INDIANAPOLIS — As the clock wound down on the Michigan men’s basketball team’s Big Ten Tournament second round matchup against Indiana, it was clear the Wolverines’ disappointment in blowing a 17-point lead was coming to a head. Sophomore center Hunter Dickinson launched a meaningless full-court heave — with all the frustration of a lackluster second half behind it — and the remaining Michigan players dropped their heads toward the floor.
On the sideline, Michigan coach Juwan Howard, in his first game back from a five-game suspension, looked as calm as he’s been all season. Was it the result he wanted? Absolutely not. But after being absent for so long, it was less a time of anger or sadness, but rather a point of reflection.
“First one starts with teachable moments,” Howard said. “I take full accountability. I’m never the one that’s going to deflect or point the finger. It starts with me here. … What I could have done better to secure this victory for us. What did I do wrong, you know? I’m going to look at myself in the mirror first.”
And those moments were certainly there. In the Wolverines’ complete collapse, there were flaws beyond their simple execution. Dickinson managed just three shots in the second half; Michigan’s rotations seemed rigid — with sophomore forward Terrance Williams II receiving just nine minutes and freshman guard Kobe Bufkin never seeing the floor after the tandem had considerable contributions against Ohio State on Sunday; the Wolverines failed to adjust defensively to the Hoosiers down the stretch.
Though Howard appeared to have his faults, his return brought advantages to his team as well.
“We felt the energy when he was back,” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones said. “You could see in the first half we came out with a lot of energy — we got our coach back.”
From just observing, that holds true. Before the game even started, Howard was enthusiastically hugging and dapping up every single player during introductions. And out of the gates, the Wolverines had a fire under them. Through three quarters of the game, in fact, Michigan outpaced and out-hustled Indiana. It wasn’t until the utter collapse that the Wolverines ceded that title.
And in Howard’s first game back, that’s something that weighs on the players’ minds.”
“I’m mad that we didn’t get the ‘W’ for him,” Jones said.
Though Jones and others were upset about not getting the win for their coach, more pressing are the implications this loss has on Michigan’s NCAA Tournament outlook. With a chance to put all shreds of doubt behind them, the Wolverines fell short and are, once again, squarely on the bubble.
Howard, “still proud” of his team and how far they’ve come, is now “going to pray” while waiting for the verdict on Michigan come Selection Sunday. With the loss, it’s about all the Wolverines can do.
Even still, Howard’s return meant more to him than a loss, more than a Big Ten Tournament exit and more than a game that put Michigan’s chance at the Big Dance in jeopardy. To him, it was a return to what he loves.
“I’m human, I have feelings, I care,” Howard said. “I would not stop caring. It’s been an emotional ride. Did I get sleep last night? No. But I love teaching, I love coaching, I love being here.
“I miss being with my guys.”