It’s not common for a college basketball team to lose their three leading scorers, but it happened to the Michigan Wolverines following a disappointing 2022-23 season.
This program was on the precipice of being the bottom-feeders of the Big Ten when Jett Howard and Kobe Bufkin announced they’d be heading to the NBA Draft, and then Hunter Dickinson decided to enter the transfer portal.
What was left was a horrifically depleted roster with some serious leadership and positional flaws. It was entirely likely Dug McDaniel would be the only returning starter.
Howard needed answers. This program felt like it was at a breaking point. His “face of the franchise” departed without a peep, they missed the NCAA Tournament and it seemed like things were spiraling out of control.
So he went into the portal swinging and despite the backlash he’s received — which has been well deserved — he also deserves respect for what he has done since the season has ended.
It started with bringing in Numari Burnett, a former five-star prospect in the 2020 class, who Howard was really high on coming out of high school. While he had not found his footing at Texas Tech or Alabama, there is a glaring hole at guard now at Michigan, and Burnett could contend for a starting spot this fall. He could be a multi-year player in Ann Arbor in the most ideal scenario.
Then, a massive day came on Friday with two new commitments from the portal. The first was Detroit native Tray Jackson, a 6-foot-10 stretch 4; a perfect fit for the system Howard would ideally like to run. Last season, Jackson shot 37.5% from deep at Seton Hall while coming off the bench and scoring 6.5 points per game. Early assumptions are he will be a heavy contributor and has multiple years of eligibility.
Now, the key missing piece was a star. The guy who is going to take the shot and hit it when the game is on the line. And Howard got that guy in Caleb Love.
The former North Carolina Tar Heel is not the most efficient player, but point guards have been reigned in with Howard at the helm in the past. He is going to be the best player on the floor when he is shooting well and has sky-high potential. Love also has National Championship experience and can be a guy to lead this program that previously had few veterans that had seen success.
Last season, the Wolverines were down to McDaniel and Bufkin at guard following Jaelin Llewellyn’s season-ending ACL injury. Now, they boast Love, Burnett, Llewellyn, and McDaniel. The competition for two starting roles from that batch is going to be fierce, and there is a lot of talent in different areas out of that bunch.
If Baker returns, Michigan now has two players it can use to spread the floor on the wings and drill threes with consistency. I think the goal is to give Tarris Reed Jr. or whoever else may be playing in the post more room to operate and more space on the floor. The more shooters they have to surround a big fella on the inside, the better. I think Howard has done a much better job finding players that fit roles heading in 2023-24 than they had the year prior.
The question remaining here is talent, which is something they had a lot of last season. Will Howard be able to get the most of these guys? They fit his system better, but may not be as well-rounded as the players he had last season. It’ll be interesting to see how it all mends together over the next couple months.
This roster is also at 14 players with 13 scholarships, which means there are more moves coming. However that gets sorted out, Howard continues to be active in the transfer portal and is reaching out to more guys who could potentially be wearing maize and blue next season.
The fact of the matter is this roster, as it sits today, is far better than the bleak outlook that was staring at the program just one week ago. You have to give Howard credit for retooling this team. If this is truly a season where we see him on the hot seat — which I’m not entirely convinced of — you have to respect him for going out with nothing left on the table.