SAN ANTONIO — College basketball is a cyclical challenge.
Players only have a finite amount of time before their eligibility is up and they have to move on. Sometimes, their clock runs out early, and they head to the NBA or transfer to another program to start anew. But no matter what, the clock keeps running.
After the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season came to a close in the Elite Eight, then-senior guard Eli Brooks had to make the decision of whether he was going to move on from the Wolverines or run it back for another year. The extra year of COVID eligibility granted by the NCAA allowed Brooks to cheat time, at least for a while. All for a chance to lead his team one final time and a shot at his “last goal,” a National Championship.
But following the departure of Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown — both transfers for the 2020-2021 season — Michigan needed more than Brooks. Sure, freshman guards Frankie Collins, Kobe Bufkin and Isaiah Barnes were coming in, but it was unlikely that they would be ready to go right away.
“When you have a young team, ten underclassmen, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after Thursday’s game. “But you know you’re going to get some guys that really love basketball, and you’re going to try to develop them, pour into their development and just try to give as much as possible.”
While the freshmen developed, the Wolverines needed someone to stabilize them in the backcourt other than Brooks.
Enter DeVante’ Jones.
The graduate-transfer guard from Coastal Carolina needed a reset on his clock. In four years with the Chanticleers — one of which was spent on the sidelines for an academic redshirt — Jones never once made the NCAA Tournament. Transferring to Michigan was a way to set a new timeline for himself, one where he felt he could capture what he truly wanted: to win.
Though not claiming a title, while also fighting late-season injury setbacks, Jones made it further than he ever had before.
“For me, it was just an honor throughout the whole year just being able to play with a group of guys that’s so talented,” Jones said. “… Obviously, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but me, I’m just blessed to be in the position I’m in today. Through my three years at Coastal, I never made March Madness, and my first round here I made the Sweet Sixteen. It was just an amazing experience for me. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m just grateful I’m in this position with these guys.”
But it didn’t always look like a Sweet Sixteen was possible. Early in the season, Jones was labeled a transfer-portal bust and Brooks was unable to counteract the Wolverines’ struggles on his own. Their goals for the season were both deeply in jeopardy.
Eventually, though, Brooks, Jones and Michigan were able to right the proverbial ship — mostly. It teetered on the bubble all season, eventually earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
But making it there wasn’t an effort just from those two, nor was it coming solely from sophomore center Hunter Dickinson nor the freshman five-star forwards Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate. It took performances from the new kids, the ones that sat under Brooks and Jones’s wing, learning and growing until they were ready.
“We had a young group that always wanted to learn,” Brooks said. “So it was awesome to be able to work with Frankie and Kobe. They’re one of the most willing to get in the gym, high basketball IQ. They ask me and DeVante’ just how do you do certain things.
“Just being able to teach them, sitting in the locker room, Isaiah Barnes came up to me and said, ‘I just appreciate you for everything that you did this season.’ So just seeing that really meant a lot that I have an impact on the younger freshmen and sophomores.”
And now that Brooks has played his final game in the maize and blue, and Jones — despite having a COVID year of eligibility left — likely has too, it’s time for that impact to be felt.
Some of it has already shown. With Jones out with a concussion in the Round of 64, Collins stepped up, proving that he could fill the role of a floor general when called upon.
Again, when Jones exited the Wolverines’ matchup with Tennessee, Collins displayed his ability to step up, helping them to a win that kept their tournament run alive.
Bufkin demonstrated his mettle in a crucial win at Ohio State, hitting a shot that acted as an all-important dagger in the Buckeyes’ side. One that almost certainly played into Michigan’s eventual March Madness bid.
The freshmen have showed that they’ve learned and grown from Jones and Brooks, and that going forward, they can be trusted.
But in the Sweet Sixteen, against No. 2 seed Villanova, the game was entrusted to the two seniors one final time.
Despite their efforts, the Wolverines fell. Jones never started and finished an NCAA Tournament game that his team won. Brooks never got the National Championship which he so coveted.
Their time ran out.
And now, Michigan must look forward, and move forward with its young corps, hoping they took all the lessons Brooks and Jones have provided them.
“(Brooks and Jones) been great all year,” Howard said. “I thought having two seniors in your backcourt being two leaders that can help lead our team, they were stars throughout the year.”
And if Collins, Bufkin and Barnes can be anything like them, the Wolverines might just be alright.