Michigan entered the most important week of their season with matchups looming against their two archrivals, Ohio State and Michigan State, and a chance to remove themselves from the NCAA Tournament bubble discussions.
The last few weeks have been a roller coaster for the Wolverines, who lost junior Isaiah Livers to another injury and suspended senior captain Zavier Simpson one game for violating team rules. Michigan was also on a four-game losing streak at the beginning of last week.
In the thick of all the uncertainty, the Wolverines have started to right the ship through the emergence of sophomore Brandon Johns Jr. Johns Jr. was crucial in the Wolverines’ two wins last week in Lincoln against Nebraska (16 pts) and then against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden (20 pts).
Ohio State 61, Michigan 58
With the Wolverines down 57-56, Simpson was fouled on a left-handed layup attempt by the Buckeyes’ Kyle Young and headed to the line with 33-seconds left to play. Upon further review, the officials ruled that Young committed a common foul, but Simpson committed a flagrant I foul by grabbing and pulling on Young’s jersey, which ripped upon the grab. Simpson and Young each made both of their two free-throw attempts and the Buckeyes would receive the ball back up 59-58.
Freshman Franz Wagner fouled CJ Walker with 17 seconds left to play and Walker made both free throws to extend the lead to three. Out of a Michigan timeout, junior Eli Brooks missed a corner three with three seconds left and the Buckeyes escaped with a 61-58 victory.
The ending was bitter for the Wolverines, not just because it came against a hated rival, but because, after leading a close game for much of the contest and playing through what turned into a literal football match, the refs, not the players, decided the outcome of the game.
In what is usually a foul fest in conference games, Terry Wymer’s officiating crew swallowed their whistles and let the game turn into a wrestling match. On the deciding play, official DJ Carstensen told announcer Jay Bilas that it was a flagrant because Simpson pulled Young to the ground, yet Young never came close to falling on the ground. Simpson only pulled on Young’s jersey to try and prevent his fall and the pull was not egregious, so it makes you wonder what would have happened if Nike did not make cheap jerseys.
It was tough for both teams to score when you could bump someone or pull a player down going for a rebound and not be charged with a foul. That meant paint baskets were hard to come by, so three point shooting became a premium. The Buckeyes were a very efficient 7-18 from beyond the arc and Kaleb Wesson and Duane Washington Jr. each knocked down three triples. While the Wolverines were not efficient, they did knock down ten threes on 31 attempts, including three from Simpson in the second half.
Simpson led the Wolverines in scoring with 15 points to go along with seven rebounds and five assists. Senior Austin Davis turned in another steady performance with 11 points on 4-4 shooting. Wagner is continuing to try and find his stroke (eight points on 2-12 shooting), but had a strong game on the glass with a career-high 14 rebounds.
Wesson had a strong performance for Ohio State, totaling 23 points and 12 boards, and really had senior Jon Teske’s number the whole game (Teske: three points on 1-7 shooting). Washington Jr. and Young added 17 and 12 points, respectively.
It was a very hard fought game on both sides and was an old fashioned Big Ten slug fest. In what was a very entertaining match, you hate to see the game be decided in the fashion it was. For Michigan, it was a loss they can ill-afford to have as they remain squarely on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament and one they might look back upon in early March.
Michigan 77, MSU 68
With four minutes left in the contest, Simpson drilled a three-pointer a few feet behind the line to push the Michigan lead to 11. Simpson’s three was his fourth of the game, which is way out of character for the senior point guard. The trey ultimately put the game firmly in the hands of the Wolverines, who were able to keep the Spartans at arms length for the majority of the contest through a strong effort on the defensive end and a solid performance from beyond the arc.
Why did we see a completely different Michigan team from the group that was blown out by 18 points in East Lansing back in January? Turns out Michigan is a better team with their best player on the floor, junior Isaiah Livers. Livers’s return from injury brought back much needed floor spacing and three-point shooting to go along with versatility on the defensive end of the floor.
Michigan received a huge contribution of their offensive from beyond the arc Saturday afternoon as they knocked down 11 triples. The Spartans insisted on going underneath the ball screens on defense and several Wolverines were able to make MSU pay from deep. Aforementioned, Simpson hit a career-high four threes on seven attempts, while Livers, Brooks, and sophomore David DeJulius each hit two. Several times during the second half, the Spartans cut the lead to single digits, but each time the Wolverines had a response. MSU clawed back to within six with two minutes left, but Michigan was able to ice the game at the line.
Simpson was the highman for the Wolverines with 16 points to go along with eight assists. Livers totaled 14 points, four rebounds, and two blocks in his return. Brooks added 11 and nine rebounds. DeJulius and Johns Jr. added an important 10 and seven points, respectively off the bench.
Cassius Winston led the Spartans with 20 points and six assists, while Xavier Tilman finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds and Aaron Henry totaled 11 points and 9 rebounds. It was a rough shooting afternoon for the Spartans (33% on field goals, 26% from three), whose only lead came in the opening two-and-a-half minutes of the game when the score was 1-0.
Michigan’s stiff defense held Winston in check as he needed 18 shot attempts to reach 20 points and was forced to work hard for each bucket. The All-American especially struggled in the first half and headed into the break with only four points on 1-5 shooting and three turnovers. Brooks’ quickness on the perimeter and the hedging on ball screens from Michigan’s bigs took away Winston’s driving lanes, thus limiting his drive penetration and playmaking and forcing him into contested looks.
The win against the Spartans is huge for the Wolverines and it is clear that this is a completely different team with Isaiah Livers on the floor. Michigan will need his play going forward to further build their resume for the tournament. The Wolverines will travel to Evanston next Wednesday night to take on the last-place Northwestern Wildcats at 9:00 p.m., before returning home on Sunday afternoon to take on Indiana at 1:00 p.m.