The Michigan Wolverines are off to a 7-4 start to the season after being the No. 6 team in the country to open up the 2021-22 campaign. After Tuesday’s game against Purdue Fort Wayne was canceled due to COVID concerns, only one game remains before Juwan Howard and his team attempt to reclaim the Big Ten Championship as conference play takes over in the near future.
To get there, this team certainly needs to improve in specific areas to compete with some elite talent that the Big Ten possesses again this year. Let’s evaluate what needs to change before conference play begins.
DeVante’ Jones adjusting to Power 5 play
Jones came in with high expectations coming off his Sun Belt Player of the Year season with Coastal Carolina last year. Now in Ann Arbor, he has struggled to find his groove in the offense and be the facilitator and floor general he was hoped to be.
Against Power 5 opponents, Jones has not had the same success as he has had against lesser competition. In the four games the Wolverines have played against the nation’s elite, Jones is averaging 7.5 points, 4 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 2.5 fouls per game while shooting 11-of-28 (39%) from the field and 1-of-8 (12.5%) from deep.
Jones has looked sporadic and rushed on the court at times, forcing bad shots and turning over the ball at a high clip. He also has had his fair share of foul trouble on the other end. Can Jones make adjustments and start figuring things out like Mike Smith did?
It seems like some of the puzzle pieces are coming together and he is starting to figure things out, but this Michigan offense needs him to be a leader. Too many times this season spacing has been an issue for the Wolverines and no one has stepped up to get the offense running when shots aren’t falling. Jones has to be the guy to take hold of the offense and be the coach on the floor.
He’s said he has spoken to both Mike Smith and Zavier Simpson about how he can continue to improve. Hopefully, their wise words will help him take that next step that will be necessary for Michigan to perform well in conference play.
Finding a reliable and consistent 6th man
Moussa Diabate has done enough to graduate from sixth man to starter in less than 10 games. Poor play from Brandon Johns Jr. on both ends has certainly helped, but Diabate's electricity, enthusiasm and athleticism have earned him a starting role.
Now there are several players vying for that first player off the bench role, but none have stood out the way Diabate had in his short stint as the sixth man.
The obvious choice would be Terrance Williams, who scored 22 points against Nebraska and 15 against Buffalo to open the year. However, he has also had two games where he has gone scoreless, both resulting in losses. Williams is at his best when he is confident with the ball and hitting shots behind the arc, but he has tendencies to get lost in the offense and try to do too much with or without the ball which causes poor spacing.
Johns can throw his name into the conversation as well, being able to play both positions in the frontcourt. But he has struggled mightily on the defensive end and is shooting just 44%. He has to play better if he wants to earn minutes on a team with this much talent.
A trio of guards will get sorted out shortly as Kobe Bufkin, Zeb Jackson and Frankie Collins all continue to fight for minutes.
Jackson is the veteran of the group, but takes some bad shots and tries to do everything by himself when things aren’t going right. He’s played about 15 minutes in the Wolverines’ last two contests. He is a very skilled player and shooter in the right moments. If he can keep things under wraps, he will see considerable playing time this season.
Bufkin is coming off a Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor after scoring double-digits for the first time in his career in the win over Southern Utah. He needs to shoot the ball better from deep and look to pass more (just two assists on the season) in order to really start impressing.
Collins has seen the most minutes of the three guards to this point. A large reason for that stems from Jones’ struggles and Collins being the better pass-first guard of the three. He is actually third on the team in assists per game with 2.1 and has shown flashes of putting the ball in the hoop. More playing time will come with more confidence from the freshman in his scoring abilities.
One of these five will have to take a leap in order to be the sixth man and be a reliable source off the bench. To this point, none have been able to do so, but that will have to change as conference play begins.
Free throw shooting
The Wolverines are currently the worst free-throw shooting team in the Big Ten. As a team, they have hit just 66.8% of their free throws, which is 265th in the country. A top team in the country can’t shoot at that clip from the line.
It doesn’t help Diabate and Hunter Dickinson are a combined 28-for-50 from the line, which accounts for a quarter of the team’s free throws. But guys like Jones (12-for-19) and Collins (7-for-19) just have to be better from the charity stripe.
Games in the Big Ten often come down to the wire, and hitting free throws with consistency can be the difference-maker down the stretch. If the Wolverines are going to repeat as Big Ten Champions this season, it could come down to better play from the line.