It was an unsatisfying ending to a spectacular season for the Michigan Wolverines when they fell in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament to the UCLA Bruins on Tuesday evening. After little sleep and a period of reflection on the year, certain things made this season special. In a year where the Wolverines were projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten Conference, they morphed into one of the best teams in the country. And against all odds, they had a tournament run that embodied that. Let’s go back and appreciate some of the highlights of the season that made this team so memorable.
5. Three-straight double-digit wins against ranked opponents
It was early on in the Michigan Wolverines’ season and Juwan Howard’s club was off to another hot start at 9-0. Still, they had not earned the respect of many national pundits as their best win of the season was an 11-point victory over an unranked Maryland squad.
Coming in at No. 16 in the country, the Wolverines wound up facing three-straight ranked opponents at the Crisler Center: No. 19 Northwestern, No. 16 Minnesota, and No. 9 Wisconsin. After this three-game winning streak, excitement was growing with fans around the program about just how good this Michigan team could be.
First was a blowout win over the Wildcats. Five Wolverines finished in double-figures as Michigan held a 29-point lead at one point in the game. Franz Wagner finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 blocks in arguably the most impressive game of his career.
Three days later, Minnesota came into Ann Arbor and met Hunter Dickinson for the first time. The true freshman center had his season-high of 28 points and had 8 rebounds to boot. The Wolverines defense suffocated the Gophers’ offense as they made only 32.4% of their shots in a Michigan 82-57 victory.
After a canceled game against Penn State due to COVID, the Wolverines had six days to prepare for their toughest test to this point in the season, the No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers. Michigan had moved up to No. 7 in the rankings and so ensued their first Top-10 battle of the season.
The Wolverines held the Badgers to a season-low of 54 points as Wisconsin shot 30.8% from the field. Wagner again had a killer performance with 15 points, 10 boards, and 4 steals. Michigan went on a 43-6 run at one point and annihilated the Badgers, 77-54.
It was the first time in NCAA history that a team defeated three-straight-ranked opponents by 19 points or more. Michigan was now on the map and they weren’t going anywhere.
4. Dismantling Florida State
Many analysts pointed to this game as the exit point for the Wolverines. Everything was against the maize and blue in their eyes: Michigan could handle their size, the Wolverines would miss Isaiah Livers in this one, the Seminoles were too long and too athletic, Juwan Howard was going to lose to his former mentor Leonard Hamilton.
It felt so good as a fan to watch the Wolverines completely pick apart Florida State at their own game. Plain and simple, Michigan was the better team. The MUCH better team. Hunter Dickinson, Austin Davis, and Brandon Johns Jr. completely controlled the paint with 50 points scored inside the free-throw line. FSU had 14 turnovers and was manhandled on both sides from start to finish. With the win, Michigan advanced to its fourth elite eight in 8 seasons.
Relive the Sweet Sixteen matchup:
3. The mayhem against Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament
The Terps and the Wolverines struck up quite a rivalry in the 2020-21 season. Maryland was none too happy that Juwan Howard poached Hunter Dickinson from Dematha High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, and both Howard and Dickinson had a little extra motivation to kick the snot out of the Terrapins.
This was the third time these two teams met with Michigan being victorious in the first two meetings. Maryland got off to a hot start and held a 36-24 lead with five minutes left in the first half.
Then, Michigan woke up. They stormed back and went on a 16-2 run to end the half thanks to some big buckets by Johns Jr. and went into the half with a 40-38 lead.
There was a lot of emotion from both sides in the winner take all, and after the Wolverines flipped a 10-point deficit to a 10-point lead, things got a little testy during a timeout between Howard and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon:
Here is the full sequence that led to Michigan head coach Juwan Howard being ejected during the last media timeout. pic.twitter.com/iN5H6ea6bc— Wes Brown (@W_Brown21) March 12, 2021
Howard was given a double-tech and was ejected, but Michigan didn’t let that faze them. They hung onto their lead and defeated the Terps 79-66, advancing in the Big Ten Tourney. Mike Smith had his best game as a Wolverines setting a Big Ten Tournament record with 15 assists and adding 18 points.
This will be a rivalry to watch going forward, especially if Hunter Dickinson hangs around another year.
2. Five-game win streak after a three-week pause due to COVID
Everyone was stunned after the Michigan Athletics Department announced an indefinite suspension after a student-athlete tested positive for the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19. That meant no practice, no team gatherings, and isolation for every member of the basketball program for at least two weeks.
After 23 days with no competition, the Wolverines traveled to Madison to face a Top-25 Wisconsin team. Of course, they struggled to open up the game after not being able to play for so long. Michigan trailed at half by 12, their largest halftime deficit of the season.
However, the team heated up in the second half. Wagner hit a couple of buckets in a row, they started to play through Dickinson, and the defense started to hold their own. Eventually, Michigan erased the lead and won the game, 67-59, holding the Badgers to just 20 second-half points.
Re-live the comeback:
That was just the beginning of the most special run of the season. After putting away a tough Rutgers squad, the Wolverines had a death valley ahead of them. A Top-4 matchup on the road against Ohio State, and meeting with Luka Garza and the No. 9 Iowa Hawkeyes.
Michigan went to Columbus and had their second-highest scoring output of the season in an exhilarating 92-87 win over the Buckeyes. Eli Brooks had a regular-season high of 17 points and Dickinson was a rebound shy of a double-double. The team once again had 5 players in double-digits in a game that went down to the wire. Re-watch the awesome performance:
The Wolverines returned home to welcome an Iowa squad that gave a lot of teams problems, but Michigan once again held their ground. Dickinson and the Michigan defense held Garza to just 16 points, tied for his second-lowest total for the season. The sharpshooting Hawkeyes were only 6-for-19 from deep giving Iowa their worst offensive performance of the season in a 79-57 drubbing. This win all but solidified the Wolverines’ chances of being a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan also handled a much inferior Indiana Hoosiers team to wrap up a 5-game winning streak after missing over three weeks of competition. It was the most thrilling stretch of games of the season, and it was the first time that they were being seriously considered as National Championship threats.
1. Big Ten Championship win over Michigan State
Following a loss to Illinois on their home floor, the Wolverines need to win one of their last two regular season games to ensure a Big Ten Regular Season Championship, both against the basketball program’s archrival, the Michigan State Spartans.
Although the Spartans were having a down year, every Michigan-Michigan State game for the last decade has been an absolute battle among two of the best programs in college basketball. This year fans were expecting no different, especially with the possibility of Tom Izzo’s squad squandering Michigan’s chances at a title.
Thankfully, Michigan wasn’t playing around. They jumped out of the gates to a 7-0 lead and never looked back. The Wolverines held the lead for the entirety of the game as the Spartans went 0-9 from behind the arc and shot just 36.4% from the field. Dickinson logged his fifth double-double of the regular season, and the Wolverines clinched their first Big Ten Championship since 2014.
Re-live the Championship-clinching game:
This team will go down as one of my favorite Michigan squads to watch. In a year where the Wolverines were destined for mediocrity, they rose to stardom and brought joy to so many in a time of despair due to COVID-19. Their passion, grit, and effort were on display in every game and their depth provided the consistency necessary for a successful season. It was such a unique blend of talent and experience that is going to be very difficult to replicate. Tuesday’s loss to UCLA was a tough one to swallow. But I will forever remember this team for their inspiring accomplishments when so much was going against them.