My Problem With Amaker
In the wake of the UCLA loss this past weekend I was pretty critical of Thomas Amaker and the entire Michigan team.
This team is disorganized, inept, and incapable of passing the ball to their teammates. Talent, honestly, isn't the issue. There is talent in Maize and Blue. The issue is coaching. Coaching tells a player how to break the press. Coaching changes gameplans when the first doesn't work. Coaching doesn't go to Zone when you're down 20. Coaching finds a way to break a 12-4 run early in the second when there is still a hope of a comeback. Coaching finds a way to may even the flattest games respectable. Coaching focuses on a team's weakness and makes them stronger. Coaching prepares teams for big games before national TV audiences
This was not the first time, nor the last, that I have wagged a finger at Thomas Amaker for ill-preparing his players for a critical game. However, a couple astute readers asked me why I'm jumping on the negativity band wagon so early in the season. This is my attempt to answer their inquiry and get your thoughts on how Thomas Amaker is doing.
In Amaker's defense there are several banner victories to hang a season on, a 13 game winning streak in 2002-3, and an NIT banner to talk about. Last season is a perfect example of the reasons to love or hate Amaker as Michigan's head basketball coach. It provides fodder on both sides to either call for patience or call for his head. Banner victories, humiliating losses.
With that in mind, looking at last year, Michigan roared out of the gates to an eventual top 25 national ranking. Getting there Michigan looked good. Victories over MSU and Wisconsin marked their early season triumphs. Michigan was standing tall after pounding Penn State, a team Northwestern routinely dismantles as well. Then the wheels came off. Michigan dropped three straight after being ranked for the first time in 5 years. They lost 7 of their last 9 games to miss the NCAA tournament. The only bright spot during that dismal run was Daniel Horton single handedly willing Michigan to victory over a flat Illini team. Despite all he did, Michigan dropped its next three game including an unbelievable Big Ten tournament loss to a Minnesota team Michigan had whupped by 22 points five games earlier. Instead of the NCAAs Michigan went to the NIT where they eventually lost to South Carolina (a team that swept the national champion Gators).
On the plus, Michigan made the NIT finals, beat ranked opponents in MSU, Wisconsin and Illinois, and put on a show for all of us to care about. On the minus, Michigan dropped 7 of 9 to close its season, blew an easy win against Minnesota when it was widely speculated/known that a win would get them into the NCAA tournament, played absolutely horrible defense all year long, and had to rely on a single player for almost all of its offense.
In looking back over my notes and columns during that time the thing that consistently jumps out at me is the fact that if Daniel Horton had a quiet game, Michigan was guaranteed to lose. Last year's success appeared to be more the result of Horton's stubbornness than Amaker's coaching. Michigan consistently allowed decent teams to shoot ridiculously high field goal percentages and out rebound them. Defensively Michigan was always slow to rotate, late box out, and totally incapable of defending a pick and roll. On offense Michigan was in just as clueless. Re-watch any game last year and you will notice that there was no game plan. It was simply "give the ball to Horton and pray." Michigan was constantly out assisted. Dion Harris couldn't shoot well last year either. Courtney Sims was ineffective then too (although he has come to play this year). Turnovers were far more common than assists. Even in Michigan's victories they would often out-turnover their opponents.
Look at the UM/ND NIT game. The last play that Michigan spent a full timeout to design was, at best, a total disaster. Horton had no idea where he was going, was quickly double teamed, and somehow managed to find Harris alone on a night when he was 2-8 from the arc prior to his shot. Horton was supposed to take the shot. Everyone knew that. Yet none of Michigan's players could set a pick or a screen to get him loose. Instead of a set shot, it ended up a desperation three with time expiring.
Since 2001-2 Michigan is staggeringly bad 8-27 against ranked opponents. Four of those victories have come against teams ranked #17 or below. The highs? Illinois at 8, Wisconsin at 10, MSU at 11, and Iowa at 14. That's it. A 23% winning percentage against the top #25 over 6 years.
Simply put, my irritation with Michigan's head basketball coach does not stem from a single game, nor am I judging him solely on that performance. To the contrary, I am holding him accountable for the body of work he has compiled with players he's recruited. With those players Michigan has been consistently mediocre. And that's not good enough. Mediocre means NITs rather than NCAAs.
The final conference statistics from 2003, 2004, and 2005 tell the story. In 2003 Michigan has incredibly mediocre, ranking 6th in the conference in just about every category. With one anomaly, Michigan was 9th in the conference in the assist to turnover ratio. 2004 saw a steep decline as Michigan ranked around 8th in most defensive categories, but was dead last in assist to turnover ratio and second to last in assist, turnover margin, and that slightly important category scoring offense.
Last year Michigan returned to mediocrity offensively, but continued to have trouble stopping anyone from scoring. Michigan was again second to last in field goal percentage defense and three point defense. Again, Michigan was second to last in both turnover margin and assist to turnover ratio. Only Purdue, who beat Michigan last year, averaged more turnovers a game than Michigan.
Over the course of Amaker's tenure Michigan turns the ball over more times than it assists on a basket, it cannot stop anyone from scoring either in front of or behind the 3-point arc, and with the exception of Daniel Horton's 2005 season can't score enough to make up for its mistakes.
This year, many of the same problems are coming to the forefront. None of Michigan's guards can shoot. And instead of creating off the dribble and driving the lane, they are content to loft contested long range shots over outstretched arms. No one knows how to set a screen. No one knows how to rotate offensively to beat a double team down low. No one knows how to make a friggin bounce pass into the post. The turnover problem continues to haunt Michigan. Despite how early it is in this season and Michigan's 11-2 record it still ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten in turnover margin and assist to turnover ratio. Michigan's defense also leaves plenty to be desired. The fact that it is eeking by teams like NIU or Miami scares the hell out of me come Big Ten time. Michigan's victory over NIU is tempered in my mind by the number of missed open jumpers that the Huskies lofted. When left alone like that, good teams will bury you. Those teams are coming up on the schedule very, very shortly. For the record, Michigan is dead last in the conference in 3-point defense.
These numbers are all indicia, at least in my opinion, of a coaching problem. Amaker is famous for strange coaching decisions at inopportune times. On every broadcast game I saw last year, if Michigan was down by a margin larger than 10 Amaker would switch to a zone defense. Why in God's name would you do that when you're down big in the second half? You need the ball back. Zone allows a team to keep the ball around the perimeter and run time off the clock, and if they're a good shooting team find an open man when Michigan's suspect rotation never materialized. What made it even funnier/sadder was listening to the announcers question his decisions on the air!
All the things that irk me about Amaker were on display against UCLA. Lack of proper adjustments. Poor use of timeouts. Inability to design plays that went to Michigan's strengths. Poor substitutions. Confusion at a pressure defense. And his famous look of helplessness as the game wore on.
Coaching gets kids to respond to new challenges. If there's a change in the game plan you use one of the fifty or so tv timeouts to adjust. Michigan never does that. They occasionally pull out a victory when an opponent stupidly plays down to their level and doesn't dictate the flow of the game. However, if an opponent presses it's will on Michigan, they usually fold. That is an issue that irritates me no end.
Tom Amaker is a nice guy. He's a decent recruiter who seems to be getting better. He's an excellent representative of the school and seemingly an excellent role model for his players. I'm not calling into question his integrity or intelligence.
I'm saying he's a bad basketball coach. I'm saying he hasn't shown me otherwise. If he does, I'm more than happy to say I'm wrong. But he's gotta prove he can coach before I will.