Before the season started, much of the hype that surrounded the Michigan men’s basketball team revolved around the freshman class.
It was the nation’s second-best, held two five-star recruits — forward Caleb Houstan and big man Moussa Diabate — and had two other top-50 players.
There was an expectation that the freshmen would come in and immediately star in their roles, lifting up a depleted roster to all new heights.
Yet two months into the season, that hasn’t happened.
“It takes time for freshmen to make an adjustment right out of high school and to … hit the ground running and play at a high level,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “You get the assumption that five-star (recruits) … are supposed to dominate when they first arrive in live game action. But it takes time to develop.”
The two five-stars — Houstan and Diabate — are in the starting lineup and have, at times, shown why they were so highly touted coming out of high school. But once again, their problems have largely been doing so consistently.
Houstan’s development is one of the most important keys for the Wolverines going forward. He was supposed to be a knockdown 3-point shooter coming out of high school, even earning the nickname “Klay Thompson” from his teammates. But through the first 12 games, Houstan has struggled to find consistency. He’s shooting 37% from the floor and 33% from beyond the arc — not the numbers Michigan needs from one of its only deep threats.
Houstan’s ability to find offensive stability, especially behind the arc, will be vital for the Wolverines as they start their Big Ten slate.
Diabate is in a similar position to Houstan. He’s shown flashes but has failed to really put it together for a full game. Michigan will need its starting ‘4’ man to find consistency on the offensive and defensive side of the ball when it starts playing the high level of competition upcoming on the schedule. Still, Howard has confidence in Diabate’s development.
“It’s not just the package of being able to live on the offensive end, he will continue to work on his defensive prowess,” Howard said of Diabate. “We need not only just Moussa, but all of our guys to have an impact on both ends of the floor.”
But it’s not just Diabate and Houstan that Michigan needs to develop. It goes beyond that, into the backcourt where freshman guards Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin can have a major impact on how the final 18 games of the season will play out.
Collins has had a steady upwards trajectory and has for the most part been vital to the Wolverines as the backup point guard. His role has diminished as of late due largely in part to graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones finding his form, but he will still be called on to provide offensive cohesion off the bench. And for a team such as Michigan that lacks depth at the guard spot, Collins’ ability to continue adjusting to the college game and improve will be crucial.
Bufkin is probably the biggest question mark. Considering that the Wolverines lack depth at both the guard and small forward positions, if Bufkin can continue making improvements, especially offensively, he could very well end up being the answer to some of Michigan’s problems.
But, that could be a long way off. Bufkin has played some of his basketball of late — with career highs in minutes and points coming two weeks ago against Southern Utah — but whether or not he can sustain that has yet to be seen. If he can not only keep it up, but improve upon it, the Wolverines will be much better as a result.
“I expect some great things from Kobe throughout the year,” Howard said. “He’s gonna do some special things for the University of Michigan because of the way he’s just so skilled and athletic.”
With the hardest stretch of the schedule coming up, Michigan needs its freshmen to step up. If they don’t, the games will probably look similar to UCF, Minnesota, Arizona and all the other disappointments thus far. But if they do find their stride, the Wolverines could finally start to look like the team everyone expected before the season started.
Howard, at least, believes that they can.