Winning a National Invitation Tournament championship does not always lead to greater success. Just ask the St. John's Red Storm, who won the 2003 NIT and then imploded one year later.
Thus, Michigan supporters should not feel too giddy about their team's march toward college basketball's equivalent of the junior varsity title. On the other hand, no one is worried about the Wolverines suffering the same fate as St. John's. Michigan should reap benefits from its NIT crown. Crisler Arena already has a new banner in the rafters to replace some of the ones removed as part of the program's NCAA penalty for violations committed during the past decade.
"It was a very symbolic moment for us," head coach Tommy Amaker said.
Guard Daniel Horton salvaged an otherwise disappointing sophomore season by winning the tournament's MVP award, and a trio of true freshmen gained invaluable postseason experience. With all but one regular (Bernard Robinson Jr.) returning, the Wolverines have the talent, size and experience to be a Big Ten title contender.
FRONTCOURTWhile Amaker wants his team to push the tempo, he also has the personnel to overpower opponents. The Wolverines have six players who stand at least 6-foot-8 and five of them are in the playing rotation. Courtney Sims, a 6-11, 230-pound road block, quickly emerged last season as a defensive anchor. He led the Big Ten in blocks and will have a greater offensive role this season. The challenge for Sims is to get stronger and show more toughness under the boards.
Chris Hunter has unusual range for a player his size, but his sophomore season was marred by injuries. Hunter will compete with Graham Brown for a starting spot. Brown gives the Wolverines 255 pounds of brawn to complement Sims' shot-blocking prowess, and he can also score down low when needed.
Virginia transfer J.C. Mathis did not make a significant impact in his first season with the Wolverines, but he's another experienced option when foul trouble or injuries strike.
Small forward Lester Abram, the team's leading returning scorer, has All-Big Ten potential. Abram is one of the Wolverines' top 3-point threats and the team's best free-throw shooter. If he becomes more adept at making the extra pass -- he averaged 1.3 assists last season -- he'll be even more dangerous.
Brent Petway, Abram's backup, has jaw-dropping athleticism. Now, he must learn to supplement his dunks with a more mundane skill -- a mid-range jumper.
BACKCOURTHorton's inability to make his jumpers and run the halfcourt offense smoothly greatly contributed to the Wolverines' .500 record in the conference last season. His improved play in the NIT -- he averaged a team-best 14.8 points in those five victories -- was a much-needed confidence boost.
"He had such a spectacular freshman year that it led to so many expectations that, in my mind, were unfair and unrealistic," Amaker said. "But he became a better defender, he quarterbacked the team more often and we didn't always need him to take over and score."
Horton shares ball-handling duties with sophomore Dion Harris, another player more naturally suited to the off-guard position. Harris, a reliable perimeter shooter, averaged 13.6 points during the NIT run but is just as content to defer to his teammates. Michigan cannot afford to lose Horton or Harris for an extended stretch because there's little depth in the backcourt.
Abram will move to the backcourt when the starters need a rest.
FINAL ANALYSISThe program has progressed steadily under Amaker's direction. This season, the Wolverines have the potential to go from a bubble team to a Big Ten contender. The Wolverines have three perimeter players capable of scoring 20 points on any night, plenty of big bodies and an emerging star in Sims.
"Expectations are going to be placed on us and that's a good thing, to be thought of as a team capable of doing better this season," Amaker said.