Dash: Is this Michigan’s inflection point?
To date, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season could be likened to a seesaw.
Only a single pivot point separates the Wolverines’ underwhelming play from their prosperity. But getting over the hump isn’t easy when stuck on one side, and the shift from one end of the spectrum to the other is often an abrupt, violent jostle.
Michigan spent the first two months of the season on the side of disappointment. The Wolverines lost seven of their first 14 games, including three of their first four Big Ten contests. They failed to secure a signature non-conference win, leaving their work cut out for them in a rigorous Big Ten schedule. Just a few weeks ago, Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances looked bleak at best — a steep fall for a team ranked as high as No. 4 nationally earlier this season.
But after convincing wins over Maryland and Indiana and a gutsy comeback against Northwestern, the Wolverines are once again teetering at the center of the seesaw. And in Hunter Dickinson’s eyes, they’re ready to thrust themselves across the pivot point.
“This is starting to become the Michigan that everybody ranked in the top 10 and chose to win the Big Ten in the preseason,” Dickinson said after scoring 25 points against the Hoosiers on Sunday. “I think this is the team that everybody expected when the season started. We’re young. We made young mistakes early on in the season. We had a couple hiccups. I think now we’re starting to finally play the Michigan basketball that coach (Juwan) Howard has instilled in us each and every day in practice.”
Along the way, Michigan regained the confidence it lacked during much of November, December and January.
“Maryland and Indiana were big momentum boosters for us,” Dickinson said during a Big Ten Network interview Monday. “Starting the season 7-7, we didn’t have too much momentum coming into these two games. But the way we played offensively and defensively, we really executed our sets and played sound defensively. I feel like these are two wins that we can, going forward, build a lot of momentum off, and two wins that we really needed heading into the tough stretch of the Big Ten.”
Michigan did exactly that against the Wildcats on Wednesday night, rallying back from a seven-point deficit in the final minutes to secure another win. The victory put the Wolverines over .500 in conference play for the first time since Dec. 10, but in order to stay there, they’ll have to slay No. 10 Michigan State on the road Saturday.
For Michigan, Saturday’s heavyweight bout is undoubtedly a measuring stick of recent progress. A strong performance would signal the Wolverines’ hot streak is sustainable, while a clunker of an afternoon would indicate the opposite.
In other words, it’s an inflection point for the season.
Just when Michigan appears to be turning the corner, the schedule arrives at one of its biggest challenges yet. The Wolverines have the talent to leave East Lansing with a win, but whether they’ve figured out the chief issues holding them back remains to be seen.
Michigan has been held back by poor defensive rotations, dismal 3-point shooting, a COVID-19 outbreak and an inability to protect second-half leads for much of this season. The Wolverines have a chance to leave all that in the rearview mirror for good on Saturday, even if they insist on a game-by-game mentality.
“I look at it one game at a time,” Howard said Friday. “Some coaches look at five-game increments, some look at 10-game increments. I look at where we are and how we can get better in areas where we need improvement. With what has been dealt — I’m not looking back at excuses or anything like that — but I love how our guys have really dealt with adversity and I see a lot of growth in us and I’ve seen us getting better and better.”
The recent improvement is impossible to ignore. But as Dickinson said Monday, it boils down to momentum. If Michigan can’t continue its rapid upward trajectory, it risks tumbling back to square one. With the calendar set to flip to February after this game, the Wolverines can ill afford any steps backward in the second half of a season defined by chutes and ladders.
Michigan will face adversity on Saturday. That’s inevitable. The Wolverines have won in East Lansing just twice since 2012, and the Breslin Center isn’t an environment they take lightly.
“We’ve had those talks and they understand the magnitude of it,” Howard said. “They’re going to experience it tomorrow for sure.”
Michigan must also understand the magnitude of the impact Saturday can have on the direction of its season. With an ugly loss, the seesaw might erase the progress of the last two weeks as it swings back towards the underwhelming side.
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