Juwan Howard threatened to start his walk-ons. Tarris Reed Jr. talked about his faith in God. Michigan’s 69-59 collapse against Rutgers — finished by an 18-2 Scarlet Knight run — was so bad that it’s hard to put into words.
This game decided last place in the Big Ten. By losing, the bottom-feeding Wolverines won the trophy that no one wants. And in familiar fashion, they had every opportunity to prevent it. This collapse pulled out all the usual stops — mostly a lack thereof — and Michigan turned the ball over nearly as many times (19) as it made a basket (23). All of it went on display during the run, a microcosm of the season that you can all but guarantee will happen each game.
According to Juwan Howard, it’s a problem of pride.
“What stops the bleeding is pride,” Howard said. “Pride to have the mindset to go out and whatever play it is, it has to be one of those that you roll your sleeves up, get your knees dirty. Those are the type of plays we need.”
But when he looked out on the court Saturday night, he didn’t see that hunger. Even more, he didn’t see confidence. Instead, he saw doubt.
“It (becomes) a compound mistake when the ball is not going in for you offensively,” Howard continued. “Then you get into your thoughts, and you forget what to do on the defensive end. And then when a team scores, then that’s where doubt comes in.”
Take pride. Get stops. Leave doubt at the door. That’s what Howard wants his team to lean into. Just another basic principle that his team needs to lean back on, like boxing out on rebounds.
Sure, there’s some truth in that, but it isn’t that simple. Five guys straining all their might can only lose for so long, but it’s hard for anyone to take pride when their team sits at the bottom of the standings. It’s even easier for doubt to creep in when every game follows the same script.
A lead at half, a big run by an opponent, and a gut-wrenching loss that leaves everyone juggling shock and amazement that it happened again — you know the drill. Pride could’ve been the solution two months against Oregon and Indiana, or even a month ago against Minnesota before these losses had enough sequels to rival the Fast & Furious franchise.
There’s another side to pride, though: an inability to admit when you’re failing. As much as Howard is right that a boost of pride could get his team back on track, it’s also his own staff’s pride that leaves players out to dry.
Pride might be, in part, a solution to the Wolverines’ problems. But on a larger scale, pride has been their undoing. Pride is the reason they haven’t made significant schematic changes to a defense that has struggled all year. It’s why Michigan continues to recruit grad transfers as patchwork solutions to make a push for the NCAA Tournament, rather than investing in a big push to build the roster from the ground up. Pride is the reason change is so hard for Michigan to make.
So why is Howard thumping a problem with pride right now? Perhaps it’s because he’s long out of answers — he’s said everything else. Meanwhile, his team is stuck at the bottom, a place he says he’s never been before. Much the opposite, Howard is used to the top when he’s leading the charge, and he referenced how far his system has taken the Wolverines.
Elite Eight. Sweet Sixteen. “The shit works,” Howard put it bluntly.
“The shit” worked in the past, but it hasn’t in the present. Michigan has to come to grips with that fact. It’s got a roster that was never going to be a Tournament team, yet it sunk lower than even the most cynical projections.
Every game, the Wolverines trot out the same way as before, expecting a different result. Einstein’s definition of insanity. Each successive loss crushes their confidence, and it leaves the team divided.
“I remember Dug he said one time, he was watching the game at home and it’s like ‘Man, we don’t look together,’ ” Reed said. “And he said that — that stuck with me, that stuck with a lot of us on the team.”
Maybe that cohesion is where a little pride could help. It might trim the 19 turnovers and 15 offensive rebounds the Wolverines gave up. It might help them stop a run before it spirals out of control.
But pride won’t make this team passable, and really, nothing will. The time for pride ran out months ago, not against Rutgers. And until Michigan makes serious changes — until it breaks out of this script— words won’t matter, anyway.