At this point, everybody knows about Juwan Howard’s suspension, everybody knows that Phil Martelli has assumed active duties as head coach and everybody knows that the Michigan men’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament hopes are on the line.
What nobody knows, though, is how this regular season will end. Optimists will predict a surge under Martelli, placing the Wolverines in solid NCAA Tournament standing. Pessimists will lose hope, allowing themselves to think that Michigan will stumble without Howard, perhaps even missing the tournament entirely.
In truth, both parties have it all wrong. The Wolverines are the same team they’ve been all season. Whether they’re under Howard or under Martelli, it doesn’t matter, and they proved it on Sunday.
As the 93-85 loss to No. 15 Illinois wrapped up and Michigan’s players entered the press room, they told the same tale as they have in almost every loss this season:
“(The problem was) just staying locked in for the full 40 minutes instead of just 20,” graduate point guard DeVante’ Jones said.
That’s not something new under Martelli’s guidance, it’s something that’s been plaguing the Wolverines since their early-season defeat to Seton Hall.
So let’s not pretend that Howard being the one calling the shots would have made a difference against the Illini. The players aren’t.
“We knew coming in that he wasn’t going to coach us,” Jones said. “So it’s not an excuse at all.”
And no, Martelli isn’t Howard. Martelli has repeated that himself time and time again. But it’s still Howard’s team. Howard’s plays are being run by assistant coach Howard Eisley. His defense is being run by assistant coach Saddi Washington. His offense is still in place, and the players he recruited are still the ones on the floor. Just because Howard isn’t in the building doesn’t mean this is a completely different team.
“I believe our staff just has great synergy,” Washington said Friday. “Coach Juwan has put us all in positions to be successful, as coaches as players. We have that mentality. We try to practice what we preach, and (it’s) no different — next man up, it applies to our staff as well.”
It’s not going to become miraculously better with Martelli at the helm, and the extensive coaching experience Martelli possesses won’t allow it to get suddenly worse, either. It’s still just the Michigan team that’s been here all year, and people have to accept that.
And that might be the exact opposite of what the Wolverines’ coaching staff wants to hear.
“I’m not in favor of consistency because that means you stay the same,” Martelli said. “What we want to do is go on a climb.”
Now, no one is calling Michigan consistent. It’s quite possibly one of the most sporadic teams on a day-to-day basis in college basketball. On any given day, it has the talent to topple a powerhouse or the ineptitude to lose to a team like Minnesota at home.
But it is consistently underwhelming. When the Wolverines have one of those games where they look like world-beaters, you can bet the house that they’ll come up short in their next one. If they look like they’re turning the season around, they’ll squash that narrative as fast as they can. If they look like they’re losing control of their season, they’ll come up with a big win on a dime.
It’s what they do.
It’s what they do with Howard, and the loss to the Illini after claiming a crucial win over Rutgers on Wednesday has proved that it’s what they do with Martelli.
And as reporters inquired about what went wrong after the game, Martelli often went back to the phrase “that’s on me,” taking blame for his players’ and the team’s shortcomings.
But it’s not on him. Because these same issues have been happening all season.
So stop thinking Howard being gone will change anything about this team. With him or without him, Michigan already is what it is.