INDIANAPOLIS — It is moments before Michigan plays Colorado State Thursday in the first game of the NCAA tournament's first round and as the Wolverines’ starting lineup is announced, Juwan Howard is trying not to be concerned.
“They give their grade year,” he would say later. "And it’s first one, Moussa (Diabate), freshman. Caleb (Houstan), freshman. Hunter (Dickinson), sophomore. Frankie (Collins), freshman. I’m like . . . whoa.
“Some people would say it’s a very young team. True, it is. But did they grow up today? Yes.”
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The curvy path Michigan has been trying to follow all season took another turn for the good Thursday. Consider the road traveled by the Wolverines: They went from being ranked No. 4 early . . . to a series of defeats . . . to Howard’s slap heard ‘round the game at Wisconsin, with its ensuing five-game suspension . . . to blowing a 17-point lead and losing to Indiana in their first game in the Big Ten tournament . . . to many wondering if they would even hear their name called on Selection Sunday . . . to Thursday, when they fell behind Colorado State 15 points, and then rebooted and blew past the Rams 75-63.
First upset winner of the 2022 NCAA tournament.
Wait a second. Michigan over Colorado State an upset? The seeds declare it was, with the Wolverines coming in No. 11 and the Rams No. 6. The fact Michigan would have to technically upset its way past Colorado State suggested how unsteady the past couple of months have been in Ann Arbor.
That such a young lineup could be so unfazed by a bad start and so dominant at the end, well, that shouldn’t surprise Howard. He’s seen that movie before at Michigan. Acted in it, for that matter.
“If I remember,” he said, “Coach Fisher started five freshmen.”
Steve Fisher. Fab Five, remember? Co-starring Juwan Howard. That turned out pretty well.
Still, there was reason to wonder about the Wolverines at the start Thursday. The season had been shaky, the meltdown against Indiana a near-disaster. “A great learning moment for us,” Howard preferred to call it, “and how we have to not feel that we’ve got to play the scoreboard, but it’s everything that happens between the lines.”
Not only that, his veteran ball-handling guard, DeVante’ Jones, was still in concussion protocol. His replacement, Collins, had never started a college game in his life. He’s averaged under 10 minutes and three points a game as a reserve, so Howard was having to trade a graduate student for a freshman. Some tinkering would have to be done in game-planning.
“I think I said before the game, without DeVante’, 'I think I may grow up as a coach today,'” he said. “Because you have to make adjustments, and that’s what it’s all about.”
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Then the game started, and Michigan fell behind 15 points. Committed nine turnovers in the first 14 minutes. Couldn’t have done worse from the 3-point line if the Wolverines had shot blindfolded, missing all seven attempts in the first half. This was Indiana in reverse.
So what was going through their minds at such a perilous moment? Howard was intent on staying unruffled.
“It’s not going to always go perfect for 40 minutes. It just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “If I get rattled and get annoyed with the score and feel like yelling, sometimes that can seem like you’re not prepared. I just wanted them to calm down.”
Dickinson, who would finish with 21 points, had an idea.
“I know I was thinking, 'If they can do it to us, we can do it to them,'” he said.
They did. The defense improved, the shooting arrived, and Collins was a spark plug: 14 points, six rebounds, one turnover in 31 minutes. The Wolverines went sweeping past on their way to the second round. The recent woes were a memory.
“I think that was a true test for us of mental toughness,” Howard said.
Right down to his new guard.
“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball,” Collins said. “I’ve been working out, practicing, playing basketball my whole life.”
So Michigan moves on. The Wolverines have been a little bruised, a little rickety, a little open to question. But they’re still playing, with Tennessee next on Saturday. They might even be dangerous.