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Column: Airing our grievances regarding the Michigan men’s basketball program

The Wolverines are the worst team in the Big Ten right now with no solution in sight.

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Michigan football team and the men’s basketball team have each played 15 games since last fall. While the season couldn’t have gone better on the field for the football team after winning the national championship, it’s safe to say the first 15 games for the men’s hoops couldn’t have gone worse.

As conference play continues, the Michigan Wolverines are 6-9 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten. As of January 9, they have the worst overall record in the conference and are the only team in the Big Ten with a losing record. And it doesn’t help that one of their best players and their leading scorer, point guard Dug McDaniel, will not be playing in road games until further notice, head coach Juwan Howard said Wednesday evening.

This is the worst start through 15 games for the men’s team since John Beilein’s first season as coach in 2007-08. In the battle of what was likely the two worst teams in the Big Ten, the Wolverines blew a double-digit lead at the half in their most recent and lost to the Penn State Nittany Lions by six.

To say the season has been frustrating for the Michigan is an understatement. Something has to change for this program to start competing in the Big Ten again.

We are a few weeks past December 23, but it still feels like the perfect time to have a Festivus for the rest of us and air some grievances regarding the men’s basketball team. Here are all the ways that this team has disappointed Michigan fans over the past season, and some thoughts on the state of the program:

On the court

  • Michigan’s biggest issue last season was being unable to win close games, and that’s still the case this season. In games decided by six points or less, the Wolverines are 1-6, with their lone win coming against Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis. It’s not that this group lacks talent, there’s plenty of that. The problem is we’ve seen Michigan panic way too many times on both ends in close games.
  • Those late-game struggles are largely due to Michigan’s offense, which has been pretty effective this season, but crumbles at the worst possible time. The offense late in games is boring and predictable, especially in the double overtime loss to Florida.
  • Defensively, the Wolverines couldn’t stop a beach ball from hitting the ocean right now. The Wolverines are giving up 78.7 points per game, a mark that’s only better than 23 other teams in college basketball. Their on-ball defense is terrible, their rotations are late, and they give up way too many open threes.
  • The bad defensive play leads to bad body language. It was on display late in the Penn State game; when the Nittany Lions had all the momentum in the second half, heads were down, spirits were very down, and no one stepped up because the Wolverines appeared to be too busy feeling sorry for themselves. We’ve seen that negative body language way too often this season.
  • For a team with as much as size as they have, the Wolverines have been getting killed in the paint, especially in their losses. That’s partially due to their inability to get to the rim and partially due to giving up so many layups, offensive rebounds, and buckets in the post to other teams
  • As bad as the Wolverines are defensively, they are almost worst when it comes to taking care of the basketball. Michigan is averaging 13.4 turnovers per game, a mark that’s tied for 270th out of 351 teams in college basketball. This team turns the ball over way too often in the half-court offense, leading to easy baskets for the opposing team.

Off the court

  • Sorry to keep harping on the Penn State game, but let’s talk about Phil Martelli serving as head coach for that contest. While it was a nice gesture considering Martelli is from Philadelphia and his son is on Penn State’s staff, it’s incredibly odd timing for Juwan Howard to give up the reins as the head coach, especially when the team had lost three games in a row heading into that match-up at the Palestra. I understand Martelli served as head coach at the beginning of the season with Howard’s health issues, and thank God Howard appears to be feeling better now. That said, a head coach giving up his responsibilities, in conference play, in what was pretty much a must-win game, is unprecedented and felt like bad timing.
  • While nothing ultimately came of the reported skirmish between Howard and head strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, that kind of in-fighting within the program is never good news. Even if no punches were thrown, getting into shouting matches with a longtime member of the staff is not a good thing and makes outsiders question just exactly how the program is being run.
  • After leading a group that was largely John Beilein’s recruits to the Elite Eight in 2020-21, it’s been largely downhill for Juwan Howard and his staff. In 2021-22, the Wolverines barely made the NCAA Tournament, grabbing one of the last at-large bids. They did make up for barely getting in by making it to the Sweet Sixteen.

Last season, despite having an All-American center and two top-15 NBA draft picks, the Michigan Wolverines couldn’t win close games and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-10 season. And with how this season has gone so far, they can pretty much kiss their hopes of returning to March Madness goodbye.

After being handed a really good program that John Beilein took years to build, the goodwill Juwan Howard inherited is all but gone. Barring some sort of crazy turnaround, this season feels lost, and there’s going to have to be some tough conversations after the season regarding how this program is run.