Following Friday’s loss to Long Beach State, Olivier Nkamhoua sat with his head down and a printed stat-sheet in his hands. As media gathered around him, Nkamhoua remained focused, scanning the papers meticulously.
The graduate forward could’ve been checking the impressive numbers to the right of his name. With 8-for-15 shooting, 22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two steals, Nkamhoua’s performance stood out — at least on paper. But what he focused on as he scoured the sheet doesn’t appear in any box score or play-by-play.
Because there’s no documentation for missed box outs.
“He was out of there quick,” Nkamhoua said postgame, in reference to Beach forward Aboubacar Traore’s fateful offensive rebound. “I thought I had him, I failed, and he basically dunked it. That’s just a terrible box out on the free throw line. It can’t happen.”
Down two points with 23 seconds remaining against the Beach, the Michigan men’s basketball team sent Long Beach State guard Messiah Thompson to the line hoping he’d miss the front end of a 1-and-1 giving it a chance to tie or take the lead. And while he did miss, the Wolverines let an opportunity to strike back slip by.
As the ball soared through the air and bounced off the rim, Michigan stood frozen in its tracks. In an instant, Traore escaped Nkamhoua’s extended arm and swiftly tapped the basketball into the hoop. Not only did the miscue double the Wolverines’ deficit, but it dishearteningly stifled any momentum.
“I did a bad job communicating with my team and at the end of the game, we had it and I let a free throw box out through,” Nkamhoua said. “I had some communication errors in the second half that I need to clear up with my teammates.”
It’s easy to be a leader when your team wins. In past victories, Nkamhoua has remained vocal and animated on the sidelines in the waning minutes. When redshirt sophomore Will Tschetter exited Michigan’s game against Youngstown State, Nkamhoua was the first to congratulate Tschetter for his 8-for-8 performance. When the Wolverine walk-ons checked in, Nkamhoua remained standing, the loudest voice on the bench.
The true test emerges when things go awry. Demonstrating his leadership, Nkamhoua took accountability for the late blunder against Long Beach State that sealed the Michigan’s fate, even considering his impact prior to that mistake.
Because, in many ways, he was the reason the Wolverines had a chance to tie it in the first place.
In the final 10 minutes, Nkamhoua didn’t simply spark Michigan’s offense — he was practically all of it. Besides sophomore guard Dug McDaniel’s 3-pointer that shrunk the deficit to 87-85, Nkamhoua contributed all of the Wolverines’ scoring. Going 6-for-7, tallying 13 points and securing three offensive rebounds — one of which he dished out to McDaniel for his triple — Nkamhoua put Michigan on his back.
But in the end, it didn’t matter. Because in a tight game, with one lazy box out, all of Nkamhoua’s prior prowess went out the window.
“We weren’t a cohesive unit like we needed to be and that starts with me,” Nkamhoua said. “It starts with me being in my teammates’ ears, talking to them, being a better communicator on the court and off the court.”
As a team captain, Nkamhoua’s job is to demonstrate leadership on the court, like he did against Long Beach State. The tenacity he demonstrated in the second half — attacking the offensive glass, persisting on the defensive end and amplifying intensity through emphatic dunks — sets the tone for his teammates. And it has all season.
His leadership off the court is just as important, though. The root of it comes from steadfast communication. As the Wolverines allowed the Beach to set the pace and failed to limit its transition offense, something needed to change for Michigan. And that isn’t simply in terms of adjusting on the court, but also off the court by remedying communication woes. That starts with Nkamhoua.
Despite his captain status, Nkamhoua has only been with the Wolverines for a limited time. After transferring to Michigan, he spent the summer with Team Finland for the 2023 FIBA World Cup. Even in that limited time, Nkamhoua’s made his mark. When Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington spoke of him at Big Ten Media Day, that was clear. When his teammates demoted senior forward Terrance Williams II and appointed Nkamhoua a captain, it was confirmed.
But on Friday, it didn’t materialize, and the Wolverines subsequently suffered.
Just like box outs, communication struggles won’t show up in any stat sheet. But that doesn’t take away from their importance — that was clear Friday. The ample production Nkamhoua added shows up on the paper he clutched. But no matter how hard he scrutinized the ink on the page, intangibles like boxing out and communication wouldn’t appear.
Because those intangibles can’t be computed. And although they aren’t quantifiable on paper, they can overshadow the tangibles. On Friday, that was the case.
And Nkamhoua knew it.