- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

ANN ARBOR, Mich. Tomorrow night the Michigan men's basketball team will take the floor at Chicago's United Center looking to complete the school's lost season with three victories and a Big Ten title. But the title "heroic" already belongs to the current crop of Wolverines.
"The Big Ten tournament is our postseason," said Michigan junior forward and District native Bernard Robinson Jr. after a recent loss to Illinois. "It's been a tough year with everything going on around the program. But we have one last chance to do something worth celebrating in Chicago."
Obviously, no current Michigan player was wearing maize and blue when infamous booster Ed Martin started covering the campus in cash and corruption more than a decade ago.
Freshman point guard Daniel Horton was in kindergarten when Martin welcomed the Fab Five to Michigan with open arms, and an open wallet back in 1991. Current coach Tommy Amaker was a pup assistant at Duke, where a sub-3.0 GPA is the closest thing you'll find to a roundball scandal.
John Guare and Oliver Stone could collaborate and still not find a connection between Amaker's army and the Martin madness. But somebody had to pay for the sins of the past, and the second-year coach and his players were the most helpless group on hand.
Martin told both the authorities and the NCAA that he gave a total of $616,000 to four players between 1990 and 1996: Chris Webber ($280,000), Robert Traylor ($160,000), Maurice Taylor ($105,000) and Louis Bullock ($71,000).
Figures like that make the suits in Indianapolis sweat. The NCAA won't hand down its official sentence to Michigan until later this month. But back in November, the school launched a pre-emptive strike intended to soften the blow. Two weeks before the season was to start, Michigan imposed the following penalties on itself.
cThe school announced it was putting itself on two years' probation and would not be eligible this season for the NCAA or NIT tournaments.
cIt announced that it was forfeiting 112 regular-season and tournament victories over five seasons and pulling down its Final Four banners from 1992 and 1993.
It returned $450,000 earned from NCAA tournaments to the organization.
But what has the school really lost thus far, other than a healthy dose of pride? Michigan made more than $3million in gate receipts at Crisler Arena this season, plus enormous sums on merchandise and game concessions.
"I don't think it's right for the school or the NCAA to punish the coaches and kids who had nothing to do with it," said longtime Big Ten coach Bob Knight last month.
"And I think Michigan's self-imposed fine was a joke. If I was the NCAA, I would hit the school for somewhere in the $2million to $5million range."
For his part, Ed Martin didn't live long enough to make reparations. The retired autoworker died last month at 69 from a pulmonary embolism.
And as for the players involved, it's doubtful any of them will ever suffer. Webber, who has denied any wrongdoing, has a trial date set for July8 on charges that he perjured himself to a federal grand jury in a hearing concerning the case in 2000. Webber, along with his father and aunt, could face up to 45 years in prison and a $2.25million fine if convicted on all nine counts of perjury and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
But incarceration is unlikely for a man of Webber's means. And how meaningful is a $2million fine to a player who signed a seven-year, $123million deal with the Sacramento Kings last summer?
No, the only real victims in this entire debacle are the current players and coaches. Consider the plight of star shooting guard LaVell Blanchard (16.0 points, 6.9 rebounds), who entered his senior season knowing there would be no postseason reward for his efforts.
"I was extremely frustrated at first," Blanchard said recently. "We all were. We weren't bitter at the former players. I think we were just all feeling sorry for ourselves. It took us all some time to adjust."
It took a school-worst 0-6 start during which the Wolverines lost to laughably inferior St. Bonaventure, Virginia Tech, Kansas State, Western Michigan and Central Michigan before the rallying around Amaker's unwavering optimism.
After the Wolverines beat Bowling Green 83-57 on Dec.11 for their first victory, Amaker wrote 1-0 on the team chalkboard in lieu of a postgame pep talk.
"We all looked at it, and said, 'All right, let's start over,'" Horton said.
Michigan proceeded to win 12 more consecutive games, at that point the second longest streak in the nation, bolting out to a 6-0 start in Big Ten play.
"I can't say enough about how these kids responded to adversity this year," Amaker said. "They made a promise to each other that they would make the best of the situation, and they've done that."
A deflating 72-69 loss to then-No.18 Illinois on March1 cost the Wolverines (17-11, 10-6 Big Ten) a shot at the regular-season league title. But with the third seed and a first-round bye in this week's tournament, a conference crown is still possible. Michigan will face Indiana in today's quarterfinals.
"They are definitely the sentimental favorites," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "The way Tommy has kept his guys motivated this season is really amazing. I think he deserves some votes for coach of the year."
As for the future, most insiders believe the worst of the sanctions could be behind the Wolverines.
"The conventional wisdom is that there won't be any more postseason penalties handed down by the NCAA," said John Akers, managing editor of Basketball Times. "Virtually everybody agrees that it's unfair to keep making these kids pay for the sins of others. So I expect the NCAA to add a fine and maybe clip a scholarship or two."
Even the threat of impending sanctions didn't stop Amaker from landing a consensus top-20 recruiting class headlined by Detroit shooting guard Dion Harris.
"I haven't addressed the past this season, so I'm not going to address the future," Amaker said. "I've tried to devote all my energy to focusing on the season at hand, because that's what these kids deserve.
"I will say this, though; I believe when this program returns to national prominence, people will look back and say it all started with this team and the heart they showed in the face of misfortune."

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