INDIANAPOLIS — As Michigan coach Juwan Howard sat at the post game press conference, a deadpan look in his eyes, he wasted no time trying to keep a positive light on his team’s performance after blowing a 17-point lead.
“In the second half for us, it didn’t go in our favor,” Howard said. “Unfortunately, we had some defensive breakdowns, but those all are teaching moments that we will learn and grow.”
That was the phrase that Howard used as a crutch, over and over, to try and explain the shocking loss to Indiana.
Teaching what, exactly?
Sure, the Wolverines can say they’ll go back and watch the film. They can point to the defensive breakdowns that allowed the Hoosiers to score 46 second half points as a failed game plan that can be adjusted. They can claim they’ll regroup, grow stronger and be ready for next week. But the reality is, for this year’s group, there is not much left to learn.
Thursday afternoon proved everything left there was to know about Michigan and there’s no reason to try and sugar coat it: The Wolverines were up 17 points with 11 minutes left to go and they blew it.
Eleven minutes from alleviating all concerns about whether this team would make the NCAA Tournament. Eleven minutes from proving that they could string multiple strong performances together, building on Sunday’s resounding win over Ohio State. Eleven minutes from having a chance to start making some noise as a sleeper in the Big Ten Tournament — and potentially beyond. All they needed to do was to just play well enough to cross the finish line, preserve a 17-point lead and make it to Friday.
Instead, in those final 11 minutes, they scored just nine points. As Indiana slowly trimmed the deficit and that deficit turned into a lead, the Wolverines mustered no response. There was no alpha on the court to snag a bucket. The effort they displayed down the stretch was downright pitiful and there were no late game heroics coming to pull out the win.
After the game, players deflected questions about the meltdown, instead choosing to voice their confidence in the togetherness inside the locker room.
“I was definitely disappointed for us,” Dickinson said. “But this gives us an opportunity to come together for this next week or so until we have to play again.”
Graduate guard DeVante’ Jones had a similar, upbeat sentiment:
“We were up a lot and we let it slip away. We’re definitely mad about that. But I feel like we’re still together as a team.”
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how together the Wolverines are. Collectively, they are still a team that simply does not have what it takes to be the team so many envisioned them being back in November. And at every chance to prove it could sustain success, they’ve come crashing back to earth.
Last Thursday, Michigan lost to Iowa just 48 hours after crushing Michigan State. The Wolverines had looked to be in a different stratosphere against the Spartans, racing up and down the court and refusing to miss. But that same team took the floor the next time out and from the opening tip it was clear they barely stood a puncher’s chance against the Hawkeyes, trailing the whole way through.
After yet another Jekyll and Hyde week, acting head coach Phil Martelli tried to stomach what it meant if the team was unable to figure it out; If that watershed moment never came.
“It means that they’re a group of nice, young guys,” Martelli said.
And while harsh, that is likely the most accurate assessment of the 2021-2022 Wolverines. They are still very much in the Tournament conversation, but what does all that chatter even amount to? This team came into the year with Final Four expectations. Now, the goalposts have moved so far back that even blowing a 17-point lead in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament is right on brand.
So write about the team’s net ranking or its top 10 strength of schedule or how its metrics stack up against other bubble teams. It’s all moot. Because no complex Kenpom efficiency metric can showcase how simple the damning flaws of this team really are.
They are a group of guys who are pretty good at the sport of basketball but can’t grow up and win when it really matters.
A group of guys that could never turn a momentum building win into a stepping stone, instead tripping over their own feet on the way up. A group of guys that can’t hold on and win after earning itself a 17-point lead.
On Thursday, there was a chance to win and leave no doubt about an NCAA Tournament spot. As the last 11 minutes played out, the Wolverines instead left no doubt about who they really are.
To borrow Martelli’s jargon, a group of nice, young guys and nothing more.