CHICAGO — As sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin sat up on the podium for the post game press conference, he couldn’t have looked more dejected. Hanging his head and mumbling responses, Bufkin was visibly shaken up.
Having capped its time at the Big Ten Tournament — after just one game — with a loss to Rutgers, the Michigan men’s basketball team had every reason to look defeated.
But that low energy started long before the players sat down for post game interviews. And it started with the Wolverines’ guards.
“Everyone really cares about what happens and the outcomes of the ballgame,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “That’s a beautiful thing to have when you talk about the entire team dialed in to giving to each other and wanting to see everyone succeed out there on the floor. … Then you notice in timeouts, and you see that some dejected, unhappy young men, and it’s the early part where it’s maybe ten minutes left or seven minutes left in the ballgame.
Entering the locker room at halftime, Michigan was riding high on its commanding first half performance, clinging to a 3-point lead. The energy was high, the momentum was in the Wolverines’ favor and the game seemed theirs for the taking.
But at the start of the second half, things quickly took a turn. After a dominant performance from junior center Hunter Dickinson in the first half, with 13 of Michigan’s 28 points, the Scarlet Knights had clearly made halftime adjustments.
Holding Dickinson to 11 points in the second half — six of which came from behind the 3-point line — Rutgers made the necessary improvements in the locker room to force someone else to produce the offensive consistency in the second half.
That responsibility fell on the Wolverines’ guards — specifically Bufkin, freshman wing Jett Howard and freshman guard Dug McDaniel.
But instead of taking the reins, Michigan’s guard play floundered, failing to deliver the offensive consistency it so desperately needed in the face of a scrappy Rutgers team.
“That’s what we do, man, honestly,” Scarlet Knights guard Caleb McConnell said. “This Rutgers team, we just grind teams down, and we just stay connected on the defensive end. I feel like we did an awesome job of just staying with it no matter what.”
Bufkin was by far the biggest let-down for the Wolverines. Finishing with nine points and seven turnovers, he failed to be Michigan’s saving grace. By throwing away seven turnovers — all of which the Scarlet Knights scored on — he was instead a liability.
“Give credit where credit is due,” Bufkin said. “Obviously Rutgers is a very good defensive team. Me personally, I felt like I probably played my worst brand of basketball on the worst day to play it. Seven turnovers is unacceptable. But give credit where credit is due. They’re a very good defensive team.”
McDaniel didn’t fare any better. Scoring just two points the whole game, both of which from the free throw line, McDaniel disappeared when Michigan needed him most. With four rebounds and two assists, he hopelessly tried to affect the game aside from scoring. But four fouls and two turnovers kept him from remotely making a difference in the face of the Scarlet Knights’ dominant second half presence.
And unfortunately for the Wolverines, Jett was no help either. Six points and three rebounds weren’t enough to combat Rutgers. On the defensive end, Jett let Scarlet Knight guards blow by him and score easy buckets on occasion.
With no offensive production from Bufkin, McDaniel or Jett in the second half, Michigan plateaued. Going 15 minutes without a made field goal, not even Dickinson could get the Wolverines back on track.
“I feel like sometimes that’s just the way the ball bounces,” Bufkin said. “Obviously we didn’t get off to a great start in the second half, but we stuck through it. The outcome just wasn’t what we wanted.”
And stick with it Michigan did, shooting an absurd 4-for-21 from the field in the final frame — two of which came from Dickinson — making it clear why it couldn’t survive in the wake of Rutgers’ adjustments.
“But overall, like in the second half, offensively for us to be able to only make four shots and shoot 4-for-21 — then you also add the turnovers and then offensive rebounds — it was just a really rough second half for this group,” Juwan said.
Nobody stepped up, and the Wolverines floundered.
In their most important moment — with the chance to advance in the Big Ten Tournament and keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive — Michigan’s guards fell silent. In the end, they paid the price.
And stepping up onto the platform for the post game press conference — after failing to step up during regulation — it’s no wonder why Bufkin hung his head.