In Thursday’s upset loss to Central Michigan, junior forward Jace Howard played just nine minutes and thirty-two seconds, scoring a single bucket.
But it was Jace Howard — and only Jace Howard — sitting at the table for players’ post-game pressers.
And it was the most honest presser of the year. Because for the first time all season, a Wolverine player acknowledged a fact that was blatantly obvious but one they’ve publicly ignored:
Something is wrong with the Michigan men’s basketball team.
All it took for someone to acknowledge that was a loss to the Chippewas.
“That’s why it hurts so much right now,” Jace said. “Because you know what you’re capable of and you know what the team is capable of, but not seeing it is very frustrating. I feel like the whole team is going to embrace it, and they have to embrace it.”
Now, this Wolverine team has been dysfunctional for a while. Michigan showed a warning sign — fleeting, but present — when it eked out a win against Eastern Michigan. But hey, Emoni Bates is a damn good basketball player.
The next stop on the Wolverines’ train to what Jace described as “the lowest you can get” came when they further revealed their deficiencies while getting blown out by Arizona State, 87-62, in Brooklyn. But hey, it’s basketball. Catch a team on the wrong night and anything can happen.
Then it was Virginia and Kentucky. But hey, those are some quality ranked teams. Then it was North Carolina, but hey, they were preseason No. 1.
Finally, on Thursday night, the Wolverines’ struggles all culminated in the loss to Central Michigan. This time, there was no “but hey.”
Michigan has the talent that warranted a No. 22 preseason ranking. Freshman wing Jett Howard and sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin are exceptional perimeter scorers, junior center Hunter Dickinson is a premier big and freshman guard Dug McDaniel is looking better just about every game; but that talent hasn’t translated to on-court success.
The Wolverines don’t lack offensive firepower. Instead, they continually let rebounding and defense cost them games — the two aspects of the game in which effort plays a more substantial role than talent. While Michigan’s dismal defensive and rebounding performances are nothing new, they took center stage against the Chippewas. The Wolverines were outrebounded, 44-32, and let an obviously less-talented team come into Crisler Center as heavy underdogs and leave with a win.
“(Central Michigan) played harder, they outrebounded us, they played better defensively and they were the more connected team,” Jace said. “If you have all of those things, you come out of those with wins.”
Jace diagnosed what’s essentially an effort problem. The eye test backs that up. Dickinson, along with the rest of his team, struggled on the glass. For a team with a plethora of physical gifts, rebounding should be a relatively easy task, not a burden.
While Michigan coach Juwan Howard placed some of the blame on himself, he also backed up Jace’s sentiment postgame — adding that it’s time the Wolverines start taking some accountability.
“Accountability has to be a factor,” Juwan said. “And yes, there will be accountability. I’m gonna go to guys that I know are going to play hard for us and play hard for the team.”
Juwan even praised the players that impressed him:
“I tried every guy on the court, almost. You know, you’re talking about 11 guys, and out of the 11, (freshman forward Will Tschetter) showed up … (sophomore guard) Isaiah Barnes, I thought his minutes were good too.”
Not Dickinson. Not Jett. Not Bufkin. Not McDaniel. Not even Terrance Williams II.
But Will Tschetter and Isaiah Barnes? If the bottom of Michigan’s bench holds the only guys bringing enough energy to match Central Michigan, the Wolverines can bid farewell to a successful Big Ten season. They can worry about qualifying for the NIT Tournament, not the NCAA one. They can forget about the AP Poll.
Michigan isn’t the heralded team that it was entering the season. The Wolverines are a 7-5 team that just lost to a mid-major at home, and that realization is starting to dawn on them.
“We’re playing like front runners right now,” Jace said. “… That’s not how you win games and that’s not how you stay a winning program, something that we’ve done for the past couple of years. But now, we’re getting away from those winning habits. That winning culture.”
So if Michigan can bring the effort on the glass and on the defensive side of the ball that’s required to beat teams like Central Michigan — let alone a Big-Ten caliber opponent — maybe it can start to rediscover those winning habits. The Wolverines know what’s wrong, now they just have to fix it.
If they don’t, it’ll be a lot more of Jace Howard after games, and a lot less of everyone else.