Tuesday night’s loss was about as bitter a feeling as one could imagine for the Michigan Wolverines. Many expected the No. 1 seed in the East Region to cruise past UCLA for a spot in the Final Four, but the Bruins continued their March magic in a 51-49 victory.
Bearing witness to what happened on Tuesday night in Indianapolis was rough enough, let alone participating in it. The Wolverines fought off every bit of adversity that came their way this season but ran out of gas at the worst possible time. Despite this, there is a ton for this program to be proud of.
“It was a great run this year for this team, for this staff,” head coach Juwan Howard said after the game. “Very disappointing loss to end our season this way. I give a lot of credit to the UCLA Bruins, their head coach, players, for fighting hard to earn a victory to advance to the Final Four.
“It’s very disappointing for our guys, working extremely hard this year, coming down to, you know, one possession. And that’s how it goes sometimes. In the game of basketball, there’s one or two possessions that can really either help you or hurt you, and for us, we came up short.
“But I’m so proud of this group and how they competed all season long during some very difficult times, it’s been a very challenging year but at the end of the day, we all need to walk out of this building with our head up with nothing but humility, gratitude and dignity.
The first two seasons of the Howard era have come to unceremonious and surprising endings. He never had a chance to coach in the postseason in 2019-20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. This year, they sputtered with a chance to hang a Final Four banner in a game they were expected to win.
This season was better than last year by all accounts, but there is no solace being taken in that. Howard and his program say they will continue to push forward.
“There’s a lot to be proud of, and I am, and I know I can speak for the staff which I’m extremely proud of our staff on how we stay connected,” Howard said. “I’m also proud of the group how I felt we were one of the most connected teams throughout the season during a challenging time and I’m sure a lot of coaches in college basketball can say the same thing, too. You can learn a lot from this year, which I’m sure there’s a lot of things we’re going to take away and grow from.
“Our goal is to be better next year. We understand they are going to be, you know — some guys moving on because they are seniors. We are going to truly miss them. Whoever is returning, we are going to welcome. Newcomers that we are going to do our best to develop, which we pride ourselves on player development and growing guys in our culture.
“Our goal is to be prepared for next year, and this summer we are going to work extremely hard in preparing our guys, and then also in the fall so we can play for next season. But right now, it’s hard for me to start thinking about next year because right — on my brain, this game is very fresh. It’s going to be tough to sleep tonight, but I’ll get through it.
The makeup of next year’s roster is to be determined, but Michigan will be bringing in what currently projects as the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. There is a lot to sort out between now and November, especially with the explosion of the transfer portal as a roster-building option.
It will be tough to match the chemistry and togetherness of the 2020-21 Wolverines, but one hopes that it was a byproduct of the culture Howard has built as opposed to lightning in a bottle. Time will tell, but the pieces are all there.