As his season faltered, the question haunted Michigan basketball for nearly three months. Members of the media have repeatedly launched the survey of head coach Juwan Howard, his assistant coaches, players before and after almost every game.
They wondered how this group of Wolverines – once ranked in the top 10 and selected as pre-season favorites to win the Big Ten – could find consistency so elusive. How was it possible that a team with an All-American contender in Hunter Dickinson, a coveted graduate transfer in DeVante’ Jones, an established leader in Eli Brooks and the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class could string together back-to-back wins only twice in league play?
Again, it’s a mystery UM couldn’t solve in an 82-71 loss to No. 25 Iowa on senior night at Crisler Center. The Wolverines, who have alternated wins and losses for eight straight games, were blown away from the first warning by a smooth-shooting Iowa team that is among the hottest in the Big Ten. Michigan trailed 19 points in the first half as their defensive intensity wore off, and by the end associate head coach Phil Martelli’s squad was down to 16-13 overall and 10-9 in the league.
“We have to have an emotional commitment to the game,” Martelli said. “And calling it what it is, we didn’t have the emotional commitment to start the game.”
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Keegan Murray and Jordan Bohannon combined to score 42 points and make nine 3-pointers as the Hawkeyes built a 17-point halftime lead in a wire-to-wire victory. Iowa shot 52.6 percent from the field and finished 11 of 19 from 3-pointers on a night when UM made seven 3s.
Hunter Dickinson scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead the Wolverines. Eli Brooks added 17 points and made three 3-pointers in what could be his final game in Ann Arbor. (There could be additional home games if Michigan lands in the NIT rather than the NCAA Tournament.)
The evening felt somewhat offbeat from the start as Michigan celebrated six seniors without their head coach, who has just one game left on a five-game suspension. One by one, the winners made their way from the tunnel through the baseline and to the UM bench, where their teammates greeted them for one-on-one hugs. At the end of the line were the remaining coaches of the program, and a hug with Martelli marked the end of the procession.
“I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to deliver for these seniors,” Martelli said. “It’s the one that will keep me awake.”
It’s hard to imagine how Brooks felt as his storied career drew to a close. He won more games than any player in program history and returned to Ann Arbor for a fifth season to chase another Big Ten title — and more. There were pre-season talks about the Final Four and the fight for a national championship.
That Michigan may not achieve those goals is hardly an indictment of its captain.
“We’re better off having Eli in our lives and on this program,” Martelli said.
Even Thursday night, as the Wolverines limped through another abysmal defensive performance, Brooks did everything he could to lead UM to a better result. He made seven of 11 shots mixing his classic runners with bold perimeter shots whenever the Hawkeyes threatened to walk away for good. He went on personal runs of 5-0 and 6-0 to keep his team afloat.
Imagining how this season would have turned out if Brooks had refused to use his last year of eligibility is a horrific exercise, and he’s powerless to solve defensive problems that crop up at the worst times on his own. Improved offensive performance against Illinois and Michigan State enveloped unsightly second halves in which the Illini shot 70.8% from the field and the Spartans shot 51.2% when losing. . Thursday, the Hawkeyes shot 60% in the first half, including 70% from 3 points.
“I think we’ve had a hard time getting closer to the shooters, finding shooters in transition and also intimidating us when someone takes us to the edge,” said senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. “I think we just need to work a bit more on that, especially to find shooters in the transition part.”
Iowa entered the game ranked sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and opened with a sizzling display. Coach Fran McCaffery’s team hit eight of 12 shots as Murray buried three straight 3-pointers to the chagrin of a sparse crowd. When Murray moved inside, he scored on any Michigan defenseman: Moussa Diabate, Terrance Williams II, and Johns. He needed just nine field goal attempts to score a game-high 23 points.
Bohannon was just as effective in his fourth game of the season with at least five 3-point shots. He buried a 3 against the press all over Michigan when assistant coach Saddi Washington tried to change the defense. He punched another with Dickinson in the face after a cross along the sideline, a shot so good that rookie Kobe Bufkin rose from the UM bench with his hands on his head and his mouth open. . He stopped for 3 in transition on the next possession and stunned the UM faithful again.
Those 3 in a row early in the second half pushed the Hawkeyes lead to 19. It never went below seven for the rest of the game.
“We put ourselves in this situation and this hole,” Johns said. “It’s hard to dig yourself out when you dig so deep.”