When freshman big man Moussa Diabate had the ball stripped, leading to a highlight-reel dunk for Arizona guard Dalen Terry, it meant more than just two points and a 13-point lead for Arizona early in the second half — a game the Wolverines would go onto lose in blowout fashion, 80-62.
That play carried with it thoughts of surprise and awe. Questions like ‘Isn’t Michigan supposed to be the team making these plays?’
Before the season started, the Wolverines had all the hype. They were the ones coming in with five-star recruits, a returning All-American center and a preseason top 10 ranking.
They were supposed to be the ones sprinting down the court and unleashing authoritative dunks, bringing the crowd to its feet, announcers to a higher octave and Twitter into a frenzy.
But so far, that hasn’t been the case.
Through five games, this Michigan men’s basketball team has looked largely unimpressive. It has been picked apart by crafty guards and dominated by size. Its star freshmen are playing … well, like freshmen and have struggled to shoot at every level.
All these growing pains are certainly fixable in the coming months, and they’ll need to be if the Wolverines want any chance at fulfilling the lofty goals they have set for themselves.
But, does this slow start mean that the expectations for March and beyond should be tempered?
For now, no.
What happens early in a college basketball season is hardly an exact foretelling of what will come to fruition at the end. It can be an indicator, but nothing is concrete, and no one is eliminated within the first handful of games. This isn’t college football after all.
If you want an example, just take a look at recent Michigan teams.
In 2018, the Wolverines started the season a resounding 17-0. But, that didn’t pencil them into the Final Four. In fact, they didn’t exactly end that season on a high note. A 13-7 record over their final 20 games and a Sweet 16 blowout loss assured that a strong start isn’t everything.
Compare that with the year prior. The 2017-18 Michigan team made it to the National Championship game and by all metrics had one of its best seasons. It also started out 7-3, suffering a double-digit loss to North Carolina. It’s an example of a team that peaked at the right time.
Those examples are two different ends of the spectrum, and where this iteration of Wolverines’ basketball lies is still very much up in the air.
What defines Michigan’s 2021-22 season will ultimately be decided by how it responds to its early season struggles.
“We’re going to get better, I trust we will,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after the loss to Arizona. “When adversity hits, it’ll define the man by how he responds to it next time.”
But Howard’s optimism cannot be the sole remedy. It’s whether or not freshman forward Caleb Houstan starts living up to his billing as a top 10 recruit and can shoot better than 23% from three. Whether or not graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones can start to mesh with the rest of the team as well as Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown did just a year ago. Whether or not the Wolverines can clean up their mental lapses.
There’s reason to believe that Michigan can right the ship. It has the pieces, it has shown flashes of what it could be and its ceiling is still as high as it was two weeks ago. It even has veteran voices in the locker room like fifth-year guard Eli Brooks.
Brooks is a player who’s been on teams at both ends of the spectrum, and he’s been one of the few bright spots for the Wolverines thus far. He understands what it’s like to bounce back from early season stumbles, and he knows what it’s like to experience an early postseason exit.
“We just got to stay the course,” Brooks said after the loss to the Wildcats. “We got to buy into our habits, I mean, the formula worked in the past years. So, you just got to lock in to what coach (Howard) is teaching. If we apply it, it’s proven that we can win championships.”
So, yes, while it’s easy to start eulogizing this Michigan team. And, it’s fair to lower expectations for what this season — especially, early on — will look like. There’s still a lot of time left.
History says that it would be unwise to go and bury this team.
At least, not yet.