When Michigan and Michigan State squared off in Ann Arbor Saturday, it was hard to tell which team needed the victory more. After a strong start that saw Michigan ascend to a top five spot in the polls, Juwan Howard’s Wolverines have fallen on hard times. After starting the season with seven straight victories, Michigan won just six of its next fifteen games. And with a 4-7 conference record that has the Wolverines looking up at the majority of the Big Ten, Michigan’s place in the NCAA tournament field is far from secure. A home loss to Michigan State would extend the Wolverines’ freefall and make their tournament future even less secure.
Not to be outdone, Michigan State was also firing on fewer than all cylinders. The Spartans, the preseason number one team in the country, entered Saturday’s game with a disappointing 16-7 record and were coming off back-to-back conference losses. Things were going so badly in Spartanland, that after a home loss to Penn State, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo took to the airwaves to call out Spartan fans for their criticism of Michigan State players. Nothing would help sooth wounds in East Lansing, however, like a victory over the hated Wolverines.
All clichés aside, it was a game both teams needed to win.
Saturday’s game began, well, like you might expect in a game featuring two struggling teams. Six minutes into the game the score was still 3-3. The intensity was there, but the shot-making … not so much. Michigan, buoyed by the return its leading scorer Isaiah Livers, eventually surged ahead and took a six-point lead into the locker room.
Michigan State came out of the break strong, however, and three times narrowed the gap to a single point. Behind strong play by Livers and Zavier Simpson, Michigan was able to hold off the Spartan surges, but when a Rocket Watts jumper cut Michigan’s lead to 42-40 with just under seven minutes to play, the game appeared to be turning the Spartans’ way.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Michigan and Michigan State played three times last season. Three times, Michigan had a second half lead. Three times, Michigan State came back to win, most memorably in the championship game of last season’s Big Ten tournament. In that game, Michigan held a five-point with under three minutes to play. But led by Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, Michigan State finished strong and ultimately cut down the nets. Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor appeared to following a familiar script.
This time, however, Michigan flipped the script. Michigan responded to that Watts jumper by going on an 11-4 run and held the Spartans at bay the rest of the way. It took a balanced effort for Michigan to turn back its intrastate rival, with seven Wolverines scoring seven points or more. When all was said and done, Michigan recorded a hard fought, much needed 77-68 victory. The victory ended a five-game losing streak to Michigan State and put the Wolverines one win closer to an NCAA tournament bid. But the way that Michigan won might be even more important than the win itself.
During Michigan’s 15-game rough patch, in which it stumbled to a 6-9 record, the Wolverines were largely without their leading scorer and best all-around player, Livers. Injuries are part of the game and something all teams have to deal with at one time or another (just ask Michigan State’s Izzo), but Livers’ absence hit the Wolverines especially hard. If Michigan’s performance during Livers’ absence wasn’t proof enough of his importance, Saturday’s game was.
Livers provided a scoring punch against the Spartans that the Wolverines had been lacking, tallying 14 points in his return to action, but he provided much more than just scoring. Livers’ presence on the court, in particular the long-range threat he presents, opens up the floor and provides better scoring opportunities for teammates. Michigan may have had trouble converting early on, but the opportunities were there. Eventually, Michigan took advantage, no one more than Simpson, who was a perfect three-for-three from deep and paced Michigan with 16 points.
It goes beyond offense, though. Livers is also one of Michigan’s better defenders, but perhaps more than anything, he provides a veteran presence and stability that the team sorely needs. Simpson may be the team’s leader, but Livers might be it’s most important player. Whenever Michigan made a big play to temporarily stem the Spartan tide, Livers seemed to be in the middle of the action.
Saturday’s victory was just one game against a team that’s also trying to find its footing, but for a team that was struggling and a fan base that was fast losing hope, Livers’ return was a welcome sight. And with Michigan’s season hanging in the balance, it couldn’t have come at a better time.