The 7-0 start and the dominance in the Battle for Atlantis (whose winner has won the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons) shot the expectations for the Michigan Wolverines to the moon. The team went from unranked to No. 4 in the country in the span of a week. It was a major high point of the season for Juwan Howard in his first stint as a head coach.
That success became innocuous as the fan base quickly began to consider that the transition from long-time head coach John Beilein to Howard would go just as smoothly for the entire season. Sadly, the harsh fate of reality struck rather quickly for Michigan and they have yet to attain the level of success they had on the islands for an extended period time under the new regime.
There are two main reasons why this year is especially difficult one for Howard to take over. First, he lost his most talented player for nearly a third of the season with the groin injury and re-injury in Isaiah Livers (which is still ongoing). Secondly, the Big Ten is the fiercest and most brutal conference in the country this season.
One of the most exciting players returning in the passing of the torch from Beilein to Howard was Livers. Lots of people projected that he would develop into the offensive star of this team in another collegiate offseason of growth, and he did exactly that. Livers went from sixth-man to frankly the best overall player on this roster.
Before his injury, Livers was the leading scorer on the team and was a highly efficient player in Howard’s offense. He shot 50 percent from deep and really helped spread the floor as a shooting threat at the forward position.
After Livers went down in the Presbyterian game, the offense wasn’t the same. Losing a player of his magnitude completely shook up the offensive flow. In the 11 games Livers has missed, the offense went from 39 percent to 31 percent shooting from behind the arc. His points and production on both sides of the ball have been deeply missed in a team that has been grasping for a star to step forward in his absence.
The timing could not have been worse for Howard and his team as they really hit the bulk of Big Ten season without their best player. Mind you, this Big Ten Conference has 12 teams in the top-50 of the Net Rankings.
That much quality competition in the Big Ten has really hurt some very good basketball teams. Michigan and Ohio State went from Top-5 teams to unranked within a matter of weeks as the Big Ten has continuously beat up on each other all season.
This conference may be the best that it has ever been and it’s just unlucky that Howard got drawn this hand in his first year as a head coach. There have been several hiccups along the way because every game takes everything out of this team.
What is very promising though is that despite the injuries and extremely tough schedule, Michigan has been right there in so many games. Losses vs No. 10 Oregon, at Minnesota, at Iowa, vs No. 21 Illinois, and most recently against OSU are the difference makers this year. Those five defeats have a point differential of just 21 points and each of them was neck-and-neck down the stretch. A couple of things go differently (like having your most talented scoring threat) and there is a much different outlook on this season as the Wolverines swing from 18-4 to their current status of 13-9.
The fact that Michigan has been so close in so many games without their top player gives me hope going forward. It seeming more and more likely that this is not the year for this team to even have a shot at dancing, but you can’t deny how close they are which makes it hurt the most. If just a couple of things go differently and injuries didn’t happen there would be a lot more praise for Howard and his staff for the incredible jobs they have done this season on and off the court.
With the talent that is on the way for the Wolverines, there is only more to hope for. Howard has kicked butt on the recruiting trail and is going to be revitalizing this roster with some of the top recruits in the nation from here on out. This program is on its way onward and upward, even if they have to leave a “failure” of a season in the past.