Michigan's defense showed holes in its matchup against Eastern Michigan, but Bufkin's leadership potential shined through the chaos. Grace Beal/Daily. Buy this photo.

Following a turbulent offseason, the No. 20 Michigan men’s basketball team faced the arduous task of filling four vacant starting spots due to graduating and NBA-bound players. Although the first two games showed bright spots for the future of the team, it also revealed areas that need improvement. 

The most glaring of which was the Wolverines’ defense. Despite scraping by against Eastern Michigan, Michigan’s defense was alarmingly easy to break through, and it clearly lacked a leader — a luxury it had last year in Eli Brooks. 

Rough games are inevitable, but in those contests being able to find positive takeaways and facets for improvement separates successful programs from good teams. 

“Every game is not gonna be easy,” junior center Hunter Dickinson said after the win over Eastern Michigan on Nov. 11. “There’s gonna be a lot of games where other teams are hitting shots and you gotta grind it out for 40 minutes, and for our team to go out there and battle from behind, down five points with eight minutes or so left, I think it was really good for us to have that test early on.”

That test was apparent from the start. The Eagles scored their first two baskets off of a contested mid range jump shot and a driving layup, penetrating the paint with little resistance. They continued exploiting the Wolverines’ defensive holes for the remainder of the half, preventing Michigan from building any momentum. 

Although Friday’s game exhibited many of the Wolverines’ weaknesses on defense, it also alluded to potential for sustainable growth. 

One encouraging takeaway from the matchup was Michigan’s ability to find and execute mid-game adjustments. After half, trailing by three, the Wolverines looked unsure of themselves. But coming out of the break, they implemented those changes and saw increased success subsequently.

Michigan shifted its defensive approach, picking up the Eastern Michigan players at the 3-point line instead of near half court, which previously afforded the Eagles’ guards an opportunity to get into the paint. And that shift was spearheaded by sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin. 

“When you look at how they shot the ball in the first half, (Eastern Michigan shot) 53% from the field,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Then in the second half, they shot 38% from the field so that’s a credit to the adjustments and it’s credit to our defense, our defensive disposition and also our mindset.”

A strong defensive disposition needs a leader, and the Wolverines’ identity has been unclear without one. Entering the season, it was ambiguous who would step up to the helm. But after Friday’s game, Bufkin seems to be a leading candidate. 

Bufkin handled the most onerous task, trying to keep Eagles wing Emoni Bates — the former number one recruit in the country — in check. Stopping a 6-foot-9 forward who can shoot the ball just as well as he can drive it to the basket is no easy undertaking. In the first half, that was overwhelmingly true, as Bates shot 7-for-9, racking up 17 points. 

But just like Michigan did as a team, Bufkin made adjustments at halftime and proved his value on defense, slowing Bates down.

“I feel like Kobe has grown from last year to this year and (is) figuring out his game,” junior forward Terrance Williams II, who also spent time on Bates, said. “… He’s working on a lot of assignments, slotting, getting his weight up to, so he’s been able to body defenders, so I feel like Kobe is one of our best perimeter defenders. Emoni had tough shots, (but) Kobe was playing good defense the whole entire game.”

While Bates still impressed in the second half, Bufkin appeared much more evenly matched against him, contesting most of his shots. Bufkin’s ability to make the changes and adapt to the player opposite him could play a key factor in the caliber of the Wolverines’ overall defense going forward.

Michigan needs a leader on the defensive end and Bufkin may have just debuted his campaign. Although Michigan managed to alter its game plan at halftime, going forward, it needs someone to prevent those struggles from accumulating throughout a half. If Bufkin continues to develop into the leader he showed he’s capable of being, that may stop weaknesses from amassing into larger problems.