Sitting on the podium after Michigan’s men’s basketball team got a ticket to Sweet Sixteen with a win over No. 3 from Tennessee on Saturday, Eli Brooks wore a smile.
It was a smile with a touch of pride, relief and pride that mingled together after the fifth-year guard and his Wolverine teammates had just proved to everyone who didn’t think they could do it wrong.
Entering the game, Michigan has not proven that it can play two good games in a row, alternating wins and losses over a month, and balancing on the edge of the NCAA tournament for most of the season. Some didn’t even think Wolverines belonged to a field of 68 teams.
But Michigan came out on Saturday and put on a show, playing high-level basketball and looking just as good as all year, after a similar outing just two days earlier against No. 6 seeded Colorado.
Wolverines seemed to be playing their best basketball.
But when asked what it was like to play his best basketball in March, Brooks looked down at his teammates before turning around to answer:
“I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball.”
And, frankly, they are not. They just play their best basketball we have seen all season – but that’s not their potential.
Their potential is much higher. And to achieve their “ultimate goal,” as Brooks said, the national championship, they will need to find a way to reach that potential.
This path passes through Caleb of Houston.
No, the freshman wing is not the only thing that needs to be improved. In his response, Brooks referred to the mistakes that Michigan must reinforce – failures, non-negotiation – to play the “best basketball”, which, in his opinion, he is capable of.
But in almost all other respects Wolverines are playing at the level expected of them before the start of the season and a series of setbacks that followed; a level that made people believe they were title contenders.
Central sophomore Hunter Dickinson doesn’t go beyond what one would expect. His inner presence has improved, and more surprisingly, his outer shot is a real weapon in his arsenal. Dickinson is averaging 18.7 points per game and can score more than 25 points any night, including his double-double with 27 points against the Volunteers.
Brooks is the leader and staunch defender of the perimeter he has always been. DeVante’s top guard Jones is playing as well as you might ask him to be healthy, especially after he was written off due to a portal transfer at the start of the season. Freshman bodyguard Frankie Collins stepped up in Jones ’absence, taking demanding control of the offense and creating games left and right.
Freshman forward Musa Diabate is as good as one might have hoped by performing insanely sporting games along with typical mistakes that even five-star recruits tend to make. And sophomore forward Terence Williams II has made the leap in his second season to become an extremely valuable participant.
Houston is the only one still missing from the equation.
In his last four games Houston has a 6-on-22 from the arc and only an 8-on-35 off the field that is far from the “elite shooter” he was considered. In the same games, he counted six assists, two interceptions and one block, turning the ball five times. He wasn’t good, and Michigan was left with a starter who essentially just performs cardio for 33 minutes and 15 seconds per game.
But it’s not that Houston couldn’t produce at all this year.
He had games in which he proved why he got a five-star label, why NBA scouts have his name on the back of his head and why he can take Wolverine to the next level. He has the ability to strike blows that hide the hopes of opponents to win.
From February 23 to March 1, for three games, he averaged 19.3 points with 64% 3-point shooting. But the outbreaks were fleeting, leaving Houston unable to have a consistent impact.
Had Houston blocked, Michigan would have been almost impossible to stop. Think of Tennessee’s game. If Houston were in his game – rather than a 0-on-4 with two turns and just three rebounds – would it be close?
I don’t think so.
There will be no team left in the NCAA tournament that Wolverines could not beat. Their ceiling would really be a title.
Assistant head coach Phil Martelli has said several times this season that if a shooter, especially against Houston, has a few nights of bad shooting, there will be nights when it seems they can’t miss. “Someone is paying,” he says.
Since the next game could be the last for the Wolverines from now on, Houston didn’t have much time left to turn things around and bring their team to the championship level. There are a maximum of four teams left with which he could play, but there is only one question:
Will he make them pay?