Shawn Windsor: Despite painful Elite Eight loss, Juwan Howard, Michigan just getting started

©Detroit Free Press

INDIANAPOLIS — You can point to the missed layups down the stretch. And the missed free throws all game long.

You can blame the lack of ball movement and the rimmed out 3-pointers and the head coach’s substitutions: Why was Chaundee Brown benched with 5 minutes left in the game after he had just hit a 3-pointer and had been rolling from deep through the NCAA Tournament?

You can second-guess all you want and, still, you won’t toss and turn the next few nights, or weeks, or months replaying Tuesday night’s loss two-point loss to UCLA like Michigan will.

One more basket and the Wolverines are in the Final Four. A couple more free throws and they’re at least in overtime. One fewer travel, or offensive foul, or fumbled pass or dribble and the dream lives another few days, to the national semifinals on Saturday, where the No. 1 overall seed, Gonzaga, awaited.

It would’ve been nice to see U-M take a swing at the Bulldogs, no?

If the season had ended there, against that team, against those future pros, then, sure, tip your cap and put a bow on the season.

But this?

This 51-49 loss to UCLA in the East regional final is hard to take, because these kinds of chances don’t come around that often, and this kind of team even less so. The Wolverines had the better squad Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bruins had the better night.

This is how the NCAA Tournament goes. One day you're putting on a basketball clinic in front the country, playing free and easy, a couple days later the weight of the moment feels a little too heavy.

Credit UCLA’s defense, certainly. They got to the Elite Eight from a play-in game by slowing down the pace, hitting timely shots and coaxing less-than performances from their opponents.

“They played extremely hard. They earned that win. They made everything challenging,” said U-M's senior guard, Eli Brooks, who rushed a put back with a few seconds left that would’ve tied the game. “Not going to take anything away from them.”

No, he’s not. It’s not in his character. Or his coach’s, who also gave props to the Bruins and didn’t want to say much more after the crushing loss than this:

“When you lose, its’ very challenging,” Juwan Howard said. “It's hard to start thinking ‘would've, could’ve, should’ve.’ It’s not about that. It’s about how can we improve.”

Still, Howard admitted he would struggle to sleep Tuesday night or, more accurately, Wednesday morning.

But?

“I will get through it.”

He will. Have no doubt. Not after this run. Not after this season. Not after watching this collection of veterans and transfers and youngsters grow into something beautiful and, at times, wondrous. At their best, these Wolverines played downright breathtaking basketball.

Buttressed by grit and resolve, sure, but also by patience and the ability to absorb whatever teams threw their way, then navigate through it.

Against UCLA, they just … couldn’t … quite … get there. It was a slog. UCLA made it so.

Yet the Bruins didn’t force missed free throws. Or open 3s. Or missed layups.

Of which the Wolverines missed four down the stretch, on consecutive possessions, by four different players — Brandon Johns Jr., Hunter Dickinson, Mike Smith, Franz Wagner.

Wagner’s miss was especially painful — for him. He’d driven down the right side of the lane, as he so often does, leapt, used every bit of his 6-foot-9-inch frame, and lofted a running, one-handed half-hook off the high part of the back board.

It’s a shot he’s hit all season. It’s essentially unguardable. But on Tuesday, after he had missed so many shots already, and scuffled on offense in general, he couldn’t quite find the freedom to let it fly as he normally would.

The same was true for almost everyone, except for Brown, who hit two critical 3-pointers, but had only three attempts. He was U-M's surest shooter of the night. Yet he sat for a critical 2-minute stretch when the Wolverines were getting stops but couldn’t get a bucket.

All season, Howard found the right combinations and the right words and the right everything as his Wolverines raced through the Big Ten on their way to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They looked like one of the best three teams in the country for most of the year until Isaiah Livers went down with a foot injury.

Even then, it didn’t take long for the team to recalibrate. In fact, it took one game, a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament.

A week later the big tourney began. The Wolverines overwhelmed Texas Southern. Survived NBA-level shot making against LSU. Befuddled Florida State so thoroughly, the second half unfolded like an exhibition: of back-door cuts and baseline dives to the rim and misdirection and shooting.

It was symphonic.

If you choose to remember this team in that moment, as the expression of what most of this season looked like, good. That’s how Howard and his team will eventually look back on the year, too. It will just take time to get there.

For now, there is disappointment, the feeling that one more basket or play and the story ends differently. The memory that the Wolverines missed its last eight shots. Scored three points the game's last 5 minutes. Watched a 3 hit both sides of the rim only to pop out.

This will linger. And it should. Because the risk of chasing joy is pain.

And yet this program will be back. More players are coming. This coach will get better. He said so early Wednesday morning.

Just look at the timeout he called down two with 19 seconds left in the game. Three weeks ago, against Ohio State his team was in the same spot. He let it play out without a timeout. Smith was forced into a difficult step-back 3-pointer at the buzzer.

They lost.

Against UCLA, he huddled his group for one last chance. It led to another 3-pointer. This time from Wagner, who was open. It didn’t hit the rim.

“That's how it goes sometimes.” Howard said. “In the game of basketball, there's one or two possessions that can really either help you or hurt you, and for us, we came up short.”

Just remember that the story is only starting. And that despite the loss and the lost chance at the biggest stage this weekend, Howard is right to be proud.

About how they competed. About the difficult circumstances they handled. About their connectedness.

“It's been a very challenging year,” he said, “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 sounds like a coach you can believe in.