The story of Michigan’s 2021-2022 basketball season has been well documented. Juwan Howard’s Wolverines entered the season as one of the conference favorites and a Final Four hopeful. It didn’t take long, however, to realize that such expectations had to be reassessed. Slow out of the gate and plagued by inconsistency, Michigan spent the majority of the season in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. In the end, Michigan and its fans were happy to simply earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.
So what went wrong? In retrospect, such lofty expectations were unrealistic. Underestimating the loss of four NBA-level players from last season’s Elite Eight team while overestimating the impact of a strong freshman class. Particularly considering Michigan welcomed three new starters to its line-up: Freshmen Moussa Diabate and Caleb Houstan and graduate transfer DeVante Jones at point guard. Sure, Diabate and Houstan were high school All-Americans and Jones was the reigning Sun Belt conference player of the year, but surely the transition to the Big Ten would take time.
Not surprisingly given such a high degree of turnover, Michigan started the season slowly. The Wolverines were embarrassed in non-conference losses to Arizona and North Carolina (granted, Arizona would end the season as a number one seed and North Carolina advanced to the NCAA championship game) and had trouble getting on track in conference play, starting the Big Ten season 1-3.
But as the season progressed, the Wolverines started to show improvement. Jones adjusted to both his role on the team and to the rigors of playing against elite competition. Diabate and Houstan improved - Houstan particularly on the defensive end of the court - and fellow freshman Frankie Collins showed himself as someone who could provide a spark off the bench.
Michigan’s record began to reflect its improved play. Over the second half of the season, the Wolverines defeated Iowa, Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State. But while Michigan may have showed improvement in its play, it didn’t do so consistently. The Wolverines seemed incapable of stringing together consecutive good performances, and alternated wins and losses over the final ten games heading into the NCAA tournament.
Michigan ultimately made the NCAA tournament, but not a lot was expected of the 11-seed Wolverines. If Michigan couldn’t win consecutive games in conference play, how far could it be expected to advance in the NCAA tournament?
Farther than many thought, it turned out. Because against this backdrop, Michigan played its best basketball of the season. After a slow start, the Wolverines advanced in their NCAA opener with a decisive victory over a formidable Colorado State team. Michigan followed that with a hard-fought victory over SEC champion Tennessee. With the victory, Michigan advanced to the Sweet Sixteen (one of only two Big Ten teams to do so) for the fifth consecutive tournament.
Michigan wouldn’t advance any farther, however, falling to its tournament kryptonite Villanova in a Sweet Sixteen battle. Michigan may have fallen to Jay Wright’s Wildcats, but it didn’t go down without a fight. The Wolverines battled the entire game and played as good a game defensively as they’d played all season. But in the end, the Wolverines couldn’t get their shots to fall and Michigan fell 63-55.
The loss marked a disappointing end to a strangely satisfying season.
Hunter Dickinson built on a strong freshman campaign and led the Wolverines in scoring and rebounding. Jones ultimately found his footing and became an integral part of Michigan’s success (and finally got to participate in an NCAA tournament, something that eluded him during his three seasons at Coastal Carolina). Eli Brooks ended his career as one of the more beloved Wolverines in recent memory and Michigan’s young players, from Diabate, Houstan and Collins to Terrance Williams II improved throughout the year.
In the end, Michigan’s 2021-22 season had its share of ups and downs. But with its strong finish coupled with tangible player development, Juwan Howard’s team ended the season looking to be in a better place than many thought it was a month or two earlier. And for that, while the season may not have been entirely successful, it was ultimately a satisfying one. Or at least one with an enjoyable finish.