It’s a bit too late to make bold, sweeping proclamations about what the Michigan men’s basketball team could be.
Just as I’m not going to tell you to sell all your stock in the Wolverines, I’m also not going to say that they have turned a corner and are finally making good on their sky-high preseason expectations.
At this point, they are who they are.
Michigan is a team good enough to beat those worse than it, talented enough to — usually — beat those on the same level and just streaky enough to get a win or two against a team better than it. Nothing more, nothing less.
It’s a bubble team.
That’s not to say that the Wolverines can’t make the NCAA tournament or even win a couple of games there. Michigan just isn’t a contender — it’s too inconsistent, too flawed.
No stretch of games proved that better than this past weekend’s home bouts against then-No. 3 Purdue and then-No. 16 Ohio State. In the first, the Wolverines clicked; they played their best game of the season and ran one of the nation’s top teams out of the gym, beating the Boilermakers by 24. Fans stormed the court and reveled in what felt like a new beginning for their enigmatic Michigan team.
After a season rife with disappointment and marred by unfulfilled expectations, local interest finally started picking up once more. Saturday’s game against the Buckeyes sold out Crisler Center for only the second time all season — and the first time since the opening game. But you probably know what happened next.
And not only did it lose — it lost without much of a fight. Never once leading in the second half, the Wolverines failed to embark on a single run greater than six points, and they endured another dreadful day from beyond the arc, shooting 4-for-17.
The postgame press conference was somber. The team seemed tired after four games in eight days, but it was still acutely aware of the opportunity that had just slipped away.
“I just feel bad that we didn’t get the win,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard lamented. “Because it was beautiful just to see the support that came out today.”
Fifth-year guard Eli Brooks struck a similar tone when trying to describe what went wrong:
“We did recovery, we did all the steps necessary to come out and perform to our capabilities,” he said. “Sometimes the ball doesn’t fall for you, and it didn’t tonight.”
The sentiment that Brooks expressed really is just the simple truth. It’s one that Brooks has communicated time and again. As the Wolverines’ captain, he’s almost always speaking for the team after a loss, and given that Michigan often shoots as poorly as it did on Saturday, Brooks is quite often repeating himself:
“We just didn’t capitalize on shots. We know we can shoot the ball. … We just have to step up and make shots,” Brooks said after the loss to Rutgers on Jan. 4, a game in which the Wolverines shot 3-for-15 from three.
“When we get good looks, we got to make shots,” he said after the home loss to Minnesota on Dec. 11, another game where Michigan floundered from beyond the arc, going 6-for-18.
“I think it was just one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in,” he said after the Wolverines’ first loss of the season to Seton Hall on Nov. 16. They were still ranked in the top five and had the first of many poor shooting performances, going just 3-for-15 from deep.
By now, it’s apparent that the loss to the Pirates wasn’t just “one of those nights.” In reality, it was a premonition for the next 20 games, a glaring red flag of who Michigan was destined to become.
The poor shooting performances that have plagued the Wolverines over the year aren’t their only problem, but they’re a manifestation of the greater issue: Michigan is far too volatile to be one of the nation’s best. No amount of sporadic lights-out performances will remedy that.
Over their final seven games, the Wolverines will certainly need a few more hot-shooting nights if they want to play a meaningful postseason. They are good enough to do so, and talented enough that it should be expected. They still have the chance to salvage something from this season.
Though at this point, that something is almost certainly not a deep run in March. It’s pride, it’s a tournament bid, hell, maybe even a tournament win or two.
But, unless Michigan wins the NIT, it’s probably not a banner.