INDIANAPOLIS — And on the first day Juwan Howard came back... it didn’t go well for Michigan.
Wonder if the NCAA selection committee was watching?
The members are putting the bracket together in a hotel just down the street from Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Wonder if they were by the TV sets Thursday to see with their own eyes what happened to the Wolverines in the second round of the Big Ten tournament? How they had Indiana in a 17-point headlock in the second half, and then flamed out. How they were outscored 28-4 in one stretch and lost 74-69 to continue the zig-zag pattern they’ve been on for a month; win and then lose and then win and then lose... they haven’t done either twice in a row since Feb. 10.
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Wonder what the committee folks think when they look at Michigan’s 17-14 record which, if admitted to the NCAA Tournament, would tie for the third-worst ledger ever for an at-large bid team?
Howard is probably wondering all that, too. He didn’t sleep much Wednesday night for other reasons. The next few nights until Selection Sunday might not be that great, either.
“I’m going to pray; prayer warriors are going to be open,” he said. “I’m going to wait on Sunday with my players and see where the chips fall at the end. But at the end of the day, whatever is decided, I’m still proud of how this team, coaches, the Michigan family have been together. We talk about family, we don’t use that word loosely. But our family was challenged throughout the year.”
Especially lately, of course. This was not any ordinary bubble game for Michigan. For the first time in weeks, since Slapgate in Madison, the Wolverines’ head coach was on the bench with them, his five-game suspension served.
“We are just happy to have our leader back,” Hunter Dickinson said.
“Myself, I’m mad that we didn’t get the W for him,” Devante’ Jones added.
Well, at least this time they didn’t get yanked off the court before the game.
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Ten minutes before tipoff Thursday, the band was playing The Victors and the noon crowd was rolling in. The ambiance was of a crucial bubble game about to be played, not to mention Howard’s imminent return.
It was a different planet than the last Thursday second-round game the Big Ten tried to play in this place. The Wolverines were in that game, too, taking warmup jumpers before playing Rutgers in a quiet and empty arena, because fans were not allowed. That’s when Big Ten officials raced onto the court and ordered everyone out.
Thursday, March 12, 2020. The day March suddenly went dark because of COVID.
The issues were far different this Thursday on the return to the Fieldhouse. (The tournament was in reduced attendance at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2021). Here were two teams needing wins for their NCAA Tournament resume. Here was Howard walking onto the court for the first time in three weeks. The day before, he had profusely apologized for the incident and mentioned he had sought therapy. Now he was ready to get back to coaching.
“I’m human, I have feelings, I care,” he said after the game. “I would not stop caring. It’s been an emotional ride. Did I get sleep last night? No. But I love teaching, I love coaching, I love being here, I miss being with my guys.
“Now it’s roll up our sleeves, stay dialed into the competition and continue to grow as a coach, and also as a person.”
His return went peachy Thursday until Michigan’s offense stalled badly in the second half against a quicker Indiana lineup. The defense wasn’t that swell, either. It turned out to be the second biggest blown lead for a loss in Big Ten tournament history. “Teaching moments,” Howard called the second half. Including for him.
“I take full accountability,” he said. “I’m going to watch film and there’s going to be a lot of sleeping moments where I have a lot of disturbances in my sleep because I’m going to be playing every play on how I could have done better... what did I do wrong.
“I’m going to look at myself in the mirror first.”
The win probably put 19-12 Indiana safely on the right side of the bubble. Michigan can only hope. At the end of his press conference, Howard walked down the steps and tapped a poster that had past Indiana Pacer names on it, which probably included friends and colleagues from his NBA days. Then he went home.
The last time the Michigan Wolverines left the Big Ten tournament in this building, they — and everyone else — were going home to wait out the attack from an enemy nobody could see. Now they just wait to see a bracket.