I’ve held off on writing about this Michigan basketball team for quite some time for a couple simple reasons — mainly because we were in the midst of covering a national championship football team (that was cool). But I also don’t willingly sacrifice my valuable time to things that aren’t worth my while — why would you go out of your way to watch the new, horrible-looking musical version of Mean Girls on a Tuesday at 9 p.m. on a streaming service you don’t need when you can watch the OG whenever you want?
Michigan basketball in its current form is exactly that: a reenactment of something that used to be good — something that could (and probably should) be good — but is a far cry from its highest potential.
This used to be a gritty, hard-working, blue-collar (whatever other cliché you want to use) group of players and coaches that truly cared for one another and got the very best out of each other. Now, Michigan hoops is the dead-end job you reluctantly show up to each day before you inevitably get so sick and tired of it that you find something better.
Losing for the 10th time in 11 games — including five straight — on Saturday at home to Rutgers, Michigan sits at the very bottom of the Big Ten standings, the first time head coach Juwan Howard has ever been in last place his entire basketball career.
No NCAA Tournament bid — hell, no NIT bid — even remotely in sight.
What’s even more sad is when you realize what the Wolverines could be if they had just hung onto all their halftime leads this year. Michigan has led at halftime in 15-of-22 games — and 9-of-11 Big Ten games — and it has won seven of those 22. Had they just finished the job in those games they led at halftime, the Wolverines would be 9-2 in conference play and squarely in the conversation as one of the top teams in the Big Ten.
Even more jarring: the Wolverines are 94 — yes… ninety effin’ four — points worse than any other Big Ten team in the second half this season.
That … I have no words for that.
So the time has come for us to talk about the future, because there is no present with this basketball team — that ship sailed before the calendar even turned to 2024.
Here is what I will say about the two leadership figures, starting with Warde Manuel.
When recently asked about his evaluation of Howard and the basketball program at Sherrone Moore’s introductory press conference, Manuel pointed to being patient.
In part, Manuel said: “Somebody asked me about patience, and I think that’s the key with all of our programs. Juwan is working with the staff, with the team, to win ... He doesn’t like it, the staff doesn’t like it, the student-athletes don’t like where we are right now. But I have not seen a lack of effort on the team. We could play better defense at times, we can turn over the ball less, we can do things that would help us win. But I’m watching, I’m talking to Juwan, and I know he’s working on it and I know the student-athletes and coaches are working on it.”
In a separate quote when asked about how he will be patient with Moore taking over the football program, Manuel said: “I was patient when many thought I shouldn’t have been patient when I kept Jim in 2020. (The media is) great, but some of y’all wrote that I should not stick with Jim and not be patient. I try to be patient in everything that I do.”
But patience can be, and should be, assessed differently from situation to situation, and that certainly applies here.
The stark difference here is that Harbaugh is a proven winner everywhere he goes, and it was expected of him to get the football program to the promised land. Juwan is a first-time head coach who, up to this point, mostly succeeded with players who were recruited and developed by (in my opinion) the best coach in Michigan men’s basketball history.
Warde can preach patience all he wants, but these two situations are apples and oranges — they just shouldn’t be comparable at all.
Now, as it pertains to Juwan. He’s had his issues on and off the court at Michigan. I don’t need to recount all of them because it’s way more than we’d like for it to be and the main ones are probably the same ones you’re thinking of, too.
But here’s my honest take on Howard — I think he is a genuine human being who has a high-quality basketball mind. He’s passionate about his job and the university, and wants the team to succeed.
However, it’s clear as day the team has bailed on him, and he said as much following the game on Saturday when he said “pride” would have stopped the bleeding against the Scarlet Knights when they were coming back.
“Yeah, I’ve considered (changes),” Howard said. “Maybe going with my walk-ons. I know they care. They don’t give up. They give a lot of what we ask. They all are dialed in.”
Genuine question — do they care, though? If the players on scholarship have a bad attitude and aren’t prideful enough, odds are the entire team carries around that same baggage. Saying this does nothing other than create more problems internally, and comments like these can translate to the players’ lack of trust in Howard.
“I feel like we’re not all trusting (Howard) right now, but I know we’re going to turn it around,” Reed said following the team’s loss to Illinois on Jan. 19. “We just gotta ask ourselves and look at the man in the mirror and figure it out from there. We gotta find our identity as individuals and as a team.”
The players have clearly checked out, and that starts with the coaches. It’s up to the players to perform to the best of their abilities, but it’s up to the coaches to keep the team together through good times and bad and put them in the best position possible to succeed.
So something needs to change — either Warde pulls the plug (he probably won’t) or Howard makes wholesale changes — including coaches and players — and goes into the offseason with an in-depth plan to get things back to where they used to be in Ann Arbor.
Whatever happens, hopefully it’s soon. Because the musical sing-along version of Michigan basketball under Juwan is a whole hell of a lot worse than the original movie starring John Beilein.