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Season in Review: Michigan basketball overachieved in NCAA Tournament following disappointing regular season

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The regular season will be labeled a disappointment, but reaching the Sweet 16 is a big accomplishment.

Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

When the Michigan Wolverines hired Juwan Howard, it was pretty clear things were going to be run differently in the recruiting department. The revival of the Fab Five era promised flashiness, passion and superior talent.

Unfortunately, that was the definition of the 2021-22 team. Their potential was high but they never were the team they could have been.

Bringing back Eli Brooks and Hunter Dickinson, taking in the Sun Belt Player of the Year in DeVante’ Jones through the transfer portal, and getting the No. 3 overall recruiting class, according to 247Sports, caused a whole lot of hype. Coming into the season as the No. 4 team in America, expectations were sky high, as they should have been following an Elite Eight run the year prior.

Jones was supposed to come in to replace Mike Smith seamlessly. Many believed Jones was a better player, but it took him a while to get there. He struggled mightily with the superior play that comes with playing in the Big Ten. That adjustment was made throughout the course of the season, but it was a huge reason why the Wolverines opened the season 7-7.

Not all the blame falls on Jones though. The No. 3 recruiting class did not keep their end of the deal either. Caleb Houstan was one of the streakiest Michigan players this season. When he was on, he was a sniper from deep. But it wasn’t consistent and it took him time to become even a decent defender at the college level.

Houstan did get better as the year progressed, but he also went 0-for-4 with zero points in the Round of 32 win over Tennessee. When the Wolverines needed their best scorer to step up, he became a non-factor.

The other five-star in this class, Moussa Diabate, had a slightly different story. He came off the bench to open the season and earned himself a starting spot after just six games. The problem is he was never going to have the impact Houstan could have due to Dickinson being in front of him at the 5, and losing guys like Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers left a huge hole in scoring from the wings.

The rest of this freshman class showed flashes, especially late in the season. But overall, Kobe Bufkin never really did enough to give Howard confidence in giving him more playing time down the stretch. And while Frankie Collins looked really good in some postseason minutes, part of me wonders if he would have played anywhere near that much time if it weren’t for Jones’ injuries.

The same philosophy of mixing experience, freshman talent and transfers that came from the year prior was not successful in 2021-22. Luckily, this team started to vastly improve, just like Howard hypothesized, but it was too little too late.

Michigan couldn’t stack great wins together in a tough, physical and veteran Big Ten. The perfect example of this is the 5-5 record the team had at the end of the season where they alternated wins and losses.

But there were also some big wins and accomplishments along the way. The Wolverines shot the lights out of the gym in a huge 82-58 win over the No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers. They also beat good Rutgers and Michigan State teams at home. And maybe their most impressive feat was conquering the Ohio State Buckeyes in a win that sealed their tournament fate.

The Wolverines would go on to make the NCAA Tournament at the chagrin of many throughout the college basketball landscape. A 17-point collapse in the second half against Indiana in their first matchup in the Big Ten Tournament spelled an end to the season for many national pundits.

Not only did Michigan make the tournament, but they did so as an 11-seed against a non-Power 6 opponent in Colorado State. Yes, the Rams were a top-25 team, but it was a favorable matchup for the Wolverines who weren’t even a play-in seed despite being 17-14.

After beating Colorado State in the first round, many predicted a loss to Tennessee, one of the hottest teams in the country and the SEC Tournament Champs. But Michigan still got the best of the Volunteers because of 50 combined points between Dickinson and Brooks, the most consistent players on the squad. Stout defense also forced Tennessee to shoot only 2-of-18 from deep.

Even in a season where things didn’t transpire the way they were “supposed to,” and Michigan had a tumultuous and unforgiving ride through conference play, the Wolverines still made their fifth consecutive Sweet 16. They also outlasted all but Purdue in the nine tournament teams that came from the Big Ten.

With all the drama, disappointment and discomfort throughout the majority of the season, this team proved they were still a damn good basketball team when they decided to be.

The perfect culmination of the season was the last game of the year against a solid Villanova team in the Sweet 16. The Wolverines had every opportunity to win the game, and it actually felt like they were the better team pretty much from start to finish. However, a 7-for-14 performance from the free-throw line and 17 missed shots within three feet of the basket isn’t going to cut it against anybody.

All in all, it was a strong end to a mediocre season. But I think we all need to remember just where this program is at. Howard came in as a first-time head coach. Like this 2021-22 team, he has a lot of potential, but he also has a lot to learn.

I think it’s safe to say he has learned his lesson regarding the Wisconsin incident (and if he didn’t, he won’t be around long). But he also needs to construct rosters more efficiently and have more faith in his talent.

This team had loads of talent, but it was incohesive from start to finish. There is no doubt Howard put his best players in the starting lineup, but they took so long to adjust that they weren’t excelling at all times. If Houstan, Diabate and Dickinson all go to the NBA as some expect, Michigan will have five new starters in the starting lineup next season.

Howard’s start at Michigan has been extremely impressive, but it shows the ups and downs that come with his approach to building rosters. Sometimes, it will play out like last year where the Wolverines are one of the top teams in the country from start to finish. But that is not a conclusion each season, as this year showed. The positive is he got his team right when it mattered most in the NCAA Tournament. But more success from the start will only make the chances of another championship banner hanging from the rafters at the Crisler Center more plausible.