It feels like ages ago when Jaelin Llewellyn injured his knee in a December loss to Kentucky. Not only did the Michigan Wolverines lose their starting point guard, but they also lost one of three playable guards on the roster. Much of the responsibility fell on true freshman point guard Dug McDaniel and sophomore combo guard Kobe Bufkin. Neither of which had led an offense at the collegiate level.
Throughout the season, Bufkin has shown massive strides from the timid player he was as a freshman, and the Wolverines have needed it. It’s no secret that Juwan Howard’s offense is not thriving this season. But, this team is at its best when they can rely on Bufkin being a third-scoring option or better for his team.
Once Llewellyn went out, it threw a monkey wrench in Bufkin’s development and role. With McDaniel being the only option at point guard, Howard and his staff put a square in a circle hole by asking Bufkin to be the backup. Ballhandling and facilitation have never really been his mojo, and putting so much focus on a young player with things that he isn’t naturally comfortable with has to be a reason why we have seen so much inconsistency from him this season on the offensive end.
Defensively, Bufkin has been excellent all season long. It feels like his best defensive performances carry him to confidence on the offensive end. Case in point in the past few weeks: Jaelin Young scored 26 on the Wolverines in Michigan’s loss to Maryland, and Bufkin scored just two points and was 1-6 from the field. A game before, the Michigan guard held this Northwestern team’s leading scorer Chase Audige to 3-of-14 shooting while Bufkin dropped his third 20-point game of the season, going 9-for-11 from the field. His active hands have given him the 7th-most steals in the Big Ten this season, and he is capable of defending some of the best guards the conference has to offer.
If Michigan wants to turn their season around, starting with their game against Northwestern on Thursday, they need the best out of their two-guard. This comes specifically with two areas of improvement: shooting from deep, and commanding the offense at the point guard spot. Although, it’s difficult to say that those two things can come hand-in-hand.
Including the Kentucky game, the Wolverines have played 14 games without the full services of Llewellyn. In the first seven, Bufkin was up to 15 points a contest while shooting 52.4% from three-point range and averaging 2.7 assists per game. It was a huge part of the reason that Michigan hung around with a 4-3 record. It felt like this team could make a run to the NCAA Tournament and stay in the middle of the Big Ten.
However, in the last seven games, all against Big Ten opponents, that offensive production from Bufkin has diminished rather severely. He’s shooting just 18.2% from the arc while scoring 11.7 points and 2.4 assists per game. The Wolverines are just 2-5 in that stretch. With how much emphasis is put on Hunter Dickinson in the post and Jett Howard on the perimeter, Bufkin’s inability to shoot the ball well has been detrimental to the Wolverines’ success.
By no means are all the deficiencies of this Michigan basketball team on Bufkin’s shoulders. The offensive game plans have been horrendous, and they have not been able to close out tight games for the entirety of the season. But, now it’s do-or-die for Michigan’s season as Selection Sunday is less than six weeks away, and the Wolverines have a lot of ground to make up to even be considered for a spot in the tourney. Beyond that even, I’m sure the Michigan faithful would love to see Bufkin as a potential star for this team heading into the offseason.
It all starts against a familiar foe with this Northwestern Wildcats team that left Ann Arbor just over two weeks ago with a loss. Audige and point guard Boo Buie are the primary scorers for the Wildcats and play particularly well on their home court. However, it will be Northwestern’s fifth game in less than a two-week span because of a hiatus they took due to a COVID outbreak. Fatigue will almost assuredly be setting in, and Bufkin’s role will play a huge part in Michigan potentially leaving Evanston with an upset. He’ll get his shot at both Audige and Buie throughout the course of the game. If he can play a role in slowing either down while producing on the offensive end, it could mean brighter days are ahead for this Michigan basketball team.
Tip-off from Welsh-Ryan Arena is on Thursday at 7 p.m.