Amaker won't have to rely on walk-ons if injuries strike this season. Shepherd, a wing player, is a scorer from the Toronto area who could play a key role if Abram has a setback. Price, a jazz pianist, can play either forward position but will probably require a year of acclimation before making any music on the court. Smith is a true point guard, something the Wolverines have lacked in recent seasons.
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Most college coaches spend their offseason pondering how they can replace missing parts. Michigan coach Tommy Amaker has the opposite, and more pleasant, dilemma. He must determine the best way to reintegrate key components, following a once-promising season that shattered to pieces due to injuries, a suspension and lack of depth.
Amaker is feeling some heat from outside forces. After winning the NIT during the 2003-04 season, the Wolverines unraveled last year when top returning scorer Lester Abram required left shoulder surgery and second-leading scorer Daniel Horton was suspended in midseason for a domestic assault incident. Big men Graham Brown and Chris Hunter also missed significant time because of injuries, forcing Amaker to run a paste-and-glue operation during a 13-18 season.
All four players are back in action, along with several other regulars, creating burgeoning expectations for a breakout season.
"We should think of ourselves as a team that will be in the thick of the race for our conference championship," Amaker says. "We need to think of ourselves as performing in that way. That's not putting any expectations on anybody. It's trying to uphold the standard that we have here at this program and being honest about where we are."
Did the Wolverines overestimate Courtney Sims or was he just a victim of circumstances? That's the crucial question concerning the Wolverines' frontcourt.
Sims looked like a star in the making as a freshman, leading the Big Ten in blocks. He only improved marginally as a sophomore, averaging 9.8 points and 5.2 rebounds, instead of the 15-to-20 point scorer and 8-to-10 rebounder Michigan believes he can become. Sims needs to be more assertive but also has to get the ball in positions where he can be most effective. He, more than any other player, should benefit from the return of Abram and Horton.
Brown, whose skills mainly consist of bumping, grinding and screening, missed nine games because of hernia surgery.
The more talented Hunter, who usually comes in with the second unit, has been injury-prone throughout his college career. He's a scoring threat if he can stay on the court.
Explosive Brent Petway underwent left shoulder surgery in early May and now faces trouble in the classroom. He has been ruled academically ineligible for the fall semester, but will be allowed to practice with the team. A shot-blocker, Petway will provide a burst of energy and athleticism as the team's sixth man when he is allowed to return to game action.
Abram, who averaged 13.1 points as a sophomore, appeared in just three games after he aggravated a shoulder injury first suffered during the 2004 Big Ten Tournament. He's the team's most versatile player and will reclaim the starting small forward spot.
Horton has returned to good graces after serving a school-imposed punishment that kept him out of action for the final 12 games of the season. His more immediate challenges are to improve his shooting (38.7 percent) and cut down on turnovers (3.3 per game).
Dion Harris had to carry the load in Horton's absence, both as a scorer and playmaker. Harris led the team in scoring (14.3 points) but was uneasy with the ball in his hands so often. He will feel more comfortable being part of balanced unit rather than the go-to guy.
Swingman Ronald Coleman played an average of nearly 28 minutes as a true freshman, far more than Amaker had planned. His playing time will drop this season but that experience will make him a solid reserve. Abram will also swing over to shooting guard.
The Wolverines made steady progress under Amaker before last season's washout. It's hard to imagine a repeat, but Amaker and his players know they have run out of excuses.
They have the talent to move up the Big Ten food chain. If they fail, Amaker may not last another season.