It’s now or never if Michigan basketball wants chance to make NCAA Tournament

Wolverines need sudden turnaround in final nine games

Jaden Ivey #23 of the Purdue Boilermakers takes control of the ball while guarded by Caleb Houstan #22 and Hunter Dickinson #1 of the Michigan Wolverines during the second half at Mackey Arena on February 05, 2022 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Justin Casterline, 2022 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – From preseason No. 6 to the wrong side of the bubble, the last three months have proven difficult for the Michigan basketball program.

A season that began with high hopes and lofty expectations has devolved into one of frustration and disappointment.

Coming off a Big Ten championship, a No. 1 seed and an Elite Eight appearance, the Wolverines are hurtling dangerously toward their first Big Dance rejection since the injury-riddled 2015.

So how, you might ask, did we get to this point?

Roster turnover and underperformance

It started in the offseason, when Michigan lost arguably its four best players. Their departures have been exacerbated by the struggles of those who took over in their stead.

Franz Wagner, the glue that held Michigan together, single-handedly buoyed the perimeter defense. That, along with his offensive versatility and contagious energy, form a trio of skills too often missing from this year’s squad.

Isaiah Livers, Chaundee Brown and Mike Smith could shoot, get to the basket and defend. That rotation of veteran leadership was gutted and replaced with the No. 1 recruiting class. But sometimes, freshmen need an adjustment period, and Michigan is learning the hard way.

Despite the best efforts of All-American center Hunter Dickinson -- averaging 18.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting 57.9% from the floor -- Michigan is currently 12-9 and well outside the NCAA Tournament picture.

Losses to Minnesota and Central Florida weigh down a resume that lacks even one signature win. Michigan’s most impressive feat so far is toppling an Indiana team that ranks 39th in Kenpom.

The offense is crippled by inconsistent shooting from Caleb Houstan and prolonged disappearances from Moussa Diabate. At times, the former five-star recruits have looked the part, but Michigan’s offense was counting on them to make a much smoother transition to the college game.

Speaking of smooth transitions, fans were spoiled last year by Mike Smith’s seamless jump to Big Ten hoops, and while DeVante’ Jones has improved since the start of the year, the point guard position has seen a major drop-off.

Not all the struggles can be pinned on newcomers, though. Brandon Johns -- who stepped up in the NCAA Tournament with Livers injured -- has delivered an underwhelming senior season. Eli Brooks, while posting near identical offensive ratios, isn’t the defensive presence he was a year ago.

Dickinson’s highly touted classmates -- Terrance Williams and Zeb Jackson (who has since left the team) -- didn’t make the sophomore leap fans became accustomed to during the John Beilein era.

So, with arguably all but one or two of Michigan’s regulars underperforming preseason expectations, it’s easy to see how the Wolverines got to this spot.

Last chance for turnaround

Michigan’s tournament hopes are on life support, especially considering the road ahead.

The Wolverines have nine games remaining in the regular season, and eight of them will come against surefire NCAA Tournament teams.

First up is a rematch with Purdue, which handled Michigan with relative ease last weekend despite only a six-point final margin. The schedule also includes two games against both Ohio State and Iowa and rematches against Michigan State and Illinois.

A Feb. 20 road trip to Wisconsin precedes perhaps the only remaining game that will have Michigan favored: at home against Rutgers.

To dig itself out of this hole -- and depending on what else happens across the country -- Michigan likely needs to win at least six or seven of the final nine games to have any hope of an at-large bid.

Considering how the Wolverines have looked since that aforementioned win at Indiana on Jan. 23, a streak of that caliber seems farfetched.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.