No one admits it. Talk to Michigan coach Juwan Howard, talk to his assistant coaches, talk to his players — the focus is always on the game at hand, not the postseason.
But the reality is simple, NCAA Tournament resumes are built in January and February, not March. The game at hand is just the next bullet point on the resume. So the Michigan men’s basketball team — for better or worse — entered its game against Purdue with a chance to secure its biggest resume builder of the season thus far.
Because the top-ranked team in the nation was in Ann Arbor.
However, the job proved to be too much for the Wolverines (11-9 overall, 5-4 Big Ten) to handle as their shaky March Madness resume couldn’t gain a much-needed edit. They fell to the first-ranked Boilermakers (20-1, 9-1), 75-70, behind a furious 15-0 Purdue run late in the first half and 19 points from center Zach Edey that proved insurmountable.
“We knew playing the number one team is a big opportunity, no matter what,” graduate guard Joey Baker said. “We knew what was at stake, and we just gotta flush it.”
Indeed, the stakes were high. To start the game, Crisler Center was the loudest it has been all season. Everyone, from Michigan’s energized bench to fans sitting by the rafters knew that with a seismic opponent comes a seismic opportunity.
But the hoopla fizzled out and by the end, Michigan wanted to flush the loss out of its memory. However, even just trading punches with the Boilermakers was enough to start a party in Crisler early on. A jab-step three pointer by junior center Hunter Dickinson over his in-paint rival Zach Edey set up their early battle and got the festivities started.
Twelve minutes in, though, the magic that kept Michigan and its resume-building hopes alive quickly began to dwindle. Its 28-26 lead vanished when a patented Edey jumper down low sparked a domineering 15-0 Boilermakers run that erased the Wolverines’ early-game success. Sloppy turnovers sent guard Fletcher Loyer and company running up the floor, seemingly turning the game on its head.
The run was devastating for Michigan. Its offense was suddenly lifeless, and with each waning possession the nation’s top-ranked team pulled further and further ahead. Lanes started opening up for the Boilermakers, and if they weren’t finishing in the paint, they were drawing fouls and converting on the free throw line.
The run turned the tides for good, but that wasn’t apparent until the dust settled.
“I didn’t even know they went on a 15-0 run,” Dickinson said. “… Damn, that’s probably where we lost the game right there.”
Maybe it was the Wolverines’ quick 7-0 run to end the half, tightening the game to 41-35 at the half, that had Dickinson forgetting about that key stretch of the game just prior which put the game out of reach. But no matter which Michigan scorer stepped up in the second half or which defense the Wolverines threw at the Boilermakers to briefly disrupt their flow, none of it was enough. The late first half run handed Purdue too big of a cushion.
Michigan made in-roads over and over again, but the Boilermakers simply weren’t bothered. Their scoring was too reliable and their forced turnovers too timely. All the while, the Wolverines’ defense was too fickle.
Multiple 3-pointers from Baker tried to spark Michigan runs down the stretch, but Purdue’s offensive committee stifled any semblance of momentum. Edey remained efficient in the post while the Wolverines struggled to contest jump shots across the floor.
Michigan kept knocking on the door, a barrage of buckets late kept it interesting until the very end. But none of it was enough. Stops were hard to come by and what presented itself as a statement victory opportunity turned into what could’ve been.
“When you have a defensive mistake, those good teams make you pay, and that’s what Purdue did,” Howard said. “So give them credit, they’re the number one team in the country for a reason.”
And as the clock wound down, the Wolverines could do nothing but watch the number one team in the country walk away with their potential resume-builder firmly out of grasp. Another chance to boost their tournament chances squandered. An opportunity to keep themselves among the top of the tight Big Ten standings frittered away.
Because the Boilermakers were too good, and the Wolverines weren’t good enough.