After losing to Michigan State nearly two weeks ago, Michigan’s season was at a crossroads. After a fast start, the Wolverines had come down to earth, so to speak. With the loss to the Spartans, Michigan was just 7-4 since mid-January. It’s never easy playing on the road, and that’s especially true in the Big Ten. Road losses at Iowa and Wisconsin are hardly reason for panic, but losing to a Penn State team that had just one conference victory at the time was a little more alarming. It was the home loss to the Spartans, however, that hit the hardest.
The Athletic’s Brandon Quinn noted that, “Michigan didn’t just lose to Michigan State, it was beaten,” and he’s right. Michigan had a six-point lead with less than 12 minutes to play let the game slip away, as the Spartans outscored the Wolverines 32-19 the rest of the way. Michigan struggled defending the Spartans’ high-screen offense, but it was what happened on the other end of the floor that really did in the Wolverines, as Michigan continued to struggle, well, scoring. For Michigan to find its early season groove, it would have to find its collective shot.
But with a back-loaded schedule that finished with road games at Maryland and Michigan State, and with Charles Matthews out with an injured ankle, that would be no easy task. Michigan was able to overcome Matthews’ absence in a wire-to-wire romp over Nebraska, but playing Maryland at College Park would be a different story. How would the Wolverines respond?
Well, it turned out. In perhaps the most important game since the non-conference season, the Wolverines showed their mettle, pulling off a gritty, 69-92 victory over Maryland, keeping pace with the Spartans and Boilermakers atop the conference standings (after Purdue’s loss to Minnesota).
Michigan didn’t completely break out of its offensive slump, as the Wolverines struggled shooting early, particularly from distance, where the Wolverines hit just one of 11 first-half three-point attempts. But Michigan was able to stay with Maryland, and eventually found its stroke in the second half, connecting on more than 50% of its field goal attempts, both from inside and outside the arc.
Michigan got strong performances from Ignas Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers, with Brazdeikis leading the way with 21 points, and Livers connecting on some big threes, including a dagger in the game’s final minutes. Jon Teske also came up big for the Wolverines, largely holding Bruno Fernando in check. Fernando got his points - and blocks (six of them) - but Teske made the future first round pick work for them. Fernando finished with 12 points and ten rebounds, never really found a rhythm.
But the Wolverines were led, as they almost always are, by point guard Zavier Simpson, who tallied 12 points and ten assists to go along with his usual tough defense. It was what happened when Simpson was off the floor, however, that underscored his importance to this Michigan team. In the first minutes of the second half, Simpson went to the bench with his third foul. The Wolverines were largely able to hang with Mayland without Simpson, but the Terps eventually clawed their way to the lead. It wasn’t until Simpson re-entered the game that Michigan reclaimed the lead and ultimately pulled away. For those more statistically focused, consider this: With Simpson on the bench, Michigan was outscored by seven points. When he was on the floor, the Wolverines got the better of the Terps to the tune of 14 points. Simpson’s four-for-four performance with his hook shots, including a pair of impossibly high lobs over 6’10” Fernando got a lot of attention, but it was Simpson’s steady hand on offense and dogged defense that was most crucial.
It was a satisfying victory for Michigan not only because it kept the Wolverines in the hunt for a regular season conference championship, but more importantly, it showed that Michigan is capable of upping its play, or rediscovering its mojo, if you prefer. Something critical if Michigan hopes to finish the season strong – both in this weekend’s rematch with Michigan State and the following week in the Big Ten tournament.