On Jan. 29, following a brutal 83-61 demolishing at the hands of the Penn State Nittany Lions, Wolverines fans undoubtedly felt like the Michigan men’s basketball team had hit rock bottom.
With an overall record of 11-10, a .500 conference tally that put them in the tail end of the standings and a paltry 1-3 record in their last four games, the resume was starting to trend away from the Wolverines’ favor even for the NIT, let alone the big dance.
Times were getting desperate — not just for the fans, but the team, too. And it’s that desperation several Michigan players claim is the formula to turn it all around.
“I think we’re more dialed now,” graduate transfer Joey Baker said Sunday. “We’re preparing for these teams knowing that our back is against the wall, that we have to put together wins. And so when you have that, it changes some things. Our focus is there in a way that it wasn’t in games prior. It’s — we’re desperate. Those loose balls mean more when your back is up against the wall.”
It’s hard to argue with the results — a 17-point victory against the Northwestern Wildcats and an 8-point win against Ohio State speak for themselves. But besides the obvious barometer of success that comes with reading a final score, the Wolverines have made strides in the margins of the box score as well.
Against Purdue and Penn State, Michigan was out-rebounded, 70-53, while also giving up 15 turnovers, including 10 steals. In their two-game win streak, the numbers have flipped — with the Wolverines having 75 total rebounds to their opponents’ combined 69, while also lowering their turnovers and steals given up.
“Our team, it really looked like they were ready from the jump-ball,” Juwan Howard said. “You can just see the energy on the defensive end, and then you look at the box score, it just really shows we’re dialed in. Every shot that Ohio State took or every drive to the basket, they saw bodies or shots were contested.”
When asked about Baker’s “back against the wall” comment specifically, Howard emphasized more about the process of players trusting each other.
“When you’re coaching in college as well as any level, the key is with however your culture is built on or whatever you believe gives your team the best chance to win,” Howard said. “You gotta have trust in it, and your team has to understand and believe it as well. It takes a little time for it to develop, and you can see programs with a lot of freshmen, it’s a process.”
In either case, it’s clear Michigan needs to keep going back to whatever has sparked this late-season push. While the two straight victories have certainly helped buy time to build a case to the selection committee, a string of high profile games in the coming weeks will be the true deciding factor where the Wolverines spend their spring.