The Michigan men’s basketball team has had no shortage of opportunities for résumé boosting wins; Seton Hall, Arizona, North Carolina, Central Florida and Rutgers. Yet, the Wolverines came up short every time.
Halfway into the season, Michigan sits just a game above .500, at 7-6. It’s treading water above a dangerous place, and with a brutal three-game stretch coming up against No. 10 MSU, No. 3 Purdue and Illinois, the Wolverines face the very real possibility of sinking below.
In every game, new problems seem to arise, defensive lapses litter the full 40 minutes and frustrations boil over. The swath of negatives that can be taken away from each game typically outweighs the miniature collection of positives.
But even still, Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s confidence is unshaken.
“It’s so easy to try and point out like, ‘What’s missing?’ ” Howard said after Tuesday’s loss to unranked Rutgers. “ ‘No leadership, no shooting, no defense.’ I have so much positive — I see so many great things.”
Howard’s sentiment came after one of the Wolverines’ lowest moments of the season thus far. Michigan fell behind by double digits early, leaving the rest of the game largely uncompetitive. It was the Wolverines’ first-ever loss to Rutgers — not the type of program first that many expected before the season started. The thumping was their second loss in a row and third in four games.
That’s the type of stretch that can derail a season.
To avoid that outcome, Michigan is looking towards its leaders in the locker room. Its captain, fifth-year guard Eli Brooks, has seen a lot in his five years with the Wolverines, and Howard trusts him unequivocally.
“We have the best leader in college basketball, and that’s Eli Brooks,” Howard said. “He’s been our leader (since) last year, he’s taken on that role and accepted it this year. … He gives so much to the team night in and night out, every day in practice, with his effort, his voice.”
Brooks’ presence in the locker room is one of the reasons that Howard’s confidence in his team isn’t shaken. He calls Brooks a “coach on the floor” and he knows that the players listen to him.
Of course, leadership isn’t going to fix all of the Wolverines’ problems. A pep talk won’t help them shoot better, nor will it extinguish their defensive lapses. But at the bare minimum, it can stop a stretch like this from compounding and impacting the entire season.
Howard has seen other coaches point fingers after a rough patch. He made it clear that he doesn’t want to be that type of coach.
“I’m all in with this group,” Howard said. “I’m not going to be that coach. I’ve seen and heard coaches point the finger at players, blame players and wonder who recruited them and things like that. You’re never gonna hear that from me. … I’m in the trenches with these guys, win, lose, whatever it is. We’re family.”
The question is whether or not that can translate into a season turnaround; Howard won’t know the answer to that for some time.
For now, it’s just him, his team and the unwavering confidence he has in them.