On the spot in Michigan

Times Staff Writer

Bounding through the door into a roomful of reporters, Tommy Amaker does not act like a coach feeling the heat.

"Hello-hello, how's everybody?" he chirps. "Got all your holiday shopping done?"

The man in charge of Michigan basketball grasps the podium with both hands and talks in a whirlwind of smiles and gestures, sounding positive, relaxed to the point of poking fun at himself.

Only later, off to the side, does he muse about the pressure he feels guiding a team that has made it through the early season with an 11-1 record.

"It's kind of weird because we're one game from being undefeated and I feel like I'm answering all these questions," he says.

Questions about whether he is the right coach to finish a difficult rebuilding job at Michigan.

Questions about whether he needs to win showcase games such as Saturday's against top-ranked UCLA to keep from being fired.

It's no longer enough that Amaker, 41, has restored order to a program beset by scandal and NCAA sanctions. In the sixth year of his tenure with a 98-71 record, fans are no longer content with 20-win seasons that lead to berths in the National Invitation Tournament.

They want a return to March Madness, if not national prominence.

"Coach knows what people think about him," guard Dion Harris said. "We as players also understand what people are saying, so it's up to us to go out there and produce wins."

Lofty expectations coincide with the end of four years' probation. The NCAA penalized Michigan after discovering that booster Ed Martin had lent hundreds of thousands of dollars to players dating to Chris Webber and the Fab Five era.

From 1992 through 1999, the record book shows parts or all of six seasons -- including two trips to the NCAA championship game -- wiped from the slate.

Amaker arrived in March 2001 as an antidote -- smart and articulate, a good-looking man with a broad smile. He also bore the impressive pedigree of having played and coached for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

His marching orders were simple: Do things the right way.

Early on, fans were satisfied with a high graduation rate and no more embarrassing headlines. In Amaker's third season, his team defeated Rutgers to win the 2003-04 NIT championship.

But the following season went south when guard Daniel Horton was arrested on a domestic violence charge, and last season ended with Michigan crumbling down the stretch, once again settling for the NIT.

This winter, a veteran starting lineup of four seniors and a junior understands what is at stake.

"We've been talking about it," forward Brent Petway said. "We want to be remembered for getting this program back to success."

Some fans and local media have gone a step further, claiming Amaker must reach the NCAA tournament.

They praise his demeanor and recruiting, but insist he has not fully developed the talent at hand. As one Detroit columnist wrote: "Make the NCAA tournament or lose your job!"

Players say their coach has pushed them harder than ever this season, threatening longer practices and extra running for defensive lapses on court.

Amaker laughs. "I've got to talk to them about repeating what I say," he says.

An early schedule padded by the likes of Central Connecticut State and Harvard has not done much to relieve the pressure. In their biggest test to date, the Wolverines lost on national television at North Carolina State, 74-67.

"We felt disappointed afterward, not about us losing but about how we performed," Harris said. "Anybody who saw that game, we didn't look like we belonged."

Which makes the matchup against UCLA all the more important.

So far, the Wolverines have relied largely on defense and grit. They will probably need something more against a Bruins squad that has defeated nationally ranked opponents Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Texas A&M.;

"We look at this game as an opportunity to display what kind of team we've got," Harris said.

Amaker, however, is careful not to put all his eggs in one Pauley Pavilion basket.

"Yeah, you'd like to have one of those games where everybody can see it," he said. "But if that doesn't happen, in my mind, that doesn't mean everything."

Despite what people are saying about him, the coach seems at ease chatting in a hallway at Crisler Arena, casual in a white polo and blue sweatpants, a whistle hanging around his neck.

Not at all like a man looking over his shoulder.

"I'm glad you think that," he said. "Because I don't feel that way."


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