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Kobe Bufkin and Dug McDaniel are thriving as Michigan’s young backcourt

The Wolverines’ late surge is fueled by its underclassmen.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines have some work to do to make the NCAA tournament, but they’ve been on a roll lately, largely thanks to how well their starting backcourt of Kobe Bufkin and Dug McDaniel has been playing.

In Sunday’s win over Wisconsin, both young guards had 20 points and hit some clutch shots in the second half and in overtime to keep Michigan’s tournament hopes alive.

One trope analysts and TV personalities love to lean into this time of year is the importance of experienced backcourts; we’ve seen many teams make NCAA tournament runs thanks to the leadership of senior guards who have been around the college basketball block.

Michigan’s starting point guard is a 20-year-old freshman, and their starting shooting guard is a 19-year-old sophomore. They’ve combined to play 86 games in their collegiate careers, which isn’t a lot, but they are playing their best basketball at the right time.

Michigan’s on a three-game winning streak, and in those wins, McDaniel and Bufkin have combined to score 35, 30 and 48 points, respectively. That scoring burst out of the duo has been especially important with Michigan’s second-leading scorer — Jett Howard — sidelined the last 2.5 games.

The improvement we’ve seen from both these young guards is a testament to how hard they’ve worked, and shows how impressive Juwan Howard is as a developmental coach, getting the most out of his young players.

Bufkin has become one of Michigan’s most reliable scorers, and has played well enough to grab the attention of NBA draft analysts, many of whom see the Grand Rapids native as a first-round pick in 2023, or even a lottery pick in 2024.

His jumpshot has improved drastically, and he actually has the best shooting percentage at the rim in the Big Ten, a conference that includes two big men on the John Wooden Watch List in Zach Edey and Trayce Jackson-Davis and an All-American big man in Hunter Dickinson. (Props to The Wolverine’s Clayton Sayfie for digging up this stat).

Michigan has struggled to win close games all season, but with how well he has been playing in the second halves lately, it feels like the Wolverines have a puncher’s chance in every game now.

Bufkin’s running mate, Dug McDaniel, was thrust into the starting lineup after Jaelin Llewellyn tore his ACL in the loss to Kentucky. He had some great performances early as a starter, and is really finding his groove as of late.

If you would have told me in November that Michigan’s freshman point guard would lead the team in scoring in wins over NCAA tournament teams like Michigan State and Rutgers, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Those recent performances showcased McDaniel’s improvements as the season has gone along, as he’s gotten a lot more patient, still providing bursts of quickness while letting the game come to him.

Michigan has some tough match-ups to close out the year, as they face both Illinois and Indiana on the road before the Big Ten tournament. Winning at least one of those final two games is a must for Michigan’s NCAA tournament hopes, and winning a game or two in the Big Ten tournament would certainly help the Wolverines.

In order for Michigan to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament, Bufkin and McDaniel have to keep playing well together. If they keep getting 30-40 combined points and some clutch second-half buckets from the duo, the Wolverines can earn a few more Quad 1 wins and improve their tournament resume immensely.