Sitting at the podium after the Michigan men’s basketball team punched its ticket to the Sweet Sixteen with a win over No. 3 seed Tennessee on Saturday, Eli Brooks wore a smile.
It was a smile with a bit of pride, relief and swagger all mixed together after the fifth-year guard and his Wolverine teammates had just proved everyone who didn’t think they could do it wrong.
Going into the game, Michigan hadn’t proved that it could play two good games in a row, alternating wins and losses for over a month, and teetering on the edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble for the majority of the season. Some didn’t even think the Wolverines belonged in the field of 68 teams.
But Michigan went out on Saturday and put on a show, playing high-tier basketball and looking as good as it has all year after a similar outing just two days prior against No. 6 seed Colorado State.
It looked like the Wolverines were playing their best basketball.
But when asked what it’s like to be playing their best basketball in March, Brooks gazed down his row of teammates before turning back to answer:
“I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball.”
And, honestly, they aren’t. They’re just playing their best basketball we’ve seen all season — but it’s not their potential.
Their potential is much higher. And to seize their “last goal,” as Brooks put it, a National Championship, they will have to find a way to reach that potential.
That path runs through Caleb Houstan.
No, the freshman wing isn’t the only thing that needs to improve. Brooks made sure to cite in his response the mistakes Michigan needs to shore up — turnovers, miscommunication — in order to play that “best basketball” that he believes it is capable of.
But in almost all other facets, the Wolverines are playing at the level that was expected of them prior to the start of the season and the slew of setbacks that followed; the level that made people believe they were title contenders.
Sophomore center Hunter Dickinson is beyond what could even be expected. His interior presence has improved, and more surprisingly, his outside shot is a true weapon in his arsenal. Dickinson is averaging 18.7 points per game and is a threat to drop over 25 on any given night, including his 27-point double-double against the Volunteers.
Brooks is the leader and stalwart perimeter defender he has always been. Graduate guard DeVante’ Jones is playing as well as you could ask him to, when healthy, especially after he had been written off as a transfer-portal bust early in the season. Freshman guard Frankie Collins has stepped up in Jones’s absence, taking a demanding control of the offense and creating plays left and right.
Freshman forward Moussa Diabate is as good as one could hope, executing insanely athletic plays along with the typical mistakes even a five-star recruit is prone to make. And sophomore forward Terrance Williams II has made the jump in his second season to be an extremely valuable contributor.
Houstan is the only one still missing from the equation.
In his past four games, Houstan is 6-for-22 from beyond the arc and just 8-for-35 from the field, a far cry from the “elite shooter” he was billed as coming in. In those same games, he tallied six assists, two steals and one block, while turning the ball over five times. He hasn’t been good, and it’s left Michigan with a starter who’s basically just running cardio for 33 minutes and 15 seconds a game.
But it’s not like Houstan hasn’t been able to produce at all this year.
He’s had games in which he’s proven why he earned the five-star tag, why NBA scouts have his name in the back of their heads and why he can take the Wolverines to the next level. He has the ability to hit shots that bury opponents’ hopes of victory.
From Feb. 23 to March 1, a three-game span, he averaged 19.3 points on 64% 3-point shooting. But the flashes have proved fleeting, leaving Houstan unable to make a consistent impact.
If Houstan were to lock in, Michigan would be near-unstoppable. Think about the Tennessee game. If Houstan were on his game — and not 0-for-4 with two turnovers and just three rebounds — would it have even been close?
I don’t think so.
There wouldn’t be a team left in the NCAA Tournament that the Wolverines couldn’t beat. Their ceiling would genuinely be a title.
Associate head coach Phil Martelli has said multiple times this season that when a shooter, specifically in reference to Houstan, has a few nights of poor shooting, there will be nights when it seems like they can’t miss. “Somebody pays,” as he puts it.
As the next game could be the Wolverines’ last from here on out, Houstan doesn’t have much time left to turn it around and put his team on a championship level. There’s a maximum of four teams left that he could play, but there’s only one question:
Will he make them pay?