within a decade, they had bottomed out and it would take another decade to re-establish themselves as a national title contender and a school that mattered in hoops.  It's been a bumpy, embarrassing at times and slow climb back to respectibility and now this.  In a week, the school can again have contact with Chris Webber.  As part of their penalties in 2002, they had to cease relations with Webber & Traylor for a dceade, with Webber geting an extra year.  The ill-fated timeout to a chance to play for a title.  A 20-year odyssey Michigan fans would probably like to forget but could end in a title.

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