INDIANAPOLIS — The Michigan men’s basketball team knows what it is.
It’s fully aware that it has alternated wins and losses since Feb. 10, 11 games in total, so much so that it has become a talking point in the locker room — and the Wolverines won their last game.
“I remember there were some jokes by (sophomore center Hunter Dickinson) this morning saying, ‘We should play the managers so we can get the loss out of the way,’ ” sophomore forward Jace Howard said.
That win-loss pattern isn’t exactly conducive to a deep run in a single-elimination tournament such as March Madness. It’s a trend that Michigan is looking to break free from when it plays No. 3 seed Tennessee on Saturday, but finding that ever-so-elusive second win in a row is going to be the toughest task of the season.
The Volunteers are a prime example of a team peaking at the right time. They’ve only lost one game since the calendar turned to February, they are second in the country in KenPom defensive efficiency and they are top-35 in offensive efficiency.
If the Wolverines found a way to win on Saturday, it would easily be its best win of the season by all metrics. Michigan coach Juwan Howard understands this.
“We understand we’re going to be playing a really good team tomorrow,” he said. “This team has size, they have shooting, they have great coaching, experienced coaching. Our kids just try to be ready from start to finish, play a competitive game, because that’s the type of game we expect them to play.”
Just as having self-awareness alone won’t end the win-loss trend, understanding the challenge at hand can only go so far. The Wolverines will need to execute at the highest level if they want to keep their season alive.
That starts in the backcourt. After being without graduate guard DeVante’ Jones for its first tournament game due to a concussion, Michigan may get him back for Saturday. Jones practiced with the team on Friday morning and is a game-time decision against the Volunteers. The return of their starting point guard would almost certainly raise the Wolverines’ chances at an upset. Tennessee ranks eighth in the country in steals per game and its constant ball pressure has caused problems for its opponents all season long. Michigan will need its veteran backcourt to be steady on the ball in the face of the ball-hawking Volunteers.
“Defensively, they throw a lot of coverages at you,” Juwan said. “… With those different types of coverages, at times they can speed you up and cause confusion out there on the floor.”
But Juwan has a simple solution.
“The key with us is, we can’t overthink it.”
At times, the Wolverines have been steady, but other times they’ve been anything but. Their game against the Rams showcased that perfectly. In the first 13 minutes, Michigan turned the ball over eight times, digging itself a huge hole. But over the rest of the game, the Wolverines steadied, allowing them to complete the comeback.
“That game was a mirror of our season,” Jace said. “It made us really dig down deep and decide how bad we wanted to finish out the season, how bad we wanted to meet our goals.
“That’s just how life is. I remember saying at halftime, ‘This game is going to mirror our season.’ Coming out the second half like we did in the second half of the season, we were resilient, we flipped it around and gave ourselves an opportunity to be somewhere like how we are today.”
Jace’s attitude is mirrored throughout the rest of the team. Michigan knows what it is, it knows its strengths, and it definitely knows its weaknesses, but right now, that doesn’t really matter. The Wolverines are one win away from a Sweet Sixteen appearance, and they’re one loss away from a permanent trip back to Ann Arbor. They know that much of the pain and disappointment of the season can be lessened in just 40 minutes of basketball.
Tennessee is a really good team, and in order for Michigan to pull off the upset and end its win-loss streak it will have to play a complete game. But the opportunity is there. It will just come down to whether or not the Wolverines can put it all together.
It’s either that or go home. Jace, just like the rest of the team, knows it:
“We got no other choice.”