Entering the week, things seemingly could not have become any worse for the Wolverines as they were on a four-game losing streak and had just lost junior Isaiah Livers to another injury.
Early Monday afternoon, however, things got worse. News broke out that head coach Juwan Howard suspended senior captain point guard Zavier Simpson for Tuesday night’s Big Ten game against Nebraska for what Howard called “a violation of team rules.”
Tuesday night was the first game in Simpson’s illustrious Michigan career that he missed. Simpson had played in all 135 of his career games, starting in 85 of them, and posted a 100-35 record, making him one of the winningest players in Michigan Basketball history.
Michigan 79, Nebraska 68
While the Wolverines came into Lincoln shorthanded and riding a four-game losing streak, the good news was that they were facing a rebuilding Nebraska squad (7-13, Big Ten 2-7), who lost their last five games.
Michigan held a slim advantage for most of the first half and took a 40-35 lead into halftime. The Huskers came out of the break hot, sinking six of their first nine shots, and pulled ahead 52-50 with under 14 minutes to play. It looked like Nebraska was starting to take control of the game when the Wolverines responded with a 19-3 run over the next eight minutes to build up a 69-55 lead.
Nebraska cooled off offensively, especially from three-point land, and Michigan used their size advantage to wear down the Huskers in the paint and on the glass. The Wolverines’ double digit lead was too insurmountable for Nebraska to overcome with six minutes left and Michigan closed out the game 79-68 to end their four-game losing streak.
Many media outlets stressed the importance of sophomore David DeJulius stepping up in Simpson’s absence, but it was junior Eli Brooks who took over many possessions as the lead guard and elevated his play in the absence of Simpson. Brooks led all Wolverine scorers with 20 points on 6-12 shooting to go along with nine rebounds and four assists.
Freshman Franz Wagner had an up and down game Tuesday night. He used his size to drive into the lane, ending the game with 18 points and eight rebounds. Wagner also used his length on the defensive end in the passing lanes and finished with three steals. Sophomore Brandon Johns Jr. scored a career-high 16 points and gathered in seven rebounds filling in for the injured Livers.
The Wolverines shot 28-56 (50%) on their field goals, but their three-point shooting woes continued Tuesday night as they finished shooting at 29% clip. Michigan used their size advantage to be the aggressors inside, especially in the second half, and as a result doubled up Nebraska’s free throw attempts 24-12. The Wolverine’s size also helped them control the boards 41-27, including ten offensive rebounds against the worst defensive rebounding team in the Big Ten.
Sophomore Cam Mack led the Huskers in scoring with 19 points (5-7 from three), while senior Haanif Cheatham, and freshman Kevin Cross both added 17. The Huskers finished the night shooting 44% overall and 43% from three. Nebraska came into the game second in the Big Ten with eight made threes a game and the Huskers were able to knock down eight threes in the first 30 minutes of the contest to stay in the game, but went a cool 1-5 in the final ten minutes.
While it was against a young and inferior Huskers squad, it was a game the Wolverines could ill-afford to lose and an important win for the team moving forward.
Michigan 69, Rutgers 63
Michigan flew to New York City to take on the No. 25 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (16-5, Big Ten 7-3) in Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon. The Wolverines came into Saturday’s contest on a nine-game winning streak at the Garden, including four wins en route to the Big Ten Tournament Championship in 2018.
Steve Pikel’s Scarlet Knights have been the surprise team in the Big Ten this year, already reaching their conference win totals from last year and garnering their first top 25 ranking since 1979.
Johns Jr. continued his breakthrough en route to a 69-63 victory over the Scarlet Knights to mark Michigan’s 10th consecutive win at the Garden. Johns Jr. finished with a career-high 20 points on 7-13 shooting to go along with seven rebounds and two steals. 15 of those points were in the first half as Johns Jr. drilled three threes early in the contest.
Michigan’s offense, which has struggled at times in the absence of Livers, had their way Saturday afternoon both inside and out. The Wolverines were drilling their three point attempts (shooting 47%) off great ball movement and drive penetration. The ability to knockdown the outside shot greatly helped the offensive spacing.
The Wolverines also found success in ball screen situations as Rutgers was insistent on hedging with their post defenders, which left Michigan’s big men open on the roll to the basket. Senior Jon Teske had six of his 13 points off the roll, while senior Austin Davis had all eight of his points rolling to the rim.
After falling behind early in the second half, the Wolverines would use a 17-6 surge to build their lead to double digits with a little over ten minutes to play. The Scarlet Knights were able to stay in the game and claw back because of their dominance on the glass and ability to force turnovers. Rutgers finished the game with 26 offensive rebounds and they were able to force 16 Wolverine turnovers, including six from Simpson.
The Scarlet Knights trimmed the lead to three with 24 seconds to play, but Simpson and Wagner drilled a pair of free throws to ice the game. Simpson only had nine points in his return from suspension, but he was a great facilitator by dishing out ten assists and was able to hit four clutch free throws in the last minute to seal the victory.
Both wins moved Michigan to (13-8, Big Ten 4-6) and were critical to getting their season back on track. The Wolverines’ homestand continues next week with two huge rivalry games. First, on Tuesday night against Ohio State at 7:00 p.m. on ESPN 2, then a matchup against Cassius Winston and the Michigan State Spartans Saturday afternoon at 12:00 p.m. on Fox.