Two days before the Michigan men’s basketball team’s thrashing of Indiana, Eli Brooks leaned against the blue curtains of the Crisler Center media room, his blue mesh practice pinnie almost blending in.
The junior guard fielded questions, most of which had nothing to do with the Hoosiers. Instead, he was asked to discuss the Wolverines’ recent revival.
A conversation like Friday’s seemed unthinkable less than three weeks ago, when senior point guard Zavier Simpson was suspended for the Wolverines’ trip to Lincoln in the midst of the program’s longest losing streak in five years. With junior forward Isaiah Livers already unavailable due to a groin injury, a loss to lowly Nebraska could’ve put the nail in Michigan’s coffin.
That night, however, marked an inflection point. And since losing four straight Big Ten games from Jan. 12-26, the Wolverines have won five of their last six, evening their conference record in the process.
“It feels like the Bahamas again,” Brooks said Friday.
The most telling part? He wasn’t even going out on a limb.
Paradise Island, of course, was where Michigan first put itself in the early national-title conversation. The Wolverines rolled to a pair of top-10 wins in a hotel ballroom during Thanksgiving week, punctuating the first month of the Juwan Howard era with a No. 4 national ranking.
And after limping to a 3-8 record against high-major opponents in December and January, the Michigan of February is playing the same brand of basketball it did in November. In the last 10 days alone, the Wolverines have knocked off Michigan State and cruised to blowout wins against Northwestern and Indiana.
“It feels like we’re back to the beginning of the year a little bit,” sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. said Sunday. “We’re all so connected, trusting each other, knocking down shots. … We’re having more team bonding sessions. We’re getting to know each other more, understanding each other as well.”
Added Brooks: “People are having fun and you can see the smiles. Before the Northwestern game, something coach Howard preached was, ‘Go out there and have fun.’ I feel like sometimes you get lost that it’s a basketball game. We lose that sometimes, just having smiles on everyone’s faces.”
Winning helps, especially when it’s against an in-state rival or by margins of 20-plus over teams at the bottom of the conference standings. This elite level of winning, however, is comparable to the Wolverines’ victories over Gonzaga and North Carolina in the Bahamas. Albeit a small sample size, Michigan has been the best team in the nation over its last five games, according to Bart Torvik’s power rating.
Though he suffered an ankle injury on Sunday — a “tweak,” according to Johns — Livers’s return from injury has improved the Wolverines’ 3-point shooting, defense and confidence. Most importantly, though, one of their most impactful leaders is now more than just a voice coming from the bench.
But above all, Howard is beginning to come into his own as a coach. His hiring marked a storied icon’s return to Crisler Center, though he had no head coaching experience prior to this season outside of the low-stakes NBA Summer League.
Even as the successor to one of the finest minds in college basketball, Howard’s NBA-style philosophies were unsurprisingly new to a team full of athletes recruited to play a role in previous coach John Beilein’s system.
“Some of our players probably never played in a defensive scheme like what I taught, what I brought to the program,” Howard said Sunday. “They bought in, for sure, but it takes time and development. It’s not always going to click right away. The beauty of it is they trusted and continued building the habits and getting better with it.
“… We’re getting better as the season goes. I didn’t expect for us to have a great start like we did, but it was beautiful to get off to a good start. But it takes time for a group to learn a new system on the defensive end as well as the offensive end.”
It took losing, it took slumps and, most of all, it took time. But now, spurred by the return of Livers, it most certainly appears the Wolverines are beyond their learning curve.
And because of it, a season that once seemed earmarked for a disappointing finish now has a new life.