The Michigan Wolverines were set to dominate this year. They returned their star center in Hunter Dickinson and welcomed in another elite transfer point guard in DeVante’ Jones. Along with a star studded freshmen class and Eli Brooks, who had been on three deep tournament runs, the Wolverines looked primed to repeat as a major contender for the National Championship.
There wasn’t an expectation they didn’t have, but few could have predicted how this season actually panned out.
The season was peculiar in the sense that it didn’t fully measure up to preseason hopes, but it still produced a Sweet 16 appearance, the fifth straight for Michigan. It wouldn’t be out of place to have expected less than that at multiple points during the regular season. The Wolverines dropped games where they shouldn’t have, blew leads and had meltdowns on more than one occasion. The disconnect between the preseason expectations and reality we saw was jarring. For a team ripe with talent, it seemed riddled with missed opportunities and let downs.
Michigan couldn’t string together two wins in a row in its last two months. There were many that questioned why the Wolverines were even there in the first place, and who could blame them? Michigan was 17-14 going into the NCAA Tournament and earned an outright 11 seed, beating out some pretty worthy competition.
The first positive takeaway from this season could only be described as “the rise to the occasion” we saw from those coming off the bench. The starters took up the majority of the minutes, but that didn’t mean they were without help. Out of sync or in a slump, Michigan could call on the bench and it was almost a guarantee someone would respond. Whether that fell to sophomores Terrance Williams II or Jace Howard, there was definitely a noticeable shift in energy when they came in.
Williams was huge down the stretch and answered the call when Michigan needed it. Most notably were his roles in Michigan’s victories over Ohio State and Tennessee. He came off the bench and played some formidable minutes while making game-altering shots. Howard was also instrumental in defensive stops and momentum shifts when the Wolverines were shorthanded during the regular season due to COVID-19 complications. To have individuals who have the experience and the patience to perform when they are called on is huge for the program.
Next would be the obvious visibility of improvement among the dazzling freshmen class. Frankie Collins came to Michigan with high expectations but like the majority of the incoming freshman, waited in the wings for his time to shine. Jones went down with an injury before Michigan’s game against Colorado State and on NCAA basketball’s biggest stage, Collins dominated in his starting debut and catapulted Michigan into the Round of 32. His performance in the postseason alone shows that point guard play is still in good hands for the seasons to come.
Kobe Bufkin made multiple appearances this year, playing 28 games and having the fourth-most minutes off the bench. He was electric on more than one occasion, but most notably was his effort against Iowa on the road by putting up 10 points to help get Michigan a huge victory. Together, Bufkin and Collins, along with Isaiah Barnes and Will Tschetter, have the ability to carve a clear path for the future of the Wolverines.
Perhaps the biggest positive of this season was the realization Michigan can churn out a tournament run to the Sweet 16 even when it has a topsy-turvy year. The Wolverines were around a .500 team and yet still found a way to make it to the second weekend of March Madness. Of the nine Big Ten teams to make the tournament, the Wolverines had the lowest win-loss percentage, yet were one of two Big Ten teams to have a Sweet 16 appearance.
Regardless of how they looked during the regular season, they still had what it took to compete in the postseason. They put to rest all of the doubts people had and made people realize they deserved to be there. Michigan can meet success as a No. 1 seed or as an 11 seed. It doesn’t matter what number is beside its name in the postseason because Michigan basketball is built for March and this year’s team went out and proved that.
The culmination of all the growing pains and lessons this team accrued will elevate them for the upcoming season. While some reliable and talented players will be making their exit, the younger men on the roster have the experience this season brought them so now they can start to form their own identity and goals.