ANN ARBOR — Michigan’s fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks has been terrific for Michigan all season: productive, consistent, a leader. His only flaw is that, unlike Iowa’s star player, he doesn’t have a twin.
One night Brooks may have played the last home game of his career, it was obvious how much Michigan needed more players like him.
Michigan lost to Iowa on Thursday, 82-71, continuing a three-week rollercoaster ride for a team that can’t afford to continue to dive. Win, lose, win, lose. If the Wolverines continue like this, Brooks could get another home game – in the NIT.
Familiar issues cropped up like weeds on Thursday. Michigan didn’t get many punches outside of Brooks (17 points) and Hunter Dickinson (21). The Wolverines didn’t make Iowa feel them defensively, allowing the Hawkeyes to get too comfortable early on. There was a misunderstanding – or, as Phil Martelli put it, lack communication – which led to layups and open 3s, especially in transition.
Michigan dug themselves a 17-point halftime hole and, despite a late surge, never really made the Hawkeyes sweat.
It’s not lost on anyone inside Michigan’s program that the team plays well one game and falls flat the next. Martelli, the interim head coach during Juwan Howard’s suspension, said he would remind his players of that after Tuesday’s blowout win over Michigan State. His plan was to ride them a bit harder in practice on Wednesday, an attempt to keep them focused.
It didn’t work out and Martelli was clearly frustrated afterwards.
Moments after praising Brooks – a player he desperately tried to sign from Saint Joseph’s – for bringing “a championship mentality to everything he does”, Martelli lamented that Michigan didn’t have more players like him.
“It’s well established that Eli is the leader,” Martelli said. “But at this point in the year, you need some followers to step up.”
He added: “We always have a very good group of people in this room. I’m not sure we have a stirrer in the room. If Sunday is about myself and (assistants) Howard (Eisley) and Saddi (Washington), then that’s what we’ll do. But we have to have an emotional commitment to the game. And to call it what it is: we didn’t have an emotional commitment to start the game. »
These days, it seems like every win puts the Wolverines in the NCAA Tournament field and every loss knocks them out. They need more wins, and there’s only one regular season hit left — Sunday at Ohio State — before the Big Ten tournament.
Martelli said he reinforced that in the locker room after the loss. “We can’t continue this pattern or we’ll be going home very early in March, and none of us want that.”
If Michigan can’t build the momentum to earn an invite to the NCAA Tournament, it would be a big disappointment for a team with such high hopes in the fall. This would underscore, according to Martelli, that Michigan has a “group of pleasant, Young guys.
“It’s good to be emphatic and young to be emphatic,” he said. “I’m not talking about age. There is an emotional age that we need to increase rapidly on all levels.
After Tuesday’s win in which Dickinson scored a career-high 33 points, Martelli was keen to mention he was as impressed with Dickinson’s score as he was his words. For months, the only Wolverine who spoke was Brooks. Dickinson, a 21-year-old sophomore, was challenged to be more of a vocal leader and, at times, responded.
Point guard is a natural position for a leader, and Michigan starts DeVante’ Jones, a grad transfer with plenty of college basketball experience.
Martelli didn’t give names Thursday, but Brooks needs help. From a strictly basketball standpoint, Michigan had inconsistent play from debutants Caleb Hosutan and Moussa Diabaté.
The latter is in a particularly difficult position to defend the talented power forwards that populate the Big Ten. Sunday will be EJ Liddell; Thursday was Keegan Murray, who scored 23 points on just nine shots. Not having an experienced, reliable power forward — senior Brandon Johns Jr. was an early-season starter but has been plagued with inconsistencies — is a big reason for Michigan’s record (16-13, 10-9), Martelli said. It is a “baptism of fire” for Diabaté.
There have been Big Ten programs that, like Michigan did last year, won the league and struggled the following season. Indiana in 2017 and 2014, Michigan in 2015, and Ohio State in 2008 failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament after winning the conference crown the previous year.
Michigan prefers to avoid this fate. Martelli doesn’t really believe in “games to win,” but Thursday’s loss makes Sunday all the more important. If the Wolverines lose in Columbus and go to Indianapolis with a 16-14 record, they may need to reach the Finals (three wins) to feel good about an NCAA Tournament bid.
It’s time for Michigan to salvage its season. The clock is turning.