The Wolverines still have some work to do to get into the tournament; most bracketologists have them on the outside looking in. It really hurts their case they are 3-10 in Quad 1 games and have losses to bubble teams like Wisconsin, Penn State and North Carolina.
In order to earn a tournament bid — which they’d have a lot better chance of if they beat Illinois and Indiana this week and won a game in the Big Ten Tournament — the Wolverines need to keep playing great on both ends and rely on Kobe Bufkin, who is easily Michigan’s most improved player and has probably been their best player in the month of February.
19-year-old southpaw Kobe Bufkin has put together an impressive February for Michigan, displaying a slithery smooth shot-creation arsenal while comfortably operating out of screens and showcasing promising defensive potential at 6-foot-4. pic.twitter.com/5ORRxfpxDn— League Him (@League_Him) February 24, 2023
Bufkin’s transformation on both ends of the floor has been incredible to watch. He went from a role player who barely played last year to being one of Michigan’s most reliable players in the second halves of games.
He’s scored 20 points or more five times this season, including a career-high 28 in the overtime win against Wisconsin Sunday. He’s averaged 13.4 points per game and has been incredibly hot lately, scoring 13 points or more in Michigan’s last eight games.
Michigan is 6-2 in that stretch, and a big reason is for Bufkin coming into his own as a scorer. He’s gotten much better as a three-point shooter (22.2% last season, up to 34.7% this season) and has developed a nice game from mid-range, including a beautiful pull-up late against Wisconsin (1:02 in the clip below).
Kobe Bufkin w/ a career high 28 PTS. Legitimate 1st round talent. Showed off his scoring touch, shot is incredibly smooth, effective live dribble passing, excellent REB, and DEF was solid (needs to clean up the footwork). He also has one of the best hesi moves in the country. pic.twitter.com/NYVZKRLx9q— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) February 27, 2023
Out of all of the Wolverines on this team, Bufkin is probably the best at getting to the rim. He’s able to do that by using his shiftiness to get ahead of his defender before finishing reliably at the rim.
Kobe Bufkin strong drive and finish through traffic for Michigan pic.twitter.com/zmCU7r9XNz— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) February 26, 2023
His teammates have taken notice to a shift in mindset offensively.
“He’s just being super aggressive getting downhill,” Dickinson said of Bufkin after the Wisconsin win. “I draw so much attention in the pick-and-roll — bigs aren’t really helping too much. If he just sweeps in and (stays) aggressive, he’s got a lot of good chances to score. He’s been really aggressive, he makes crazy shots all the time, look at the Michigan State one. I think he’s just really come into his own out there offensively, but also defensively. He’s one of our best defenders as well.”
To take it a step further, you could make a case Bufkin is Michigan’s best defender, especially on the ball. His long arms and quick foot speed helps him stay in front of ball handlers before swiping the ball away. He leads the Wolverines with 38 steals and averages 1.3 per game. He’s an incredibly smart defender and you can see him communicating quite a bit, two things that have helped Michigan get stops in these recent wins.
Kobe Bufkin with solid defense resulting in a block— Ersin Demir (@EDemirNBA) February 26, 2023
Reads the screen very well as Rutgers plays 4-on-5, leaving him enough room to stay with the ball handler rather than to switch
Only player in college with:
Block % ≥ 2;
Steal % ≥ 2;
Free Throw % ≥ 0.83;
FG% at rim ≥ 0.69. pic.twitter.com/TDgYFSFUOc
NBA teams and writers have taken notice of these improvements as well. Bufkin has skyrocketed up draft boards, showing up in the first round of a 2023 mock draft by The Athletic and as a lottery pick in a 2024 mock draft by ESPN.
Bufkin has taken the sophomore leap we see elite guards in college basketball make, and he may want to capitalize on that and stay in the draft after this season. If he comes back to Michigan, I’d be interested to see how he could improve even more.
However much longer Bufkin is a Wolverine, two things are for certain — he’s a damn good basketball player and if he keeps playing as well as he has in February, Michigan’s tournament dreams could become reality.