Michigan Basketball: Have the Wolverines Turned the Page?

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson celebrates a play against Wisconsin during overtime of U-M's 87-79 win on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, at Crisler Center.
Michigan center Hunter Dickinson celebrates a play against Wisconsin during overtime of U-M's 87-79 win on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, at Crisler Center. /

Michigan basketball has won 6 of their last 8 and has reasserted itself into the Tournament Picture… but will it be enough?

After dropping two very winnable games against Indiana and Wisconsin, Michigan basketball was backed into a corner. The Wolverines next three games — home against MSU, on the road at Rutgers, and home against Wisconsin — were all seemingly must-win games to keep March Madness hopes alive.

The Wolverines won all three, and in a way that nobody would’ve expected a month ago. All three of those games were close in the final minutes, and all three were won by clutch plays on the Michigan basketball side.

For the first two-thirds of the season, the Wolverines consistently shot themselves in the foot. They proved that they could hang with anyone in the nation, but weren’t able to prove that they could finish. They consistently had a chance to win, just to soil it horribly.

I’m sure that anyone who had been watching Michigan basketball play all season long expected the Wolverines to crumble in a similar fashion these past three games. But you know what: they didn’t.

They defeated their arch-rival on an emotional night, they went into enemy territory and silenced the crowd, and they did the unthinkable against Wisconsin to win the game.

If Michigan ends up making the tournament, every fan can thank Hunter Dickinson. That shot was unreal, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the season is over if he misses that.

Yes, it is somewhat embarrassing that Wisconsin was able to overcome a double-digit deficit without Chucky Hepburn, who went down with an injury and didn’t see the floor for the majority of the second half + overtime. But they were there at the end, consistently coming through on the offensive end.

Sure, Dickinson may only make that shot 1/10 times, but let’s not forget that Wisconsin banked in a contested three less than two minutes earlier. The fact is, the Wolverines didn’t cave to the pressure, they answered every Wisconsin basket with one of their own.

This is clearly not the same team that we watched from November to January. They’ve matured and have gelled.

How will the final two Michigan basketball games play out?

Michigan basketball has two of its toughest games of the season remaining. The Wolverines play at Illinois — a team which Juwan Howard is 0-5 against — and at Indiana, who may be the hottest team in America. The collapse at home against Indiana is coming back to bite the Wolverines, as they’d likely be in the tournament picture had they won.

Instead, the Wolverines likely need to win at least one of these games. ESPN gives Michigan a 24.3% chance against Illinois and a 17.5% chance against Indiana. Statistically, that gives Michigan a 37.6% chance of winning at least one game.

Those odds aren’t great, but this Wolverine team is hot. Indiana and Illinois are essentially locks for March Madness. They don’t have as much to play for as the Wolverines do. I think it’s very possible that Michigan basketball could catch one or both of them sleeping.

The big three of Dug McDaniel, Kobe Bufkin, and Hunter Dickinson have erupted lately. The three combined for 71 of Michigan’s 87 points against Wisconsin. There aren’t many teams in the nation that can boast a similar big three.

Add in Tarris Reed’s increased role, the implementation of lineups utilizing both Reed and Dickinson, Joey Baker’s improvement from three, and the likely return of Jett Howard, and it’s easy to feel awfully optimistic.

I think the more likely win among the two games is clearly Illinois. The Illini aren’t a great team, and outside of Terrance Shannon Jr, they don’t have much firepower. This isn’t the same Illinois we’ve seen the past couple of seasons. They’re a good team, but they’re not a great team.

It’ll be a very hostile environment, but it’s a game the Wolverines will have a chance in.

I’ve got the Wolverines winning at Illinois and losing at Indiana. I think the return of Jett Howard is ultimately the X-factor for the remainder of the season. If he can provide elite scoring while holding his own on defense, a Sweet 16 run — or better — doesn’t seem too insane.

Every fan will be anxiously watching on Thursday to see if Jett Howard returns and if his return is a net positive. There has been some chatter regarding whether or not his return to the starting lineup will be beneficial; Jett has been a defensive liability and this winning streak has been built on defense.

If Jett Howard can simply hold his own on defense, this team can reach its lofty goals.

I don’t want to create unreal expectations, but this is still a very talented Michigan team. The Wolverines have passed their past three tests and now approach their biggest challenges. If the Wolverines can win one – or both – of their remaining games, they’ll be in a good position in terms of March Madness.

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As always, Go Blue!