Ann Arbor — The Wolverines are hoping history repeats itself.
During the 2016-17 season, Michigan entered its February rematch against Michigan State with a 14-9 record and an NCAA Tournament resume that needed some work.
This past weekend, the Wolverines carried a 13-9 mark into their second encounter with the Spartans as a team sitting firmly on the tournament bubble.
Both times Michigan was coming off a crushing defeat to Ohio State at Crisler Center. And both times Michigan bounced back and split the regular-season series against its in-state rival.
But this time around, the Wolverines (14-9, 5-7 Big Ten) are hoping the much-needed victory serves as another turning point and is the start of another strong finish heading into Wednesday’s matchup at Northwestern.
“I think it started with the older guys, having a player-led team,” said senior center Jon Teske, one of three current players who was on the 2016-17 team, along with senior guard Zavier Simpson and redshirt junior center Austin Davis.
“I remember (former) coach (John Beilein) doing all he can, but then we had D-Walt (Derrick Walton Jr.) and Zak (Irvin). Those older guys took over those games down the stretch and led the guys to a bunch of much-needed victories. I think we can do the same thing here with ‘X’ and I leading the guys.”
Michigan closed out the regular season and Big Ten play by winning six of its final eight games. The Wolverines followed that up by winning four games in four days to take home the Big Ten tournament title and secure an NCAA Tournament berth.
They then rode that tidal wave of momentum all the way to the second weekend of the Big Dance, where they fell a shot short of reaching the Elite Eight.
"It's great to have seniors on your team that have been through the battles, that have experienced the highs and lows, that have competed on the road, have been through duress situations where they have fought through adversity,” coach Juwan Howard said. “Adversity is not new to them. Fortunately for us two of our best players are seniors.”
And fortunately for Michigan, Teske and Simpson have been in this situation before. They’ve been on a Michigan squad that had its back against the wall and was scratching and clawing for its postseason life.
Even though Teske and Simpson didn’t play key roles and saw limited minutes as backups back in 2016-17, they’ve experienced and seen firsthand what it takes for a team to come together to make a late-season push.
"It gives us a lot of confidence. We know what we're capable of, we know where we've been in the past,” Teske said. “The young guys have just got to follow our lead. We're going to lead them in the right direction.”
But Michigan will need more than just senior leadership down the stretch. The Wolverines will need good health, an area Howard noted he’s been praying every night for and has turned to their favor with the return of junior forward Isaiah Livers.
They will need to turn in more defensive performances like they did on Saturday, where they were active, engaged, physical and communicated from start to finish.
They will also need to avoid a devastating blow at Northwestern, where they lost three seasons ago on a full-court pass and buzzer-beating layup.
While some may look at the Wildcats (6-16, 1-11) as the Big Ten’s bottom feeder that has recorded only two wins over the last two months, Howard sees a “competitive team” that has held double-digit second-half leads over Purdue and Rutgers in its last two games.
“They're capable of making sure that you can go home with a sad face, and that's something that we want to prevent from happening,” Howard said. “It's a scary team. We cannot afford to take anyone lightly.”
That’s because just like in 2016-17, Michigan is at a point where it needs to make a late-season run and needs every game it can get.
“This is very similar to freshman year,” Teske said. “I know the guys and the leaders on the team that we have. We're just going to bond together, trust each other, and we've just got to go out there and get the job done.”
Michigan at Northwestern
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Wednesday, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Ill.
Records: Michigan 14-9, 5-7 Big Ten; Northwestern 6-16, 1-11
Outlook: Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske are one win away from tying the program’s all-time record with 104 career victories … Michigan has won two straight in the series but has lost three of the past four meetings in Evanston … Northwestern is led by sophomore forward Miller Kopp (13.5 points) and ranks second in the Big Ten with 10.9 turnovers per game. The Wildcats have lost seven straight and 12 of their past 13 games.