Indianapolis — After sophomore wing Franz Wagner’s last-second, high-arching 3-pointer bounced off the backboard and rim, the heartbreak hit.
Wagner grabbed his head in frustration. Several Wolverines reacted in dejection. Coach Juwan Howard closed his eyes to process the finality of it all.
Just like that, Michigan’s magical season ended with a disappointing finish. On a night where seemingly nothing would fall, the top-seeded Wolverines missed shot after shot down the stretch and it cost them a spot in the Final Four.
But through the pain and anguish of Tuesday’s 51-49 loss to No. 11 seed UCLA, Howard saw the bigger picture and provided some perspective.
“It was a great run this year for this team, for this staff,” Howard said. “It’s very disappointing for our guys, working extremely hard this year, coming down to one possession.
“But I’m so proud of this group and how they competed all season long during some very difficult times. It’s been a very challenging year but at the end of the day, we all need to walk out of this building with our head up with nothing but humility, gratitude and dignity.”
That’s because the Wolverines far exceeded the expectations that were placed on them, at least externally. They entered the season unranked in coaches poll and ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press poll. They were picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten in the unofficial preseason media poll.
For subscribers: Wojo: Top-seeded Michigan will be haunted by frantic final seconds
For subscribers: Niyo: A shot away from Final Four, Wolverines will reflect, regroup
Internally, though, Michigan had national title aspirations and proved it. The Wolverines won 18 of their first 19 games. They steamrolled most of the Big Ten competition en route to claiming their first regular-season title since 2014. They were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation and in the top five for eight consecutive weeks. They earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Howard’s playing days.
On top of that, all of this happened during a college basketball season that was played during a pandemic. Despite not having a positive test all season long, the Wolverines had to navigate a two-week athletic department-wide shutdown and refused to let it throw them off course.
“There’s a lot of sacrifices to be made throughout this season just to get through the season,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “It was worth it because we had a good group of guys and we got to play a game we love. But it was difficult.
“There was a lot of opportunities that we could have took the easy way out and made excuses and we didn’t do that. We stepped up and we played hard every single game.”
That showed throughout the tournament when senior forward Isaiah Livers was sidelined with a foot injury. With Livers hurt, many pegged the Wolverines to be the most vulnerable No. 1 seed and most likely to be ousted first.
Instead, Michigan marched on without one of its top scorers, beating Texas Southern, LSU and Florida State before falling a shot short of the national semifinals and finishing with a 23-5 record. Given how close and connected the team was, according to players and coaches, that made Tuesday’s outcome even harder to swallow.
“We should be very proud of each and every one of them on how they have sacrificed, worked extremely hard throughout the year back in June and making all this work,” Howard said. “At the end of the day we learn from this and we will grow from it, and definitely we all will get better, starting with me first.”
It remains to be seen how much roster attrition there will be. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson and Wagner could both test the NBA Draft waters. The NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility for all basketball players due to COVID-19, meaning Michigan’s seniors can all return next season.
Regardless of those decisions, the Wolverines should have several key contributors back in the fold to go along with a star-studded recruiting class, giving them reason to dream big once again.
Though it’ll take some time for the sting of Tuesday’s finish to fade away.
“Our goal is to be better next year,” Howard said. “But it’s hard for me to start thinking about next year because this game is very fresh. It’s going to be tough to sleep tonight, but I’ll get through it.”
Here’s a breakdown of Michigan’s roster heading into the offseason:
► Eli Brooks, G: Will he come back for one more year? Like all the seniors on this team, it’s unclear whether Brooks will take advantage of the extra season of eligibility being offered by the NCAA. He said after the UCLA loss that he had talked about his options with his family but hasn’t reached a conclusion. If he does, it’ll provide a huge backcourt boost given his steadying presence and impact on both ends. If he doesn’t, it can’t be overstated how difficult it will be to replace all the little things he does.
► Chaundee Brown, G: After transferring from Wake Forest, the senior guard sacrificed his stats and minutes and bought into a sixth man role. The result? He won more than ever before. His defense and 3-point shooting tilted games in Michigan’s favor and are valuable assets that will be coveted wherever he goes.
► Austin Davis, C: The fifth-year senior started a handful of games for the first time in his career, saw an uptick in his production and was a reliable piece in the rotation. Yet, his biggest contribution is the mentorship he provided freshman Hunter Dickinson. He deserves credit for making Dickinson’s transition to the college level and Big Ten seem seamless.
► Hunter Dickinson, C: The Big Ten freshman of the year thrived under coach Juwan Howard’s tutelage and his interior dominance was a key to Michigan’s success. He was a force in the post and his combination of size, touch and passing ability will garner some NBA interest. He’ll likely dip his toes in the draft waters to gather feedback before coming back and expanding his game next year.
► Jace Howard, wing: The freshman is viewed as a four-year player so it’s no surprise he didn’t see the court much and only appeared late in games when the outcome was decided. He’s a depth piece who could be called upon if needed next year, but he’s still likely a ways away from being a constant contributor.
► Zeb Jackson, G: The athletic freshman didn’t have a defined role and saw first-half action on a few occasions, but there weren’t many minutes trickling down with Michigan’s veteran guards soaking most of them up. That said, he should get more opportunities and consistent playing time to show what he can do at both guard spots next season.
► Brandon Johns Jr., F: The junior’s season followed a familiar script — flashes of his talent and moments where it looked like everything was coming together. The next step is for Johns to play to his potential fully and consistently. His versatility will be needed next season and he should have a leg up on the competition for a starting role. The hope is he’ll use the solid postseason outings as a springboard into his senior year.
► Isaiah Livers, F: The senior came back for one last ride and it started out as a memorable one. He was having a career year and looked poised to make some noise in the postseason until he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. After contemplating entering the NBA Draft last year, he’ll move on and pursue a pro career.
► Adrien Nunez, G: Like Howard, the junior was at the bottom of the totem pole and was relegated to mop-up duty in his appearances. Given the limited role he played as a sophomore dwindled even further this year, it’s hard to envision that changing in 2021-22 with the wave of talent that’s on the way.
► Mike Smith, G: The grad transfer made the jump from the Ivy League, adjusted to a new role in a new system and gave Michigan everything it wanted at the point guard spot: facilitating, playmaking, scoring, experience and an ability to control the game. It ended up being a perfect fit and marriage — one that might not be over just yet depending on Smith’s plans.
► Franz Wagner, wing: The sophomore shined as a two-way threat thanks to his positional size, offensive versatility and defensive instincts, which undoubtedly has him on NBA teams’ radars. With his name appearing in projections as a first-round pick, it’s hard to imagine Wagner would bypass the draft process again and return for a third season.
► Terrance Williams II, F: The freshman had his moments throughout the season and showed a willingness to play whatever role was required. He’s a strong rebounder who can defend in the post and out on the perimeter. His chemistry with former AAU teammate Dickinson was noticeable and he figures to be a key part of the rotation moving forward.
► Incoming: Michigan is bringing in the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, led by five-star forwards Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate. Expect both to come in and play big roles from the jump, especially if the Wolverines must replace much of the starting lineup. Four-star guards Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins figure to factor into the backcourt mix, while wing Isaiah Barnes and forward Will Tschetter will provide frontcourt depth. The Wolverines will also likely add an experienced piece or two from the transfer market, particularly at the guard spot if all the seniors move on.