Ann Arbor — Their best player, Isaiah Livers, is back and hoping to stay healthy. Their senior leader, Zavier Simpson, sees the floor as well as any point guard in the country. Their shooters appear to be getting comfortable after half a season under new head coach Juwan Howard.
The Wolverines are getting their pieces aligned just in time, playing their best basketball since roaring to a 7-0 start. This is the team we saw early, although there’s no way of knowing if it’s the team we’ll see late. But all the possibilities are back on the table, as the Big Ten rumble gets more jumbled, and Michigan is back to clawing and climbing.
The Wolverines dismantled Indiana 89-65 Sunday at Crisler Center, the type of destruction that can happen at home in this conference. Of course as always in the Big Ten, there’s a caveat. Livers, who missed nine games with a groin injury and has sparked a three-game winning streak upon his return, twisted his right ankle against the Hoosiers. He returned to the game briefly, and afterward Howard said he was “day to day.”
In this league, isn’t everyone?
One night, Michigan State is playing Maryland with a chance to climb within a game of first place, but surrenders the final 14 points and loses. The next day, Michigan is playing Indiana hoping to avoid a plummet to 11th, and instead joins a group of seven teams smack in the middle. Today, the Spartans (17-9, 9-6) and Wolverines (16-9, 7-7) are in similar places, although at the moment, trending in opposite directions.
Finding their footing
Practically every game can be a bubble-buster or a season-changer. The Hoosiers were churning toward an NCAA berth but have lost five of six. That’s how quickly it can shift, and that’s why Howard and his players were low-key and measured after one of their finest performances. Four of their final six games are on the road, starting Wednesday at Rutgers (17-0 at home).
“We’re getting better as the season goes,” Howard said. “I didn’t expect us to have a great start like we did, and it was beautiful. But it takes time for a group to learn a new system. We have a very mature group that understands what it takes to win. … It’s been great having Isaiah Livers back, he’s a special talent, and his presence on the floor just makes us a better team. ”
Michigan has won five of six, and its last two losses were final-second crushers at home against Ohio State and Illinois. At one point, the Wolverines lost three straight at home, and it was unclear if they could hang in until Livers returned.
That’s how brutal it is in a conference that has a nation-leading 11 teams in the top 40 of the NCAA NET rating — Spartans 12th, Wolverines 31st — and incredibly, all 11 could make the Tournament. It’s just as tight in the standings, with Maryland and Penn State jostling at the top, and the next 10 teams within two losses of each other. Indiana (16-9, 6-8 Big Ten) is back in bubble trouble, and left coach Archie Miller fuming about his team, and raving about the opponent.
Michigan was relentless, controlling the boards (37-21), shooting 57% from the field and nine-for-17 on 3s.
“We got completely dominated,” Miller said. “Give them credit, obviously they’re a very, very good team. Especially with Isaiah Livers back, they’re one of the best teams in the country, very, very difficult to guard. The way they shoot it, the way they stretch you out.”
It starts with Simpson, who’s second in the nation in assists and was brilliant against Indiana. He had 12 points, 11 assists and only one turnover, and his decision-making was so good, practically every player got open shots. Yes, Indiana’s defense was horrid, but that’s partly because Simpson broke them down and didn’t waste possessions. He didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer and five Wolverines finished in double figures.
Franz Wagner had 16 points, followed by Brandon Johns Jr. with 14, Eli Brooks with 13 and Livers and Simpson with 12 each. Livers’ injury, as long as it isn’t an issue going forward, produced an unintended benefit. Johns grew immeasurably in his absence, and the Wolverines are shooting with confidence because Livers’ inside-outside game opens up the floor.
“Obviously it helps when Isaiah is out there, but I think we can still improve on a lot of things,” Wagner said. “We’re starting to be ourselves again. I don’t know too many teams where almost all the players score in double digits. That’s very hard to defend.”
That was Miller’s point, beyond the disgust with his team’s effort. It’s Howard’s point too, that the Wolverines have more options and depth than they probably thought. They’re not as powerful as they showed slugging Gonzaga 82-64 in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game in the Bahamas, and not as disjointed as they appeared losing five of six on their way to a 2-6 start in the Big Ten.
Climbing back to .500, Simpson has been the catalyst, on offense and defense.
“He made some great decisions with the ball, really good job of controlling the tempo,” Howard said. “One thing critical with him, he was hunting more for singles, wasn’t trying to make a home run play. Finding guys that were open, being patient with the ball, reading what the defense was giving him.”
He did it on a day when fellow senior Jon Teske struggled, but joined Simpson as the winningest players in program history, each with 105 victories. With so many tight games, clutch plays often are the difference. Livers has missed two free throws all season (94%) and Simpson has improved his once-unsightly percentage to 65. The top two shooting teams in the Big Ten, by field goal percentage, are Michigan and Michigan State, which bodes well.
The top two teams in the conference by winning percentage are Maryland and Penn State, which seems insane, but not really. The Wolverines and Spartans won’t catch either one, but at this stage, that’s not the point. The point is to define roles, hammer opponents when you should and steal a game when you can. And don’t get too comfortable or too concerned, because the next dramatic turn is always just a game away.