Kobe Bufkin faces mid-season struggles despite significant off-season improvements. Lila Turner/Daily. Buy this photo.

Leading up to the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season, one name was repeatedly mentioned regarding offseason growth: sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin. 

From what Bufkin has shown so far this season, it seems like the hype carried merit. Thrust into a starting role after seeing just 10.8 minutes per game last year, Bufkin has embraced his expanded opportunity with the Wolverines. His talent shines on both ends of the court — most notably on the defensive side — and his ability to step up to run the point gives Michigan more flexibility. 

In his minutes as the primary ball handler, he has proven his capabilities, showing both consistency and confidence. He demonstrated that throughout the first 15 games of the season, putting up a 2.24 assist-to-turnover ratio — the highest of anyone on the team within that time frame. 

“Watching his growth from day one his freshman year to where he is now, he’s improved like no other because he’s always been all in,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Sunday. “He understands that his path is different from others. And he sees that there’s a lot of trust from me and the staff and his teammates, and all that does is just elevate your confidence.”

But in the last three contests, Bufkin has looked like a shell of his usual self. 

He more closely resembled the Bufkin from last year who accounted for little production in the few minutes he saw off the bench, instead of the savvy leader he’s proven capable of being. Against Northwestern, Maryland and Minnesota, Bufkin tallied just five assists while racking up 10 turnovers — an alarming amount that accounts for one-third of his season total. 

“(Bufkin needs to) just keep working,” freshman guard Dug McDaniel said. “It’s a lot of behind the scenes action, just being confident in yourself. Sometimes he would be quiet but we just keep reassuring him like, ‘you’re a leader, we look up to you, you’re our guy.’ ”

All of those reassurances that McDaniel preaches to Bufkin throughout his ongoing setback holds truth — he’s proven it before. 

After shrugging off a slow start to the season, he solidified his role as the third scorer. Since then, when Bufkin thrives at the individual level, the Wolverines as a whole prosper simultaneously. His leadership and guidance often dictates the fate of their defensive success. And throughout the season, he’s shown just how critical that proficiency is for Michigan’s overarching success. 

In the past three games, though, his defensive disposition has lacked its usual sovereignty. Without it, the Wolverines have struggled against opposing offenses. 

Sure, Bufkin still waits beyond the 3-point line as Michigan readies for a defensive possession, motioning towards his teammates to communicate while focusing on the opposing player dribbling towards him. But recently, his defensive leadership has fizzled out there. 

Multiple times against the Golden Gophers, he allowed opponents to slip under him, leading to easy layups. Against the Terrapins, after turning the ball over, Bufkin remained planted on the floor instead of hustling back on defense — and with the 5-on-4 advantage, Maryland soundly scored. 

The small details, like hustling and reading screens, are elements of Bufkin’s game that distinctly exemplify the jump he made from last year — and they’re things that usually distinguish Bufkin’s defensive efforts. 

While Bufkin has made significant strides this season, and his current abilities live up to the pre-season hype, he didn’t start the year out that way. In fact, his slow start raised questions about the validity of the Wolverines’ clamors about Bufkin.

“I sometimes forget that in the first few games of the season it was like the end of the world,” Howard said. “(People said) Kobe wasn’t going to help the team, Kobe’s not playing well, who’s going to be the third scorer? And give him credit, he just stayed the course, and he kept believing that and trusting in the system and also understanding that it’s a long year and he’s a big part of it.”

Staying the course then paid dividends. Although Michigan has half of its season under its belt, Bufkin is in that same position once again. He’s shown what he’s capable of, now he needs to do one thing:

Stay the course.