Juwan Howard pounded his chest in triumph as he confidently strolled across the Gainbridge Fieldhouse floor. He was greeted by thunderous applause from Michigan fans, including his former Fab Five teammate Jalen Rose, who couldn’t stop grinning.
Howard (seen above) and Rose celebrated with a warm embrace. A feeling of joy. A sense of relief. Howard’s embattled Wolverines live to fight another day. Down 15. Down their starting point guard. It wasn’t easy, but that’s par for the course these days.
Few Michigan enthusiasts were smiling or hugging earlier. The way this college basketball season has gone, it would have been on-brand for Michigan to be bounced out of the NCAA tournament quickly. So much was expected of the Wolverines, and they failed to deliver for much of it.
It’s funny. In the NCAA tournament, you have a chance to alter narratives. And No.11-seed Michigan (18-14) still has that opportunity following a dominant second half to rally past No.6 Colorado State 75-63. They’ll take on No.3 Tennessee on Saturday with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
Indeed, things were looking dire when the Wolverines never led in the first half and fell behind 28-13 with 5:09 left before the break. But they outscored Colorado State 46-27 in the second half, shooting 60 percent after the break.
“Being down 15, we could have easily just said: ‘You know what? It’s time to pack it in,'” Howard said. “But we are not built that way…. We are going to compete till the end. I respect the resilience that they showed.”
Michigan took advantage of its size and length. Once they stopped treating the basketball like it was smothered in petroleum jelly and defended better, this was their game to win. The Wolverines’ starting lineup features three players at least 6-foot-8 versus just one for Colorado State.
The embodiment of that height advantage is Hunter Dickinson (21 points, 4 blocked shots). The 7-1 second-team All-Big selection could have turned pro after the team reached the Elite Eight last season. The belief was that with Dickinson leading the way, the Big Ten favorite would be a national championship contender. (The Wolverines were No.6 in the Associated Press preseason poll).
It didn’t happen that way. Sure, there were quality early losses to Seton Hall, Arizona, and North Carolina. All those schools are in the tournament. But there were also head-scratching defeats to Minnesota and Central Florida. Disappointment reached Category Five status for Howard when he was suspended for five games following the handshake line debacle at Wisconsin.
Howard is lucky to still have a coaching job. He returned remorsefully and vowed to do better. But then, Michigan blew a 17-point lead to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament last week. A program that hasn’t won consecutive games in over a month was lucky to get an at-large bid to the tournament, and some thought a first-round exit might be in store for the Wolverines.
For a while, the NCAA opener looks like it might be the final insult to a frustrating season. Colorado State kept making 3-point shots (8 of 20 in the first half) and Michigan kept turning over the ball (nine in the first half). But the Wolverines reversed their fortunes. Size can affect the game in many ways. The Wolverines were able to get inside (34 points in the paint, 19 of 22 free throws), own the boards (36 to 25 edge in rebounds), and shut down Colorado State’s offense (29 percent shooting in the second half, including 4 of 15 from 3-point range).
“It’s really tough. My 6-6 frame isn’t 7-1,” said Colorado State’s David Roddy, the Mountain West Player of the Year. “It’s definitely more exhausting trying to get to a front and trying to be super physical.”
In a season full of obstacles, Michigan overcame the loss of its point guard DeVante’ Jones (concussion). His absence may have contributed to the early turnovers.
“I said before the game, without DeVante’, I think I may grow up as a coach today because you have to make adjustments,” Howard said. “You know, when you have a senior who is out and he’s your primary ball-handler, he’s your starting point guard, now as a staff, we prepare with the guys that are going to be playing in a rotation. How can we make them look like stars?”
Howard turned to Frankie Collins, who responded with 14 points on six-of-seven shooting. Before the game, Jones expressed confidence in Collins on Twitter. Turns out, he was right.
That’s the kind of resolve Michigan will need if it wants to salvage a disappointing season.
[Photo from Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports]