One year ago, Michigan was on a crazy rise in college basketball. Under then-second-year-coach Juwan Howard, the Wolverines proved a lot of people wrong as they tore through the Big Ten — winning a regular-season title — and marched to the Elite Eight. Honestly, not too many predicted that type of finish for UM.

Entering this season, despite a few key losses, the Wolverines (11-9, 5-5 B1G) were expected to follow up on their previous success from 2021 and evolve into one of the Big Ten’s top contenders. After avoiding an embarrassing loss to Penn State on Tuesday night, they’re hovering in the middle, currently 7th of 14 teams — with a date against Purdue looming Thursday night. If the Wolverines don’t wake up soon, they’ll end up having a disappointing season. Remember, they were a popular pick to do something this season, based on an incredible uprising in 2020-21. This year, to say the least, has underwhelmed at nearly every turn.

How much should you believe in the Wolverines? Well, it comes down to them believing in themselves, right? If they don’t think they can turn around misfortunes and finish on a strong note, then why should anyone else? It’s gut-check time for Michigan for the rest of the year.

Lunardi prediction

According to ESPN’s Bracketology guru Joe Lunardi, if the tournament started today, Michigan wouldn’t be in the field of 68. They’re not even among the first 8 out. However, 7 Big Ten teams are in Lunardi’s projections — UM is No. 7 in the conference, so it’s obviously clinging on to some sort of hope that it’ll get over the hump and qualify for the national tournament.

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What’s worked/hasn’t worked

Well, playing at the Crisler Center has worked out for the Wolverines, who are 7-2 on their home floor.

However, the story is much different when they’re away from Ann Arbor, posting a snoozer 3-6 record during true road games and 2-1 on neutral courts. Perhaps the (bad) luck of the draw, Michigan plays 2 of its next 4 on the road, so something has to give for Howard’s Wolverines or this upcoming stretch could be the one that knocks them out of March Madness consideration.

Due to some critical departures — namely Franz Wagner, Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown, all key contributors last season — Hunter Dickinson has had to increase production, averaging 18.1 points per game compared to 14.1 a year ago. Plagued by a slow start, Dickinson has shown signs of his former dominant self — remember when he was arguably the best in the B1G — and appears to be capable of anchoring the Wolverines through the final stretch of the season. He’s a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given to the nation’s top center.

Eli Brooks has been a cunning thief this season, leading Michigan with 24 steals, and he’s been a reliable defender. A staple of last year’s run, Brooks has been one of few who have been able to carry over strong play from the 2021-22 season.

True freshman Caleb Houstan is in contention for the Julius Erving Award, given to the best SF in the country. Averaging 10.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, Houstan has been one of the lone bright spots for Michigan’s youth movement. Entering this season, the Wolverines had one of their best recruiting classes to date. At one time, Michigan had the No. 1-ranked 2021 class in the nation (it finished No. 3 when the dust cleared).

Going to be bumpy the rest of the way

Let’s not sugarcoat things, OK? Michigan has vastly underperformed and its freshman class has yet to truly dazzle. Maturation takes time, so the youngsters get a pass for now (they’ll come around), but the veterans on the team need to take control during the final stretch or risk watching the field of 68 play from their couches and recliners.

It won’t be easy. Michigan’s next 4 games are against B1G teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament (vs. Purdue, vs. Ohio State, at Iowa, at Wisconsin).

Dickinson has played some of his best games against top opponents, scoring a season-high 28 points against B1G title-hopeful Purdue and putting up 25 against Michigan State, Rutgers and Indiana — all of which are in the hunt for prime positioning come March Madness. Michigan needs more of that Dickinson, the guy who’s leading the team with 20 blocks and can take control of a game, if it hopes to do anything past the regular season.

As of right now, Michigan seems destined to be a team of “what ifs?” come spring