The Michigan Wolverines had a rough go of it on Sunday against the Michigan State Spartans on the road, losing 87-69 in a game that was probably much closer than it should have been throughout until the Spartans pulled away at the end of the game. As always, there is a vocal pocket of fans screaming that Juwan Howard’s team peaked too early and that they are fraudulent, but those people need a dose of the chill pills.
Michigan went into Sunday without one of its top three players and a leader in Isaiah Livers while also going up against a team in MSU that is rounding into form as one of the country’s best teams finally meeting preseason expectations for them. Cassius Winston is special and put on the performance of his career. And right now, that just might be the difference between the two squads.
The Wolverines have a lot of nice parts and young, moldable pieces, but lack a go-to star player that is capable of bringing it night-in and night-out offensively to set a tone. Livers might be the closest thing they have to that with his ability to stretch the floor, which makes his absence all that more notable.
But let’s chat for a bit about Howard’s team as a whole. They currently sit at 10-4 and have lost all three true road games they have played and dropped another at home in overtime to Oregon. They’ve had some hot shooting nights, but also some that have been as cold as the Michigan winter and the latter has been more than just a bad habit on the road. It’s a trend, and one that they need to get figured out or there will be more days like it.
It would be overstating it to say that Howard is working with a team full of scraps. This is not Nebraska and Fred Hoiberg, who had to literally assemble an entire roster ahead of this season. Michigan lost a ton of guys after last season capable of creating their own offense and that was going to be a problem even if John Beilein had decided to stick around. That has led to some young players being thrown into the fire and what you’re seeing now is the costs of a transitional period. There are going to be some nights that are a blast to watch when everything is clicking and some days where you want to change the channel because nothing is working and it looks broken.
But make no mistake about it, everything that happens — good or bad — is beneficial to the likes of Franz Wagner, Brandon Johns, David DeJulius, Colin Castleton, etc. who figure to be key pieces to the mix for next year mixed in with the infusion of what currently ranks as the No. 4 recruiting class in the country for 2020.
One week in the Bahamas seems to have distorted the expectations among some of the fans, and that’s understandable. You win three games in three days in a tournament environment that resembles the postseason and it’s easy to get excited. But Iowa State and North Carolina are currently the No. 55 and No. 58 teams on KenPom, respectively, so while good wins, those perhaps aren’t quite as impressive as they were a month ago. The one against Gonzaga holds up with them currently ranked as KenPom’s No. 9 team.
14 of Michigan’s last 17 regular season games of the year come against KenPom Top 50 teams, so there’s going to be quite the resume built up one way or another.
The biggest thing that Howard has going for him is that the players adore him and that he will continue to give them the license to take shots and be themselves on the court. He has a confident group and they are confident in him. What they go through this season, they will go through and learn together.
One way or another, this should wind up being one of the more battle-tested Michigan basketball teams we have seen down the stretch this year given the ups and downs of this year so far and the callus they will have built heading into March. Coming into the season, the bar for this team felt like they had to find a way to get to 20 wins, make the NCAA Tournament and see what happens from there.
Sometimes we forget this is a retooling and a reboot of the basketball program with so much changing since last spring. A foundation is being set now and obviously the work in the future is being put in on the recruiting trail. Sunday’s game illustrates the ways to go there is to being a title contender like MSU is, but we’ve seen Michigan teams do more on the court with less talent than they currently have. There’s no reason to get too down over what we saw in December and into January.
Nobody in that locker room is satisfied with losing, and they’re 10-4 so let’s stop acting like the sky is falling here, They’ll internally work on finding answers and we will sit back and watch this process play out.
- Huge news for Michigan football, as Nico Collins returns to the wide receiver room in 2020. Now it feels like we have an idea of what that WR depth chart will look like.
- Lincoln Riley’s odds of taking the Dallas Cowboys job are even right now. That search feels like it has a college flair to it.
- An interesting statistical analysis here of Gus Malzahn at Auburn. You can draw your own conclusions in the comment as to why that is, but yeah, interesting.