Before Monday, the circumstances of the Michigan men’s basketball team could probably be categorized as run-of-the-mill adversity.
A star player goes down with an injury.
The team loses four straight games — its longest losing streak since 2015 — and five of its last six. The star player comes back and suffers another injury. A series of unfortunate events culminating into a bleak situation. And that’s all it was supposed to be.
Until senior guard Zavier Simpson was served with a suspension.
While the details of the suspension are still unclear and coach Juwan Howard is keeping the details in-house, Simpson will be sitting out Tuesday’s game at Nebraska. The Wolverines’ identity is crumbling before their very eyes, they’re seemingly losing their composure and everyone and their mother is throwing out the word crossroads.
The question now becomes whether or not to slam on the panic button as quickly as possible or take a more measured approach to the whole affair.
Since sports fanatics are famously known for making long, drawn-out decisions on how to feel about a given situation, I’m sure the public reaction will be more reprehensive, akin to simply saying, “Well, that sucks.”
Except it’s not. Everyone’s going to be screaming and Tuesday’s game in Lincoln will serve as a complete and utter indictment on the team and its postseason hopes.
Win and your hopes are alive. Lose and you’ve booked a one-way ticket to the NIT.
Granted, with a healthy roster and no self-inflicted wounds, the Wolverines trounce Nebraska. With the Cornhuskers sitting comfortably in the basement of the Big Ten and ranked 131st on KenPom.com, Michigan has the talent and experience to get the job done nine times out of 10.
This game shouldn’t be a question.
But the fact that it is now doesn’t mean the team is cooked. There is a monsoon of factors working against the Wolverines. Perhaps things should be taken day-by-day. Take it from Howard himself.
“We’re not drowning in our own tears or drowning in a lake,” Howard said. “It’s not the end of the world. The mood of our team is we’re solution-based. We’re gonna roll up our sleeves, figure out how we can get better as a group and guys are in the gym working hard, and they had a great practice yesterday, and we expect to have a better practice today to prep for Nebraska.”
Sophomore guard David DeJulius — expected to be the starter in Simpson’s wake — could very well step up and prove to be as effectual as the missing leader. After all, it was in Simpson’s sophomore campaign that he emerged as the de-facto leader of his squad.
Simpson could come back stronger than ever, having used the suspension as a lesson and ready to lead his team from the bottom to the brink.
DeJulius has shown flashes this season and could be a perfectly apt placeholder for Simpson, averaging 7.7 ppg and a much-improved player efficiency rating of 14.3. Look as far back as the game against North Carolina when Simpson went out in foul trouble — DeJulius stepped up and led the Wolverines on a game-deciding run.
“Dave knows how to get to his spots and make shots, and that’s something that he does really well,” junior guard Eli Brooks said after mentioning the game against the Tar Heels. “So I just try to help him with being able to lead the team and getting people in the right spots.”
Currently, there are too many unknowns to make a definitive statement about this season, so don’t believe anyone who would tell you otherwise.
What is known, though, is that Simpson made a mistake, is being punished and will show the world what kind of person he is in his response over the coming weeks.
But in the meantime, treat the 2019-2020 basketball season as Howard is treating this suspension — witness its events day-by-day and reevaluate after Nebraska.
Freaking out over a late-January game in a season in which Duke lost at home to Stephen F. Austin, the Big Ten seems committed to not having a single one of its teams enter the NCAA Tournament and college basketball’s best player is sitting out solely to spite the NCAA is a fool’s errand.
Look at this game for what it is on paper — one of the conference’s worst teams attempting to steal a win from a sorely short-staffed, high-potential team.
Because if everyone comes back healthy and educated, a road game against the Cornhuskers may look more and more like a low point rather than a crossroads.
Kopnick can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jkopnick.