Michigan assistant Phil Martelli has had undefeated regular seasons as a head coach and been part of special seasons, so this year isn’t foreign to him. He did admit, though, that he took a minute to appreciate the level of basketball he was witnessing in the first half of U-M’s 92-87 win in Columbus Sunday.
Martelli, joining ESPN analyst Dan Dakich on his show yesterday, said the atmosphere felt like a big NCAA Tournament game, with one exception.
“In the first half I kept thinking, ‘does this remind me of a second weekend, Thursday night game or is this like a regional final?’” Martelli said. “The second thing that crossed my mind … don’t you really miss the crowd? I said that yesterday checking in our lineup, asked the guys … I said I felt like there was a lot of heat in here today, but what would it be like? [The scorer] points around the corner, said, ‘all these seats, this would be VIP. All our NFL guys would be back, all our state people would be here, all our NBA guys would be here … Michigan Ohio State, 3 vs. 4 and all that’s gone into the season.’
“But man, I did feel that yesterday. This is great hoop … really great hoop. In fact, three of our favorite people, I said to each of them, listen fellas, just don’t get in the way. These kids got this today. Just don’t get in the way.”
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Martelli admitted he didn’t know what to expect when he came to the Big Ten, and the level of competition caught him a bit by surprise.
“Over the two years the thing that has blown me away … my East Coast bias, I just thought everyone ran into each other and the bigger, stronger teams ended up winning,” he said. “The fierce defense and all that. What has absolutely blown me away is the level of offensive thinking in this league over two years.
“From the players’ point of view, the players are just bigger at positions. Franz Wagner is legitimately 6-10, and he’s a wing player. Even top end, Villanova, a National Champion, they’re not running around with 6-10 wing players. The offensive thoughts in this league and the size at all positions has just been extraordinary.”
There are no gyms either, he noted, only basketball cathedrals.
But is he ever enjoying the ride. He’s been a huge part of Michigan’s success, but he made it clear head coach Juwan Howard was running the show. Martelli had options after getting let go by St. Joseph after an incredible run with the school, and he thought about the NBA, media and other possibilities.
In the end, he said, he knew he wanted to be in a locker room and help with a National Champion contender. He put out calls to friends in the profession, including Kentucky’s John Calipari, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, MSU’s Tom Izzo and others, and Calipari was the one who came through.
When Howard called Calipari up telling him he needed a right-hand man, Calipari told him, ‘I’ve got your guy.’
“We had a phone call two days before Juwan ever interviewed for this job. Not a cliché or movie, but the first couple sentences I thought, man, this would be pretty good,” Martelli recalled. “This guy has values, loves his family and loves his school. I could do this …
“He is such a good person — a Mount Rushmore kind of person, and boy is he a good coach.
There’s not a day that goes by where something from [Miami’s Pat Riley and [Erik] Spoelstra isn’t referred to. I mean that. He’s a good coach who will become a great coach. The growth in a year is astounding, and I believe a lot of it has to do with he’s respected the game for a long time.”
But so has Martelli, and that’s what’s made him such a good fit. If the Wolverines continue on their current path, his quest to cut the nets down on Monday night in April could come even sooner than he expected.
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