Over the past two seasons, Michigan has struggled to find sustained success, remaining stuck in a cycle of inconsistency. Lila Turner/Daily. Buy this photo.

I’m just going to come out and admit it: I don’t know how to judge the Michigan men’s basketball team.

On one hand, the Wolverines have been underwhelming to say the least. They’ve failed to finish in close games that could make a difference in their season, like falling to then-No. 3 Virginia and then-No. 19 Kentucky by a combined six points — or even at Iowa, in a shambolic collapse leading to an overtime loss. They’ve also racked up some inexcusable defeats, most notably a damning Quad-4 loss to Central Michigan

On the other hand, after beating Minnesota Sunday, Michigan ranks second in both the Big Ten standings and the conference efficiency margins. Plus, its talent is clearly there; between junior center Hunter Dickinson, freshman wing Jett Howard, a much-improved sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin and some rising underclassmen around them, the Wolverines have pieces to facilitate success. They could be good.

Right now, though, Michigan isn’t good. But it really isn’t bad, either. The Wolverines are just stuck.

And there’s no sign of Michigan getting freed anytime soon.

“That’s why it hurts so much right now,” junior forward Jace Howard said after the loss to the Chippewas in December. “Because you know what you’re capable of and you know what the team is capable of, but not seeing it is very frustrating.”

Jace’s feelings about the Wolverines after their worst loss of the season pretty much sums up Michigan’s woes over the past two seasons. The Wolverines have a ceiling as high as a skyscraper, but they’re stuck looking up from the ground floor.

Last season — despite having 247Sport’s No. 3 freshman class in the nation, a returning star in Dickinson and a veteran lockdown guard in Eli Brooks — Michigan couldn’t really get it going. Until the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines hadn’t won two games in a row for over a month. And Michigan only had five streaks of two or more wins all season, the longest of which was three wins.

This year, it’s just more of the same. New roster, new talent, new slate, but the same purgatory program. It’s January, and I haven’t seen the Wolverines in a single bracketology graphic. Will they make the tournament or won’t they? Will this win get them in? Will this loss knock them out for good? It’s the same questions all over again — all of them problematic. 

When Michigan coach Juwan Howard took over in 2019, and then brought in his first recruiting class, there wasn’t a discussion of how Juwan might get the Wolverines into the tournament. Instead, people were talking about how he could make them a blue blood.

Michigan still hasn’t missed the tournament since 2015. It’s made five straight Sweet 16s. There should be absolutely no reason a program that can do that is struggling to even make the tournament for two consecutive years.

And yet, here we are again — a Sisyphean march forward that’s getting the Wolverines nowhere.

Every time Michigan looks hopeless, it gets a must-have win. Any time the Wolverines get a semblance of momentum, it gets sucked away with a gut-punching loss. It’s an endless, draining cycle.

And I’m not sure they can escape it.

Michigan just doesn’t look capable of playing consistent basketball. That’s on Juwan. Its coach needs to get his team ready every game — not just the big ones. 

The Wolverines were clearly prepared for Virginia and for Kentucky. Last year, they came to the NCAA Tournament prepared and punched their ticket to the Sweet 16. But against 302nd NET-ranked Central Michigan? Michigan might as well have been a team transitioning to DI.

But, ask Juwan how the team’s doing and he won’t mince words:

“We are fine, man. We got a win today,” Juwan said Sunday. “And by the way, we are in second place in the Big Ten if you are not paying attention.”

Don’t worry, Juwan, I’m paying attention. Unfortunately, a four-point win over last place Minnesota isn’t giving me unbridled confidence in your team right now.

I have no doubt Michigan will be ready to give No. 3 Purdue a fight Thursday — and maybe even pull off the upset. It’s a big game, after all.

But if the Wolverines want to get out of this rut they’ve been in for over a year, Juwan needs to have his players bring their best beyond the big contests. Michigan needs to care — and play like it cares — against all of its opponents, good or bad.

Until that happens, the Wolverines will stay firmly planted where they are.


Stoll can be reached at nkstoll@umich.edu and on Twitter @nkstoll.