The Michigan Wolverines started off the season hot with a record of 7-0 that included two wins against top ten opponents in the Battle for Atlantis. Since then, the perfect fantasy of this Michigan squad being one of the best teams in the country has seemingly disappeared.
The Wolverines have dropped three of their last four in a horrific offensive performance on the road against No. 1 Louisville, a tough game in Juwan Howard’s first Big Ten road test at Illinois, and now another top team in the country, the Oregon Ducks, last Saturday in overtime.
Now at 8-3, some people have expressed plenty of concerns and just blatantly incorrect opinions about the future of this Michigan program after three losses. So with me, everyone please take your weekly dose of a chill pill about the course of this team.
If Howard would not have jumped out to as strong of a start as he did, this conversation wouldn't even be necessary. This season would have been labeled a rebuilding year before Big Ten play even began. Instead, with the impressive run at the beginning of the season, expectations launched through the roof with some people giving them the No. 1 ranking.
This Michigan team certainly is capable of great things, but this is a first-year head coach with only two returning starters from last season. While they are capable of being one of the top team in the country when things click, it was much too high and much too early for the Wolverines. It put a target on their backs as one of the hottest teams in the country and everywhere they have gone since then teams have been playing them like they would against Duke or North Carolina. This team was not and is not prepared for that kind of pressure this early in a new regime.
The offensive struggles have been apparent from the get go, and that is not something that is just going to magically disappear. Howard is still working out the kinks of this offense and learning how to best utilize his players.
The good news is basically every player on this roster has taken a huge jump since last season. Jon Teske is arguably the best center in the Big Ten, and has played like a top player in the country. Teams are being forced to double team him every time he touches the ball in the paint because of how dangerous he is.
Meanwhile, Isaiah Livers has propelled himself into the top scoring threat in this offense to the delight of all those who expected him to do so. He has proved he can be consistent from behind the arc and drive into the key with force to score buckets.
Eli Brooks has made the biggest leap, as he is the second-best scorer on the team. He, too, has improved nearly every aspect of his game and looks confident when the ball is in his hands, which was lacking last season. If he can continue developing, he may just find himself as one of the best players in the Big Ten.
Then there is the German sharpshooter Franz Wagner. Like Livers, a lot was put on him as being one of the best shooters on this team even though we knew literally nothing about how his play was going to translate to the college game. So far, he has been good, but there is potential there for him to be great.
Last, but certainly not least, is the senior leader of this team both on and off the court. Zavier Simpson has struggled at times this season and we have seen his game fluctuate on the offensive end. But his defense is elite and he is the clear definition of a floor general. His composure is rock solid, and he nearly hit the shot that would have won the game against Oregon.
Howard also has a couple of solid rotation guys at his disposal with Brandon Johns Jr., David DeJulius and Colin Castleton, who have all showed flashes of being future starters.
I don’t think we have seen the best of this group yet this season, and there is still so much time for them to all grow in their knowledge of each other and in Howard’s coaching style. Quite frankly, it is close to a miracle they are 8-3 at this point due to the ridiculously difficult schedule they have played to open the season.
If you really think about it, two of their losses don’t even matter when it comes to the race for the Big Ten Championship. Right now they are 1-1 in the conference and have a huge meeting in the first week of the new decade with a Michigan State team that has shown some major flaws early on. That is going to be their first real test of where they rank in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines have a legitimate shot at competing with the top dogs in the Big Ten, and if you would have told me that at the beginning of this season with all of the question marks that this team had, I would be shocked. To ask much more of that at this point for a first-year (and first-time) head coach would be lunacy.
Howard’s start to his Michigan tenure has certainly been a success, and there is still so much season to play. Judgement on a 1-3 streak against four solid opponents needs to be limited, if not eliminated. They are on the right course to being a contender for the Big Ten and beyond.