INDIANAPOLIS — The Michigan men’s basketball team had its chance.
The chance to solidify its spot in the NCAA Tournament field and for the first time all season, get ahead of schedule.
The Wolverines even looked the part. They held a 17-point lead in the second half dominating a desperate Indiana team that needed a win for almost 30 minutes.
But March can be fickle.
The Hoosiers went on a 28-4 run, and the Wolverines never recovered.
Michigan (17-14 overall, 11-10 Big Ten) crumbled to Indiana (19-12, 10-11), 74-69, proving once again that it could not build on any momentum and letting its future NCAA Tournament hopes hang in jeopardy for just a little while longer.
Just two hours after Michigan coach Juwan Howard jovially walked out of the tunnel to coach his team for the first time in weeks, he had to sit at the podium and try to make sense of his team’s collapse.
“They earned this victory,” Howard said. “There was a lot of teaching moments during that time. Unfortunately for us … the second half didn’t go in our favor.”
In order for the Wolverines’ lead to collapse, it had to first build one. They did so with a strong presence on the glass and an uncanny ability to get to the line. Michigan looked to be in complete control. It was dominating the Hoosiers at every level, and for most of the game, it looked like the Wolverines were on the precipice of blowing Indiana out.
But with 11 minutes remaining, all those positives were lost.
Poor shooting combined with clumsiness on the ball from the Wolverines gave Indiana a pathway back into the game. The Hoosiers, who were on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture looking in as of Thursday, jumped at the opportunity for a lifeline. Backed by its overwhelming fan majority at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indiana took every ounce of momentum away from Michigan. The lead evaporated and the Wolverines were left searching for answers.
“They came out being more physical than us, brought more energy, more effort in the second half,” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones lamented. “Our defense just had some mental breakdowns that hurt us as well.”
Things that looked easy early on in the game became near impossible for long stretches. The Hoosiers swallowed up every shot, and they forced Michigan into tough positions. The Wolverines looked scared, like the shell of the team that played the game’s first 30 minutes, and Indiana finished the game on a 31-9 run.
On the Michigan bench, confidence was replaced with self-doubt. Heads that were once held high sank lower and lower as they watched their defense get shredded and offense turn the ball over time and time again.
When Michigan finally had a chance to secure its tournament fate once and for all, it blew a 17-point lead. Instead of a fate neatly secured, Howard and his team will have to watch the selection show on Sunday with bated breath. At the podium, he made his case for why he thinks his team has “put themselves in the position to have an opportunity.” He said he’ll pray and that he’ll watch Selection Sunday with his team to “see where the chips fall.”
But after that, Howard struck a more sentimental note:
“But at the end of the day, whatever is decided, I’m still proud of how this team, coaches, the Michigan family has been together,” he said.
Howard knows that there’s no telling how much time left he has to coach this group and that right now, for Michigan, nothing is guaranteed. But when the Wolverines think how it could’ve been, they’ll want the opportunity they had on Thursday back.
Instead of a place safely amongst those in the field, Michigan will have to settle for a few more days on the bubble.
And that bubble is shrinking.