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Michigan Basketball: Big Ten Tourney Edition

After a season full of ups and downs, Michigan enters the post-season playing as well as it has all year.

Michigan ended its regular season by defeating Ohio State in Columbus. The victory was notable not only because it was a road victory over a quality opponent, something of which Michigan has precious few this season, but also because the Wolverines won despite playing without their leading scorer and most integral player, Hunter Dickinson.

If you’ve watched Michigan play this year, you know that almost without fail, the Wolverines have struggled when Dickinson is not on the floor. It’s not just that Michigan loses its top scoring threat, it seems to lose any semblance of offensive continuity. So when it was announced that Dickinson would miss the season finale Sunday, a game in which the Buckeyes were solid favorites even with a healthy Dickinson in the line-up, things didn’t look good for the visiting team.

Yet against this backdrop, Michigan played one of its best and most complete games of the season. The Wolverines were led by Devante Jones, who scored 21 points and dished out nine assists in what was his best game as a Wolverine. Michigan also received strong supporting performances from Terrance Williams II, Moussa Diabate and Eli Brooks. As a team, the Wolverines turned in one of its better defensive performances of the season.

The victory improved Michigan’s record to 17-13 overall and 11-9 in conference - good for a tie for seventh with in-state rival Michigan State. The win also pushed Michigan inside the NCAA tournament bubble - and capped a most unusual season.

How unusual? Michigan started the season ranked in the top ten but found itself unranked by early December. Michigan lost to Minnesota at home for the first time in over a decade but beat Purdue by 24 points. Michigan dealt with a COVID-related shutdown that gave the Wolverines a mid-season pause, but set up a murderer’s row of games to end the season. And let’s not forget that with its post-season fate hanging in the balance, Michigan played its final five games without its head coach.

By virtue of winning three of those five games, Michigan has likely punched its ticket to the big dance. But how did it arrive at this point? How did a team that came into this season as a Final Four contender end the season happy to be on the inside of the tournament bubble?

Michigan lost a ton of talent and production from last year’s Elite Eight squad. But with Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks returning and a top-five recruiting class set to join them, most pundits expected Michigan to pick up where it left off last season - when it was a possession away from earning a berth in the Final Four. It wasn’t exactly “Final Four or Bust” in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines looked to be in the mix for a conference championship and capable of a deep tournament run.

It didn’t take long to realize that those expectations were a bit optimistic. Just five games, to be precise. That’s when Michigan came up against a vastly superior Arizona team in the finals of the Roman Main Event tournament in Las Vegas. Granted, Arizona would prove to be one of the better teams in the country, but its manhandling of Michigan brought with it a serious reassessment of Michigan’s team. A bit of a reality check, you might say, for a young team that was going to have to find its way.

It was a realization that, in retrospect, people should have seen coming. Michigan sent three players from last year’s team to the NBA and another to the G-League. In other words, the Wolverines lost four NBA-level players along with a big man off the bench who could score in the post on anyone and replaced them with exactly zero NBA-ready players.

Simply put, too much had been expected of Michigan’s freshman class. Moussa Diabate and Caleb Houstan have played significant roles and minutes this season, but both have often played, for lack of a better comparison, like freshmen. Houstan, in particular, struggled mightily finding his way on the defensive end of the floor. Fellow freshmen Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin have had their share of big moments, but aren’t yet at the level required to compete with the Big Ten’s best.

So despite consistent play from its leaders Brooks and Dickinson, Michigan had its share of struggles and was plagued by inconsistency throughout the season. Not surprising for a team that relied on so many young players. But as is also the case with young teams, Michigan has improved over the course of the season.

By the end of January, Michigan had suffered blowout losses to Arizona (18 points), North Carolina (21 points), Illinois (15 points) and Michigan State (17 points). When the calendar turned to February, the Wolverines were on the wrong side of the tournament bubble. But since then, they have turned the corner to some extent. Playing better, with more consistency. Michigan rolled over Purdue, played Illinois tough in an eventual loss, and evened its season series against both Michigan State (18-point victory) and Ohio State (Sunday’s seven-point victory).

With the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments approaching, Michigan finds itself playing its best basketball of the season. And it’s doing so for a number of reasons.

Last season, grad transfer point guard Mike Smith excelled in his one season in Ann Arbor. The same was expected of Jones, who came to Michigan by way of Coastal Carolina where he was the Sun Belt player of the year. For Jones, however, the transition wasn’t as quick nor as easy, particularly with respect to incorporating his game with that of his teammates. In recent games, however, Jones has shown signs that he’s starting to get comfortable in his role. Against Ohio State, Jones not only led the Wolverines in scoring, but also controlled the action from buzzer to buzzer. When he wasn’t finding his way to the hole, Jones was setting up his teammates.

Freshmen Diabate and Houstan have also shown improvement over the course of the season. Diabate has been somewhat of an X-factor for the Wolverines all season. While his ball skills are still very raw, his athleticism is undeniable, and his defense and presence on the glass have been factors all season. That defense has gotten better as the season progressed. Against Ohio State, Diabate held EJ Liddell, one of the Big Ten’s more talented big men largely in check.

Houstan has also improved over the course of the season. While he’s still subject to off nights shooting (case in point his woeful 0-10 performance against Ohio State), Houstan has played much better defensively the second half of the season - and even came up with some key defensive plays against the Buckeyes.

Williams is also playing his best basketball, tallying nine and 17 points against Michigan State and Ohio State respectively. Instead of just giving Michigan minutes off the bench, Williams has proven that he can now provide a legitimate spark.

All of this puts Michigan in a better place than it’s been for much of the season. And while Michigan may not be expected to make deep runs in either the Big Ten or NCAA tournaments, its play of late makes the possibility seem less remote.