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Column: Even if shorthanded, Michigan basketball’s starters have to be better to compete in the Big Ten

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There is little going well for the Wolverines this season.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2021-22 season, hopes were exponentially high for the Michigan Wolverines. Sure, they lost some key contributors from their Elite Eight run the season prior, but two starters in Eli Brooks and Hunter Dickinson were coming back. Those two were supposed to be good enough as a talented group of true freshmen and a Group of 5 star point guard transfer caught their grips playing at the next level.

But if you have been following this team throughout their 7-6 start to the season, you know it couldn't be further from the truth.

Brooks and Dickinson have been holding their own, but they have had nowhere near the help they need to get things rolling for this team. That all came to a head against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights Tuesday night. Dickinson dropped 25, but the Wolverines had a horrid performance in Piscataway that resulted in a 75-67 win for the home team; Rutgers’ first win in program history over Michigan.

The Wolverines were without several role players including Brandon Johns Jr., Frankie Collins, Terrance Williams and Jaron Faulds due to “medical reasons,” and Zeb Jackson for a “personal matter.” True freshmen Isaiah Barnes and Will Tschetter are expected to be redshirted, so only Kobe Bufkin, Jace Howard and Adrian Nunez were available off the bench.

“All hands on deck,” Howard said after the game, “With the eight guys, I felt we had plenty to go out here and compete and get a victory. Unfortunately, we came up short. But I love how all eight guys competed tonight.”

However, for what feels like the millionth time this season, the starting unit didn’t do enough to keep this game competitive. Midway through the second half, the Scarlet Knights held a 17-point lead and Michigan never led from start to finish. Each starter played more than 30 minutes, so it shows how disjointed this Michigan team is.

Postgame, Howard said the team, “practiced all week without those guys that aren’t here. We had really good prep leading up to this moment”

So how does this team continue to flop despite good prep and quality talent?

It starts with DeVante’ Jones, who came in as the Sun Belt Player of the Year. But for the second time this season, he was held scoreless in 31 minutes of play. His final stat line was zero points, two assists and one rebound. The Wolverines need him to be more involved in the offense and be a much better facilitator; they are 5-0 when he has more than five assists in a game this season.

But it’s not just Jones, as the true freshman in the rotation have also struggled all season long. Caleb Houstan has so much potential, which is why he was the No. 11 overall recruit in his class. He has good ball skills and displayed excellent shooting ability in high school, but he has been a liability on the defensive end this season by having to guard quicker and smaller guards. His shooting woes have also been well documented going 39-of-110 (35.5%) from the field in his first 13 collegiate games. A 20-of-64 (31.3%) mark from behind the arc has certainly done the team no favors, either.

Then we get to Moussa Diabate, who has become a fan-favorite quickly. He is capable of the spectacular, and wears his heart on his sleeve when he is on the court. He quite nearly had a double-double against Rutgers scoring 15 points and collecting nine rebounds, but he is just such a raw player. Brooks gives him constant direction of where he needs to be on offense, and his shot selection outside of the paint is questionable (see the last possession of the first half as an example). Spacing issues across the board are a problem for the Michigan offense, but Diabate is one of the top reasons for it when he and Dickinson share the court.

After fouling out of Tuesday night’s game, Diabate had to be restrained during the postgame handshakes and taken off the court by staff and teammates.

Howard made little of it after the game: “I’m not being an asshole when I say this, but I don’t have eyes behind my back. I turned around and saw some commotion behind me.”

Frustration is now boiling over for the Wolverines. They are 7-6 and have a tough schedule ahead of them with games against Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois on the horizon. A 7-9 record is certainly not out of the question at the season’s midway point.

Still, Howard is staying optimistic.

“It’s so easy to point things like ‘what is missing from this group: no leadership, no shooting, no defense,’” Howard said. “I see so many great things of what this team is going to become. I’m all in with this group. I have seen and heard coaches point the fingers at players, blame players, wonder who recruited them. You’ll never see that from me. I’m in the trenches with these guys, winning and losing. We’re family.”