Sports writing is rife with metaphors.
The offense went quiet in the last quarter. It was a David and Goliath matchup. They were the Cinderella story of the year.
Here’s another cliche for you: The Michigan men’s basketball team was expected to come out of the gates running at the start of this season. Now, at the beginning of February, the Wolverines are just learning to walk.
On Saturday against Purdue, Michigan put up one of its strongest offensive performances of the season. Despite the loss, the Wolverines showed that they are capable of putting together the pieces that have been there all year.
Thus far, Michigan has been – to put it nicely – inconsistent for a myriad of reasons: The bench hasn’t been able to contribute. It hasn’t found a second reliable shooter outside of sophomore big man Hunter Dickinson. It hasn’t been able to hold onto momentum and make meaningful scoring runs, either.
But, against the Boilermakers, all of those problems looked subdued.
Towards the end of the first half, the Wolverines’ backup players showed their first signs of life. Already facing a hefty deficit by the middle of the first half, Michigan coach Juwan Howard turned to the bench. The backups put up 13 points, including two shots from behind the arc from freshman guard Kobe Bufkin and senior forward Brandon Johns Jr.
“We always want big production out of our bench,” Michigan assistant coach Howard Eisley told reporters on Monday. “We don’t want to have to rely on our starters, not only for big production but to carry a heavy minute load … production that we can get off the bench is always wanted and needed.”
It was by no means an amazing showing — especially compared to Purdue’s 21 points in the same category — but it was still a marked improvement from the Wolverines’ average of eight bench points across their three most recent games.
Dickinson also had a superb day. He racked up 28 points – his most so far this season – and was 2-for-3 from deep. Not only did Dickinson look like the offensive powerhouse Michigan expected — and needed — him to be at the beginning of the season, but he also managed to stay out of foul trouble.
The added offensive firepower seemed to make the Wolverines more resilient. Despite the Boilermakers’ aggressive offense all the way through, Michigan wouldn’t let the game get out of hand, keeping it close until the very end.
“Basketball is about runs,” Howard said. “You try to prevent your opponent from scoring zero points but realistically (that) is not going to happen. And then teams want to make shots, and they’re going to make shots sometimes.”
None of this erases the fact that the Wolverines lost by six and never led in the game. This isn’t the team that kept fans glued to their TVs last season, each game solidifying visions of a Final Four appearance.
This team is at risk of not making the NCAA Tournament and holds a 5-5 Big Ten record. It’s not a team that’s going to win the Big Ten. It’s not a team that’s going to have a meaningful postseason run.
But making strides this late in the season says something not just about this team but, more importantly, about Howard and his ability to adapt.
There are a lot of ways to make a winning team, whether it’s a couple dominant scorers or a well-rounded lineup or militant defense. Michigan doesn’t have any of these, but Howard isn’t done trying to put the pieces together.
This won’t be a team that sprints towards a National Championship but, on Saturday, it proved that there’s still room to improve before it hits the finish line.
“I applaud them for what they have been able to endure throughout the season,” he said. “And — by the way —the season isn’t over.”
Who knows? Maybe the Wolverines will take this walk and turn it into a respectable jog.