By DAN JENKINS, Staff Reporter
In the midst of the conference season, the University of Michigan-Dearborn men’s basketball team was on the road looking to make up ground in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference standings. As the Wolverines sat on the outside looking in on the conference playoff picture, a win against Siena Heights, which stood just one game ahead, would put the team on the right track with 12 conference games remaining.
The Wolverines’ uphill battle got more difficult when leading scorer, junior Jamiel Strickland, came down with mononucleosis prior to the contest. Strickland gave it a go, recording two assists and three turnovers without attempting a shot in just under 11 minutes on the court.
“He was a shell of himself by the time we tipped off. He could barely move,” Wolverines coach John Mackson recalled. “Jamiel was kind of coming into his own and getting comfortable and then he just got ravaged by mono.”
The sickness sidelined Strickland for just under a month and the Wolverines would post a 2-5 record in his absence, but it did not deter Strickland’s confidence.
“I felt that in the midst of my sickness that I could have come out and done something good, even though, in reality, I couldn’t. I was just too weak and sick,” Strickland said. “I was really kind of depressed during that month. I think that if I could have been there that we could have made a playoff run. We were just getting into a good flow, and then it just broke it right when I got sick.”
Strickland would return in time for the team’s final six games, and did not go unnoticed. During the last four games of the season, the Wolverines won two straight WHAC games – a program first – and as a result Strickland donned a title new to the university.
Strickland was awarded the WHAC Player of the Week award, something that no other UM-Dearborn men’s basketball player had done since joining the conference in 2004.
“I actually found out through Twitter,” Strickland said, laughing. “At first, I didn’t really think too much about it, but after, a lot of people were telling me that’s something that you should really be happy about, that’s something that shows the hard work that you did in the summer.”
It wasn’t just his stats – 16.5 points per game, five rebounds, 3 assists and 57.1 percent shooting – that helped Strickland to the award, but his contributions to the team’s two victories over quality opponents, Madonna and Siena Heights.
After knocking off Madonna for the first time since 2009, Strickland got a second crack at taking on Siena Heights, and on the Wolverines’ Senior Night no less. Strickland scored seven straight points for the Wolverines, including a long 3-pointer as the shot clock ran down to tie the game with just under five minutes to play.
“It’s definitely a team game and I give a lot of credit to my teammates,” Strickland said. “Down the stretch, I made some very, very big plays. I think my stats were pretty good, but I think on the court you can appreciate it more – the layups that I made were contested, the deep 3-pointer against Siena, some steals against Madonna. Just those big plays that I pulled off really helped.”
With the departure of senior Julius Porter coming into the season, Strickland was expected to be the main option on a young Wolverines squad, until the illness blindsided him.
“It was going to be hard, but I had great results in the first month of my season,” Strickland explained. “I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in – I was toned up and I was really feeling myself. It was easier to score, easier to play defense.”
The award goes to a player every week as nominated by the coaches of the conference. Mackson said that he was probably the last person to find out that his own player had won the award.
“The voting must go on Monday evening, because everybody else knew before I did,” Mackson said. “I was stuck in a meeting that day, so by the time I got to practice everybody already knew.”
Mackson, who brought in Strickland as a part of his first recruiting class, recognized the struggle that he went through over the course of the season how important the award is to Strickland and the program as a whole.
“It’s important. It’s a stepping stone,” Mackson explained. “I think Jamiel needed it. He need some recognition for really what a great transition he’s made, because he did play mostly point guard this year and he had never done that.”
But don’t tell that to Strickland, who said that he played point guard his entire life until his sophomore year in high school, but admitted that the position was new to him in Mackson’s system.
Even with the distinction of being the program’s first player to win the award, Strickland keeps his accomplishment in perspective, and remained animate that the honor would not have been possible without help from his teammates.
“It makes our program look good when you see ‘Player of the Week’. It’s something to show for,” Strickland said. “It adds on to the progression of our basketball program.”