On March 31, 2021, as Franz Wagner’s last-second 3-pointer clanked off the rim and UCLA players swarmed the court, a 51-49 loss on the doorstep of the Final Four painted the final image of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 2020-21 season.
The images preceding that final shot are far more positive. The team and the overall return of sports acted as a welcome distraction and escape from the grim reality of a world where COVID-19 forced everyone to wear masks, avoid seeing close friends and work remotely. Every week, Michigan games gave an otherwise barren campus an opportunity to feel a sense of normalcy, its white-hot play and the emergence of freshman center Hunter Dickinson as a bona-fide star helping the Wolverines become one of the biggest stories in the sport.
On April 13, 2020, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would believe that such an ending was possible at all. In the span of just under 24 hours, Michigan lost the nation’s 11th-ranked and 12th-ranked recruits, with guard Josh Christopher choosing to attend Arizona State and forward Isaiah Todd going back on his initial commitment to join the NBA G-League’s Ignite team. While Michigan still had the nation’s 40th-ranked prospect in Dickinson, many saw the loss of two top recruits and the program’s two winningest players in center Jon Teske and guard Zavier Simpson as a sign of a rebuilding year for coach Juwan Howard’s squad.
However, in the months leading up to the season, the Wolverines welcomed two transfers, graduate guard Mike Smith from Columbia and senior forward Chaundee Brown Jr. from Wake Forest. Neither man had made an NCAA Tournament in their collegiate careers, let alone won a game in a conference tournament. Looking for a chance to win, both Smith and Brown saw Ann Arbor as a destination where they could win. During the offseason, the returning Michigan players and coaches immediately made its new members feel part of its brotherhood.
“It’s really a family here,” Brown said on Nov. 2. “That’s what coach Howard touched on in my Zoom calls I had with him months before I committed that it was a family here, everyone gets along, laughing, giggling, everything like that. I’ve never had a team like this.”
Before the season tipped off, the Wolverines found themselves as one of seven Big Ten teams ranked in the AP Top 25 poll, coming in at No. 25. While it was ranked, few expected Michigan to be a team that would be in contention for a Big Ten title against the likes of powerhouses Iowa, Illinois and Ohio State. These concerns only grew when the Wolverines needed overtime and a 19-point performance from Dickinson to down Oakland. While the game appeared concerning on paper, Michigan used the narrow win as a learning experience.
“Chaundee made a comment, rather now than the Final Four or Sweet 16,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said after the game. “So that’s what I’m happy about, and we can learn from it.”
After the Oakland game, the Wolverines began to roll. Following an undefeated non-conference slate, Michigan started Big Ten play 5-0, featuring dominant wins against ranked foes Northwestern and Minnesota. Following a win over Wisconsin that featured a 43-6 run, Michigan had the look of a team that could compete with the best in the country.
“I know people had questions about us getting complacent after those first two wins, but tonight was a show that this is who Michigan basketball is,” Livers said following the win.
Even after a 23-day pause forced the team out of action, Michigan completed a 12-point second half comeback to take down the Badgers on the road. It followed that win with a victory in Columbus over Ohio State and a dominant win over Iowa in which Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza managed just 16 points on 6-for-19 shooting.
Of course, with more wins, expectations change. No longer were the Wolverines scrappy underdogs, but instead bona fide title contenders. And yet, those expectations were changed once again when Livers was lost for the season after suffering a stress fracture. The injury caused many to write the Wolverines off again. Their response? Advancing to the Elite Eight and beating the highest possible seed in each of the first three rounds to get there. Suddenly, the expectations were raised again.
“Coming into the season, we were picked to probably finish middle of the pack in the Big Ten, we were barely ranked in the Top 25, and now we’re a number one seed in the Elite Eight hoping to get to the Final Four,” Dickinson said before Michigan took on the Bruins. “It’s funny, how just everybody, once you own a couple games, everybody wants to act like you’re the best thing in the world.”
Of course, when most think back at the 2020-21 season, the first images that will be conjured up will inevitably be Wagner and Smith’s missed game-winners in the loss against UCLA. But this season should be remembered for so much more.
Smith may be remembered most for his miss, but he also led the Big Ten in assists with 5.4, transitioning from a score-first guard at Columbia to become a facilitator.
Wagner produced perhaps the worst shooting game of his career 1-for-10 shooting night, though throughout the year, the Wolverines saw the sophomore wing transform from a spot-up shooter to one of the Big Ten’s best two-way players, establishing himself as an elite finisher and one of the country’s most agile defenders.
While Dickinson missed a series of shots inside late, his freshman campaign featured a series of highlights en route to a Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, whether it be his dunk over two defenders in Columbus to punctuate a win over the Buckeyes or going toe-to-toe with the Hawkeyes’ Garza — and winning.
While Livers watched the final play unfold helplessly on the bench in a boot, his role as the Wolverines’ fearless leader during his time on the court saw him provide plays on both ends to spark key wins down the stretch time and time again.
And most importantly, don’t think about Howard as the coach whose offensive playcalling down the stretch wasn’t enough to produce a Final Four berth. In his second campaign, Howard led Michigan to a Big Ten regular season title, its first number one seed in an NCAA Tournament since 1993 when he was a player, and within one made-basket of a Final Four. Off the court, Howard is set to welcome the nation’s top recruiting class, headlined by five-star forwards Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabaté. For a team that was seen as nothing more than a middling contender in preseason, Howard has re-written the first chapters of the book that was out on him.
“The guys would tell you, from June I started talking about, (these are) championship habits,” Howard said following a win over Michigan State to clinch a Big Ten regular season title on March 4. “We’re gonna develop championship habits: how we practice, how we prepare ourselves, how we compete. There are gonna be some special things happening, but we have to go in and work hard at it. It’s not gonna be given to us. Our guys earned it. They earned this Big Ten championship by the belief they had for each other.”
In the fall, Michigan will hang a Big Ten regular season championship banner to the rafters. No matter what Howard may do the rest of his tenure, that first banner will always be there.
“I’m so proud of our group and how they fought so hard, not only in this ballgame but all season long,” Howard said following the game against UCLA.
So when you think about this year’s Michigan team, think not about how its ride ended but how it got there. In a year where fans weren’t allowed in the stands at all, this team produced one of the program’s best and most exhilarating seasons in recent memory. And it took them on a ride that, despite its final low and numerous valleys, featured a plethora of unimaginable highs.
Who can imagine what’s next?