MADISON — Heading into Sunday’s game at No. 15 Wisconsin, the questions surrounding the Michigan men’s basketball team were solely on the court.
Would the Wolverines be able to pick up a second consecutive Quadrant 1 road win and put themselves safely on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble? Or would they once again follow up an important win with a dud?
But as Michigan left the Kohl Center floor after a blowout loss, those questions became moot. All that mattered was the altercation between Michigan coach Juwan Howard and Wisconsin coach Greg Gard in the handshake line, an ugly incident that resulted in Howard throwing a punch at Badgers’ assistant Joe Krabbenhoft and a full-team brawl.
Any way you look at it, Howard’s actions were inexcusable. His failure to apologize postgame or even acknowledge any wrongdoing only made matters worse. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel admitted that much in a statement after the game.
According to both coaches, the incident stemmed from a sequence that occurred with just 15 seconds remaining in the game. While Wisconsin had a lineup of all reserves on the court, Howard left a few of his starters in the game and instructed them to play a full-court press. In danger of a backcourt violation, Gard called a timeout to reset the 10-second clock and draw up a play to break the press.
“I didn’t like the timeout being called,” Howard said afterwards. “I’ll be totally honest with you, I thought it was not necessary at that moment, especially being a large lead, and then for the time out to be called with three seconds or four seconds to go. I thought that … wasn’t fair to our guys.”
Howard said extending the game wasn’t fair to his players, but he should have considered how unfair of a position his response has now put them in. By throwing a punch, Howard will almost certainly be suspended for the foreseeable future, missing a string of crucial games for his team’s NCAA Tournament push. All five of the Wolverines’ remaining games are against potential tournament teams, and they likely need to win three to feel good about their chances entering the Big Ten Tournament.
Now, they might be without their head coach for all of them. And the ramifications of Howard’s actions might make things worse.
After Howard escalated the situation, multiple players on both sides got involved. Freshman forward Moussa Diabate and sophomore forward Terrance Williams II also appeared to throw punches, which could result in additional suspensions.
Needless to say, losing Diabate — who dropped a career-high 28 points just two games ago — and Williams, a key cog in an undermanned rotation, will hamper Michigan’s ability to rattle off much-needed victories.
When asked after the game why players stepped in, sophomore center Hunter Dickinson and graduate guard DeVante’ Jones both preached a “we’re a family” mantra. Howard even used that to essentially excuse his players’ actions, saying:
“But you know what? I respect our young men for saying what they’re saying as far as we are a family and truly, but did not want it to be in a situation where it escalated like that.”
If Howard truly believes that this team is a family, and if he truly didn’t want to escalate anything, he should have had the wherewithal to temper his emotions to avoid what transpired.
Players play with a lot of adrenaline, and after a tough loss, they tend to run hot. It’s already happened to Diabate this season when he got into a skirmish after a loss to Rutgers.
But Sunday, Howard put all of his players in a situation to potentially face discipline. And even the ones that are allowed to play on Wednesday against the Scarlet Knights will be forced to do so shorthanded and without their coach.
Howard put his entire team — a team that has finally begun to rack up big wins and seemed poised to secure an NCAA Tournament bid after months of frustration — in an unfair spot, both directly after the game and as the season comes to a close.
For Michigan, Sunday should have been a mere blip on the radar, a chance to address shortcomings after a loss and regroup for a crucial stretch run.
Instead, Sunday’s ramifications will last as long as Michigan’s season does.
And Howard’s actions may have shortened it.
Kingsley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @j_kingsley13.