To say it’s been a frustrating season for the Michigan basketball team would be putting it rather mildly. It’s not that the Wolverines are bereft of talent. In fact, far from it. The latest NBA mock drafts have a pair of Wolverines turning up as potential first round picks. Add to that one of the most skilled big men in college basketball and you’d think Michigan would be battling for a conference championship and not an NCAA tournament berth. But despite its top end talent, the Wolverines have struggled.
Michigan’s issues have been many. Starting point guard Dug McDaniel has struggled acclimating to the college game (something not unusual for true freshman point guards). Jett Howard has proven to be an outstanding shooter (connecting on nearly 40% of his three-point attempts) but has struggled fitting into the offensive flow. Finding the right answer at power forward has also plagued the Wolverines. Add to that Michigan’s propensity for playing its worst basketball in some of the season’s biggest moments and you start to get a sense of Michigan’s season and why the Wolverines are on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
Playing Michigan State gave Michigan an opportunity to change that narrative. With a victory, the Wolverines would gain a split in the season series with their in-state rivals and salvage a measure of satisfaction in a season that’s been filled with more highs than lows. A victory would keep Michigan’s faint tournament hopes alive.
But Michigan wasn’t the only team desperate for a victory. Tom Izzo’s Spartans have also struggled this season. Despite signature wins against the likes of Kentucky and Villanova, the Spartans have hovered just above .500 for most of the season and find themselves in the middle of a crowded Big Ten race. Defeating Michigan and completing a season sweep against its hated rival could be just the spark Michigan State has been searching for to ignite a late season surge.
In other words, as is the case most of the time when these teams meet, the stakes were high in Ann Arbor Saturday.
If there was any added pressure in the nationally televised night’s match-up, neither team seemed to be affected by it. Indeed, Saturday’s rematch started much differently than the first time Michigan and Michigan State met - a 59-53 slugfest in which the teams combined to shoot just 36% from the floor and 23% from deep. This time around, both teams started out hot.
Led by McDaniel’s nine early points (McDaniel would finish with a season-high 18 points), the Wolverines scored as many points by the second media time out (18) as they did during the entire first half when the teams met in January. Not to be outdone, the Spartans, led by Joey Hauser (Hauser would finish with a game-high 20 points), matched the Wolverines basket for basket in the game’s early stages. At the eight-minute mark, Michigan held an 18-17 lead.
In what would be a game of runs, Michigan State went on a seven-point run that gave the Spartans six-point lead - a lead they would build to eight points by the four-minute mark of the first half. Michigan showed the kind of resolve it hasn’t always shown this year, however. The Wolverines regrouped and cut the lead to three at the half, 36-33, much to the delight of the home crowd.
If the first half was entertaining, the second half was even more so. A nip-and-tuck affair with each team continuing to make runs, but neither able to distance itself from its foe. With two-and-a-half minutes to play, the game was deadlocked at 72-72.
At this point, you could forgive Michigan fans if they were less-than-optimistic about their team’s chances. After all, Michigan has been in this position before - many times - and almost without fail, the Wolverines have been unable to make enough plays down the stretch to secure victory. This has particularly been the case of late.
After matching its longest winning streak of the season two weeks ago, a modest three-game run against Northwestern, Ohio State and Nebraska, Michigan was at a crossroads. With games against Indiana and Wisconsin on the horizon, the Wolverines had a chance to turn around what had been up to that point a disappointing season.
It’s not as if the Wolverines had played terribly, they just couldn’t seem to close out games, losing to traditional heavyweights North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky by a combined ten points. Of course, the Wolverines also surrendered a late lead and fell to Central Michigan, furthering the frustration.
But instead of righting the ship, Michigan continued its inability to close. Against the Hoosiers, the Wolverines held a 61-58 lead late in the second half, only to go scoreless over the game’s final five-plus minutes to lose a one-point heartbreaker. Against Wisconsin, the Wolverines held the Badgers without a field goal over the game’s final ten-plus minutes - yet still managed to lose. History, it would seem, was not on Michigan’s side.
Yet in perhaps the season’s biggest moment to date, in front of a raucous home crowd, Michigan flipped the script and finished strong, scoring the game’s final 12 points to come away with a hard fought 84-72 victory.
Michigan’s victory was keyed by big plays down the stretch by stars Kobe Bufkin and Hunter Dickinson, but if there was a reason the Wolverines finally got over the hump, it was the play - and the increased playing time - of freshman Tarris Reed Jr.
Michigan has primarily played Terrance Williams and Will Tschetter at the power forward position this season, particularly so during crunch time. Neither option has resulted in much success. This was a curious decision early and has become a baffling one late, as the eye test alone shows that Reed, while raw, nonetheless presents the better option. Reed provides a defensive and rebounding presence that Williams and Tschetter just can’t match. That defense and rebounding was critical against Michigan State, as were the eight points Reed tallied over game’s final seven minutes.
The victory was significant beyond pushing Michigan’s into a third-place tie in the Big Ten standings. Thanks to big time performances from freshmen Reed and McDaniel, and key plays down the stretch by Bufkin and Dickinson, the Wolverines finally showed that they could come through in the clutch. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
With a remaining schedule that includes Rutgers, Illinois and Indiana, Michigan still has a path to the NCAA tourney. With all three of those games on the road, it won’t be an easy path. But if Michigan’s performance Saturday is any indication of how the Wolverines can play down the stretch, the Wolverines’ quest for a sixth consecutive Sweet Sixteen just might not be over yet.