clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Michigan ended up as an NIT-level team

It was a season to forget for the frustrating Wolverines.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines entered 2022-23 with reasonable hopes. The previous season was far from perfect with an 11-9 Big Ten record and early conference tournament collapse, but a fifth-straight Sweet 16 appearance helped make the previous campaign feel rosier when viewed in its entirety.

Out went four key contributors in the offseason and in came some talented, but not blue-chip freshman and a couple veteran transfers, leading to a No. 22 preseason ranking nationally and a third-place Big Ten finish as projected by the media. Both of these rankings felt fair and were marks that would likely put the team in position to make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament yet again.

What transpired instead is still difficult to completely explain, even though it has been a consistent theme for the past three months. This Michigan squad is talented enough to compete with just about any team still playing in March, but there is a reason it will be missing the Big Dance for the first time in eight years. As painful as it is, perhaps a quick dive into the Wolverines’ biggest shortcomings will help us put this experience in the ground for good.

Point guard growing pains

Michigan seemed to have the strategy figured out, introducing a new battle-tested point guard into Ann Arbor whenever the need arose. Jaelin Llewellyn was set to be the next Mike Smith and DeVante Jones, but after a pretty choppy start to his tenure, he was abruptly lost for the year before Big Ten play even started.

No team can really prepare for a loss like that, but this was essentially the worst possible situation for the Wolverines. With Frankie Collins deciding to transfer, young Dug McDaniel was suddenly handed the reins. The freshman did his best and certainly matured throughout the year, but it was extremely evident that Michigan was going to be limited by the lack of experience from the most impactful spot on the floor.

It feels unnecessarily cruel to criticize McDaniel, but objectively he simply was unequipped for this task. Michigan had a very inexperienced roster, and it was painful watching the offense (attempt to) operate without any real plan. The point guard shot an abysmal 39 percent from two, and while he hit some fun midrange jumpers down the stretch, overall he was not a good offensive player.

The Wolverines needed a leader and a ball facilitator, and even if Llewellyn was a step down from his predecessors, it is hard to envision him not significantly surpassing McDaniel’s numbers. While the young backcourt pairing with Kobe Bufkin really stepped up down the stretch, it was just not enough to get this offense up to where it needed to be.

Defensive effort

The blame cannot be put just on that end of the floor, however. The Wolverines defense was a letdown in more subtle ways, consistently collapsing at inopportune moments. Advanced metrics consider this unit one of the better ones in the Big Ten, and there were definitely some impressive stands throughout the year, but it feels like a major stretch to call this side of the ball a strength.

The biggest issue was that the vast majority of Michigan’s starters fall anywhere from below-average to absolutely terrible defensively. McDaniel is clearly undersized, Bufkin is far from polished, but Jett Howard was the poster child for this team’s defensive challenges. Without strong individual contributors, it was no surprise that the unit as a whole was often victimized far too easily.

What makes this so frustrating was how these faults were routinely exploited. The Wolverines would go stretches seemingly uninterested in defensive rebounding or properly defending ball screens and outside shooters. Numerous times you could see heads drooped and players bickering after easy baskets, and it really feels like this comes down to effort and coaching. Again, the overall metrics were actually pretty sound, but anyone watching this team would have much different feelings than the numbers would suggest.

Shallowness and stubbornness

If the offense struggled and the defense showed weaknesses, then some of the blame has to fall on the coaching staff. Juwan Howard could not have planned for his veteran point guard to go down so early or star player to regress a bit, but it was still baffling to see just how bad this team played when it mattered most.

Howard routinely played the bench unit for extended stretches, even after the point differential swung significantly in the wrong direction, and this became a standard nearly every game. Injuries forced his hand throughout the year, but his lack of plan at the power forward position was a huge negative for this team and was never really resolved.

After last season’s fiasco in Madison, Howard spent the offseason determined to mature a bit, especially with a second son now joining the team. To his credit, he did seem to be more disciplined, but he now enters this next offseason with even bigger questions in front of him; another poor season will definitely raise the temperature of his seat, and that feels completely justified after whatever this year was.

Looking ahead

What do you do with a team that felt capable of winning nearly every big game it was in (because it was often leading in the final 10 minutes...), yet ended with a 3-7 record in Quad 1 opportunities? Surely there is an element of bad luck here, and Michigan is unlikely to ever drop so many close calls again, but it really feels like this team just needs to hit the reset button.

Next season’s roster is likely to look much different, with Howard, Bufkin, and Hunter Dickinson all potential departures and perhaps some transfer activity again. This means Juwan will need to once more take an incomplete group of players and figure out how to get the most out of them, hopefully finding a better fit that this season’s bunch, really testing his coaching abilities.

In terms of talent alone, it is hard to see the 2023-24 Wolverines as an improvement over right now, yet the expectations have to be higher than this year’s output. It will come from some regression to the mean, better coaching, and improved effort on the court, hopefully making this season a bad blip that is quickly forgotten.

It was a frustrating year that felt like a never-ending sea of missed opportunities, but Michigan has no one to blame but itself. Instead of complaining and lamenting about what could have been, it now has the responsibility to make sure that this combination of afflictions does not come up again.