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Caleb Houstan’s play is key to deeper NCAA Tournament run

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The five-star needs to play like a five-star for Michigan to make it far.

Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Many debated for weeks leading up to Selection Sunday if the Michigan Wolverines were worthy of an NCAA Tournament spot. Even here at Maize n Brew, we went back and forth on teams that could and potentially should have been in the NCAA Tournament above them.

Seeing their name called and not even being a play-in seed was surprising, to say the least, after a meltdown against the Indiana Hoosiers in the Big Ten Tournament left their status up in the air.

Before the Colorado State game in the Round of 64, news broke that point guard DeVante’ Jones would be absent due to concussion protocols. Jones would also leave very early in the second round matchup against Tennessee.

Everything seems to have been stacked against the Wolverines for weeks now. Yet somehow, they won some big games at the end of their season without their head coach and have emerged through some tough seeding into their fifth straight appearance in the Sweet 16.

Few have doubted Michigan’s potential for the majority of the season. Heck, its ceiling is exactly why it made the tournament in the first place. When the Wolverines play well, they can hang with the best teams in the country. Even so far in this tournament, I think it is safe to say we have not seen the best Wolverines’ squad for a complete 40 minutes of action.

The reason why this team has so many believers is because of the experience they have in guys like Eli Brooks and Hunter Dickinson, but also for their young and emerging freshmen like Moussa Diabate, Frankie Collins and Caleb Houstan.

Collins had his shining moment in the first round against Colorado State where he dropped a career-high 14 points. Moussa Diabate has been a relatively solid player for the majority of the season, showing flashes in the pan of being a star.

But the one guy everyone continues to wait upon is the guy who was supposed to be the crown jewel of this recruiting class for the Wolverines: Caleb Houstan. Now, he is the unequivocal key to Michigan making an even deeper run in this tournament.

Down against Colorado State in the second half, Michigan needed a jumpstart. The offense was faltering and Dischon Thomas was white-hot from deep. With the season on the line, Houstan’s play was the difference. The true freshman hit three three-pointers in five minutes span, and Michigan took its first lead of the game with about 10 minutes left.

Howard met with the media on Friday and discussed just how important that stretch was:

In the second half, he made some really good plays and also some big shots that we needed, the key to our run. Sprinting in transition, which he’s worked on all year, being able to stop on balance and shoot a three with a hand that’s flying at you. That’s not easy. Also coming off a dribble hand-off and stopping on a dime, and then being able to get downhill and being able to grow in that area and wanting to grow in that area... I see great things happening for him with the game of basketball while he’s here at Michigan and also when he goes on and hopefully plays at the NBA level, which I think he has a chance to.

The crazy thing is the Wolverines beat Tennessee without Houstan being a threat on the offensive end. He was 0-for-4, finished with zero points and had two turnovers. Unfortunately, there have been too many performances like this throughout the season that has left Michigan fans shaking their fists at the sky.

That’s because we all have witnessed how much better this team can be when Houstan is playing with confidence and knocking down shots. When the true freshman shoots over 50% from behind the arc this season (even if it is just 1-for-2), Michigan is 9-2.

The last time that happened was in the win over Michigan State at the Crisler Center earlier this month when he went 2-for-2 from three-point territory. Other wins where Houstan has accomplished this feat came against Rutgers, Purdue, Indiana and SDSU, all of which were NCAA Tournament teams.

So what exactly happened in those games once Houstan got hot? Let’s take a look:

87-70 win over MSU

  • Houstan drills three-pointer to take a 9-6 lead with over 17 minutes remaining in the half
  • Michigan goes on a 19-5 run and takes 44-28 lead into halftime
  • Houstan’s stat line: 16 points, four rebounds, 4-of-7 from the field

71-62 win against Rutgers

  • Michigan takes a two-point lead into halftime
  • Tied at 38, Houstan hits three-pointers on consecutive possessions
  • The Wolverines go on a 21-7 run in a seven-minute span and close out the game strong
  • Houstan’s stat line: 21 points, three rebounds, 6-of-12 shooting (5-for-9 from deep)

80-62 win at Indiana

  • Michigan opens the game on a 14-5 run following two Houstan threes in the opening six minutes
  • Wolverines cruise to a 38-30 advantage at the half
  • Seven points for Houstan in a 14-6 run to open up the second period
  • Houstan’s stat line: 19 points, six rebounds, 7-of-14 from the field (5-for-7 from deep)

72-58 win vs SDSU

  • Michigan trailed halfway through the first half 13-12
  • Houstan three-pointer sparked a 16-5 run that gave Michigan a 10-point advantage
  • Houstan’s stat line: 17 points, five rebounds, 6-of-10 from the field (4-for-5 from deep)

Simply put, Houstan’s shooting has been and can continue to be a game-changer for this team. They were a borderline tournament team for the majority of the season but if Houstan is hitting shots with consistency, his play can easily change the course of games against high-quality opponents.

If you needed even more data to prove the value of his offensive performance, Michigan is 11-6 when Houstan converts on multiple three-pointers in a game and 12-5 when he scores in double-digits. Typically, those two go hand-in-hand.

Throughout the history of the NCAA Tournament, there are too many cases of a guy just getting hot and willing his team to a championship. Ironically, it happened to Michigan when Villanova six-man Donte DiVincenzo dropped 31 in the National Championship in 2018. He went from a second-rounder to a near lottery pick by the Milwaukee Bucks for his play late in the season.

If Houstan could just stack a couple strong performances together, who knows how far he and the Wolverines could go.