CHICAGO — For a team with two potential NBA first-round picks and an All-American center, it shouldn’t be so difficult to pull out wins. But for the Michigan men’s basketball team this season, it certainly has been.
Game after game, opponent after opponent, the Wolverines have constantly been plagued in one aspect: their inability to take advantage of opportunities.
And with the caliber of talent and the high-level teams they’ve played up to, the problem seems to lie beyond the team and to the man at the helm:
Michigan coach Juwan Howard.
Entering the Wolverines’ matchup against Rutgers in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan once again had a golden opportunity in front of it. It was an opportunity to make a case for an NCAA Tournament bid, an opportunity to prove it can play a full 40 minutes and an opportunity to show its No. 8 seed in the Big Ten is merely a moniker, and not an accurate representation of its skill.
The Wolverines have the talent, but they couldn’t take advantage of it. Instead, they did exactly what they’ve done all season.
They squandered another vital opportunity.
But Howard overlooked his shortcomings as a leader following the loss. There seemed to be a clear lack of accountability for his coaching miscues.
“Yes we have a young team, but we did not make excuses,” Howard said. “That’s how you grow, by getting the opportunity. We’ve had four freshmen that start — Kobe being one of those four freshmen because he didn’t play last year. … So this is a growing opportunity for our young men, and I think they grew up a lot this year. Yes, they want to continue to keep playing.
“I want to see them playing, and I want to be out there coaching them in the postseason.”
But he can’t, because at this point they’re out of contention. Without any more games guaranteed for Michigan, his words seem to still contain excuses. And it indicates that the problems extend beyond the team itself.
The excuses of freshmen needing adjustment time, the defense being held back because of chemistry and offensive pieces needing to step up aren’t viable rationales. Because all of those early-season deficiencies have made significant strides.
What hasn’t, though, is the coaching behind it. And without that, these losses don’t fall on the players. They fall on Howard.
“When you notice in timeouts and you see some dejected, unhappy young men, and it’s the early part where there’s maybe 10 minutes left or seven minutes left in the ballgame,” Howard said. “I think it’s my job as a leader to uplift (the players) and encourage them, because I saw the looks on their faces.”
It’s clear that Howard understands his responsibility as a role model for his players, but he has struggled to provide a jumpstart for Michigan in moments like those. In the Wolverines’ loss to the Scarlet Knights — effectively ending any hope of reaching the NCAA Tournament — his inability to shift his players’ broken outlooks was front and center.
After early offensive firepower that gave Michigan a seven-point advantage, the Wolverines reverted to their sloppy habits, letting errant passes fly and allowing offensive rebounds. Going into halftime, the Wolverines’ lead was down to a single possession.
A coach’s job is to recognize flaws and figure out short- and long-term solutions for them. But Howard didn’t do that. And Thursday was just one of the many times he fell short of that.
“I felt we pressed a little bit too much as far as wanting to make deep plays individually,” Howard said about Michigan’s performance coming out of halftime. “And that, of course, allowed Rutgers to capitalize on either some rushed missed shots or turnovers.”
Playing individually is exactly what facilitated most of the first-half turnovers and the momentum shift. Although it’s unclear what was said behind closed doors, it evidently wasn’t enough to right the ship. After a four turnover first half, sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin’s sloppiness persisted, tacking on three more miscues.
There’s no denying the role that shooting 4-for-21 and going over 14 minutes without a field goal in the second half played in Michigan’s loss. It’s easy to look toward the Wolverines’ players for that poor showing, but a coach’s job is to position players well and guide them toward success. Between drawing up plays and coming up with alternative plans for the players, the onus falls on Howard to steer that ship out of those rough waters.
But Michigan remained stranded in the middle of the ocean, without any leader to guide it to shore.
In a tumultuous season, the Wolverines entered the Big Ten Tournament in need of a win to keep their postseason hopes alive. And despite Howard’s struggles at the helm this year, he is also the leader who took home Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 2020-21. But that version of Howard was nowhere to be found on Thursday.
And Howard’s poor coaching prevented them from taking that jump.
But beyond that, Howard’s poor coaching put Michigan in the position where it was fighting for its NCAA Tournament life in the Big Ten Tournament.
Budin can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @lindsaybudin12