The Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball team has been struggling on the court for well over a month to this point and it has fans pointing fingers in every direction with some already starting to question Juwan Howard’s ability to lead.
Personally, I do not fall into that category and think leadership on the coaching staff is the least of this team’s worries, but that does not mean he is totally off the hook for what has been going on. We give a lot of leeway to first-year coaches in transitional years, but efforts like the one on Wednesday night against Penn State are tough to swallow.
Michigan’s current issues go beyond just hoping for one of their stars to return from injury. Here’s a power ranking on what feels like holds them back the most right now.
1a. Effort and understanding
I couldn’t decide which one of these was more important than the other, so we will go with the largest of the evils of late. The effort on Wednesday night was as underwhelming and as frustrated a team as we’ve seen this season. Few players seem confident or sure of themselves in anything they do right now on either side of the court, especially defensively. Lack of communication was a popular phrase used by Howard and a few of his players backed that up after the game.
At the end of the day if guys on Jan. 22 aren’t playing hard enough and are not grasping things they have repped all season long, that is on both coaching and players. Who you decide to put more blame on is up to you, but Howard has to change something up to get them back on track and at least comfortable in their own skin again.
1b. Shots just aren’t falling
Maybe we are overanalyzing everything and it is as simple as the ball just going through the hoop. You can question a lot of things right now, but not Howard’s ability to create wide open and good opportunities for his guys from the perimeter. They simply aren’t going through and outside of a good week down in the Bahamas, they really have not consistently throughout the year. The slump as of late has been particularly alarming, but segues into our next point.
2. Isaiah Livers still has not returned
Livers might be the most valuable player in the Big Ten simply based on what Michigan has looked like without him on the floor. He has remained a vocal presence while out for the last six games with a groin injury, but his talent on the wing is a giant hole the Wolverines have been unable to fill. He is shooting 50.9 percent from the floor on the season and making 50 percent of his shots from beyond three-point range. Nobody else on this roster is close to capable of that right now.
Fans are seemingly starting to get frustrated with Livers himself for continuing to sit out. Groin strains take anywhere from two to six weeks to heal depending on the severity. Saturday will be five weeks since he suffered the injury. Given that we seem to be on the longer end of the spectrum here, there was likely a minor tear somewhere and that simply takes time to heal. Once it’s healed, then you need another week or so to get back into basketball shape.
It’s unfair to him that a portion of this fanbase thinks he’s protecting himself because there’s no player on this roster that wants to be out there more right now than he does. It just takes time and Howard wants to see him at least go through a practice once or twice before pulling the trigger. This is entirely on the training staff and then how the coaching staff chooses to move forward.
3. Howard has to counter-adjust
Michigan roared out of the gates to start this season and nobody could have saw the quick start coming in Howard’s first year. But now that the book is out on them, coaches in the Big Ten have adjusted and now Howard has to adjust back. He is limited by some of the parts he was left on this roster, but when effort and understanding from players comes into question, he has to wear that and he is wearing that. The margin of error is shrinking with a record of 2-5 in conference play and the Wolverines turning it around might have to come from Howard pushing some different buttons with rotations, responsibilities, etc.
4. Bench production is shrinking
Zavier Simpson had to play all 40 minutes on Wednesday night and that sort of usage is going to wear him down, especially with the weight that is on his shoulders this year. But this team goes as its point guard goes and they look lost even with him on the floor at times, slowing down to watch and see what play their point guard is going to make. Teams in this conference don’t fear him and that’s why they let him shoot.
This could be offset but some more support from the bench as a whole, but it just is not there right now. Outside of David DeJulius, they are getting next to nothing from their reserves and usually when they come in, the starters check back in with a bigger deficit than what they left with. Adrien Nunez began the season as a starter (admittedly because Franz Wagner was out) and Colin Castleton was expected to have a bigger role, but both have been non-factors as of late and neither played on Wednesday. Austin Davis is a fine player that works hard and gives them good minutes from time to time, but there’s a dropoff when he’s out there.
5. The talent level is what it is
All of this kind of leads to the last point, which is the one that might be the most important of all, but does not pertain to this current group because they cannot control it.
At the end of the day, the roster is what it is and the limitations are what they are. Coming into the year, we knew this would probably be a fringe tournament team and outside of a few days in the Bahamas, the play on the court has resembled just that. It’s going to take take for Howard’s vision to come into focus and next year sees a lot of very young and talented faces coming to Ann Arbor.
That said, there are a handful of real things holding back this current group from reaching its ceiling, which may just be a team that can get in and win a tournament game potentially. We won’t use the talent as an excuse for them because we’ve seen enough to suggest this group, when firing on all cylinders, certainly has the ability to reach that goal.