There is no clear answer for the Michigan Wolverines right now. A .500 record in conference play and a barely over .500 record for the season feels extremely appropriate as this team feels ok but not nearly good enough. Most losses will not be as ugly as the disaster at Penn State, but at some point moral victories are just losses as well.
With 10 games left on the schedule, Michigan is probably well past the tipping point. Nothing is every truly out of reach in college basketball, but it completely fair to put the microscope on Juwan Howard and see how he closes out the year. The Wolverines lack depth, and arguably do not even have a complete starting lineup, but how he deploys what pieces he has could say a lot about the future.
The team’s next test is at the Northwestern Wildcats, who have been on a roll since losing in Ann Arbor. Road struggles have been an issue for the Wolverines, and this is going to be a real challenge against one of the best teams in the Big Ten (somehow). The schedule keeps serving up Quad 1 opportunities, but each time Michigan has refused; maybe that finally changes Thursday.
Michigan Wolverines (11-10, 5-5) at Northwestern Wildcats (15-6, 6-4)
Date & Time: Thursday, Feb. 2, 7 p.m.
Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, IL
Big Ten Standings: UM 9th, NW 4th
The offense is supposed to be the functioning part of this team, but even that has slowed down with some pretty mediocre performances as of late. The one that stands out happens to be against the No. 1 team in the country — and without Jett Howard — so taking away that effort makes the rest look even dicier.
While all is not lost, it feels like at least a little attention must be given to 2023-24 at this point. Dug McDaniel and Kobe Bufkin are growing a ton with no true alternatives available, and next year their roles could be even bigger, so continuing to build around their games makes a ton of sense. Hunter Dickinson should probably be gone, same with Jett, so while they remain the best two players on the offense, developing the younger guards needs to be a priority as well.
Northwestern has a weird profile with a top-30 defense nationally, but bottom-half in-conference numbers. In the first matchup, the Wolverines shot lights out, including from behind the arc (10-for-22), and this has been the case for many of the Wildcats’ Big Ten opponents. This seems like a good chance for the offense to break out of its funk.
All hands on deck
On the flip side, Northwestern’s offensive metrics are much better in the conference, and that is not an encouraging sign for the visitors. Raining threes is less likely to be a problem as it was against Penn State, but still the Wildcats do shoot better behind the arc than inside it, so Michigan absolutely cannot be lazy here.
As mentioned above, the last couple months of the season should continue to be good learning opportunities for the younger players. This has not been the level of defensive performance that anyone wanted or expected, but getting the younger guards and Tarris Reed more reps together now could go a long way next season.
This is a game that Michigan absolutely can win, but it simply has not done so yet this season. Most often, small things end up being too big of a hurdle to overcome, whether that be an untimely run or various foul issues. It would be great to finally get a needed quality win, but at this point that feels wishful more than anything.