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Monday, February 20, 2006

I find it exceedingly difficult to say things about teams that are performing in a negative fashion... sort of. It is, in fact, exceedingly easy to flip out and kill stuff. What's difficult is writing something that you can come back to in a week or two and not feel a hot flush of shame at every overheated, overreacting sentence.

So... yeah, hockey and basketball coverage has been light lately because strings of curse words, impreciations directed at referees who probably aren't Satan or even communist, and general incoherent gibbering do not make for fine reading. At least not in depressing bulk. Suffice it to say that I haven't really enjoyed a Michigan sporting event since the end of the Wisconsin basketball game. Things kind of go like that sometimes. Here's an attempt to say something rational.

Tommy Amaker shouldn't be fired if you care about being fair. When he arrived going on five years ago, the program was in shambles thanks to Steve Fisher, Ed Martin, Tom Goss, and (especially) Brian Ellerbe. Within months of his arrival he had booted Avery Queen, Maurice Seawright, and Dom Ingerson--all of whom were nasty people who couldn't even play basketball--and was faced with a roster consisting of Lavell Blanchard, Bernard Robinson, Jr., and... well, there is no "and." What he was faced with was a rebuilding job epic in its scope.

And build he did, at least at first. An 11-18 team and pending NCAA probation didn't prevent Amaker from recruiting Daniel Horton, Lester Abram, Chris Hunter, and Graham Brown--a class on par with any of Ellerbe's in terms of talent and far better in terms of arriving on campus and staying for more than half a season. The next year he went 17-13; the year after Michigan was 23-11 and won the NIT. Michigan was on the verge of relevancy... until someone pissed Jobu off.

What's followed in the last two years has been a epidemic of smiting from above that makes Angry Michigan-Safety-Hating God look like a rank amateur. Michigan fans spent most of last year watching Daniel Horton and Lester Abram watch two walk-ons watch Dion Harris attempt to get a shot, any shot. This year it's Abram and Harris watching Horton. Throw in some extended absences from Brent Petway (both years), Graham Brown (last year), Jerrett Smith (this year), Courtney Sims (about every other game, mentally), and Chris Hunter (both years, including the latest blow: a partially torn MCL that will probably end his career) and you have a nigh-insurmountable pile of bodies worthy of Pol Pot. Game, set, match to Angry Michigan-Basketball-Hating God.

So it's totally irrational to call for Amaker's firing. (Not that anyone of note is, I believe.) Take Ager, Walton, and Neitzel away from Michigan State and do the Spartans make the tournament? Doubtful. A healthy Michigan team is cruising towards the tournament instead of stumbling around like an Izzone member about to get some Ba up in his face. This is progress. This is a five-year sweep that shows upward mobility at every milestone if you control for AMBH God-smiting and the like.

Here's the but: But.

Even though I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many calling for Amaker's head, you'd have an even tougher time finding anyone who was anything approaching optimistic about the future. Graham Brown, Chris Hunter, Daniel Horton, and possibly Lester Abram are gone after this year. Amaker's failure to recruit anyone who looks to be more than an iffy role-player in the past two years leaves Michigan 2006 with two posts--still-sushi-raw Brent Petway and soft Courtney Sims--and one unprepared, turnover-prone point guard--Jerrett Smith. Ron Coleman is an okay Big Ten player; he is an awful Big Ten recruiting class. The talent pendulum has reached its apex. This is our "good" year.

The thing is, this really isn't Amaker's fault. He had Al Horford committed. He had Joe Crawford committed. He had Malik Hairston and Tory Jackson about to commit. All were diverted at the last second by people less than captivated by Amaker's turtlenecks and refusal to guarantee playing time and the presumptive NBA contract that came with it. The state of Michigan's tendency to produce basketball players fathered by lunatics isn't his doing, but it is his problem. It would be dextrous coach indeed who could recover from such a sudden shift in the current. Nothing that's happened over the past two or three years can be pinned on Amaker. He can't be fired. It wouldn't be fair. It would cause outcry.

Here is But #2: Joe Dumars would probably fire Amaker. He would be polite about it, but he would say something along the lines of "we appreciate the hard work you've put in to get us to this level and acknowledge the bad luck you've had, but you're going to have to go coach the Pacers now." And he would get away with it, because he's Joe Dumars. Joe Dumars walks on parquet water.

But we don't have a Joe D. As a result, we'll be watching Amaker twist in the wind for a while longer, not at fault for the losing, until his fireability reaches mortal levels. At least, that's what I think will happen. I'd like to be wrong.