Wojo: Win despite misses, fouls deals Michigan reality check

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole celebrate a Michigan basket in the second half against Iowa.

This was a perfect taste of the test ahead, and let’s just say the Wolverines didn’t exactly savor the flavor. They stepped tentatively into the tournament spotlight and showed precisely what they have to do, and what they can’t do.

They missed free throws. They missed 3-pointers. They missed assignments on defense, at least initially. And they couldn’t stop fouling, or couldn’t stop getting called for fouling.

And yet they won, 77-71 in overtime against Iowa in the Big Ten tournament, and in the process, got a healthy reminder of how difficult the next few weeks will be, and how important their defense and composure will be. With the victory, Michigan gets a rematch against Nebraska Friday at Madison Square Garden, right after Michigan State plays Wisconsin at noon. If the Wolverines had lost, they’d be staring at nearly two weeks of idle time, waiting for the NCAA Tournament.

That’s one of the great unknowns with the Big Ten hosting its tournament early here in the basketball mecca. An extra week of rest before Selection Sunday? That sounds sort of beneficial. But the Wolverines surely didn’t want to be one-and-done, sit-and-stew. So they were half-relieved and half-excited by their escape, and also invigorated by the renewal of March tension.

“Oh definitely — the bright lights, and when you’re up three and (Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon) hits the 3 with 10 seconds left and you feel like you’re about to lose, that feels like tournament time,” Moe Wagner said, forcing a smile. “The tournament doesn’t always go the way you plan, and you don’t have the fans like at home, and you have that mindset, when you lose, you go home. I was very proud of the way the guys stepped up.”

Proud was one emotion. So was exasperation. John Beilein swore he wouldn’t even look at the tape, probably because it would be indecipherable. The Wolverines made only 18 of 32 free throws, a problem that simply won’t go away. They shot only three-for-19 on 3-pointers. Wagner was limited to 11 points in 16 minutes before fouling out. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was limited to nine points in 22 minutes before fouling out.

Defense cranked up

But after the desperate Hawkeyes (14-19) shot 55 percent in the first half, they shot 30.6 percent the rest of the way. Michigan’s defense cranked up, and so did its depth, two elements needed for any tournament run. The Wolverines (25-7) just didn’t expect to need both so urgently, so early.

Senior Duncan Robinson, the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year, saved them with their only three 3-pointers as Michigan wiped out a five-point deficit, blew a six-point lead in the final two minutes, then won in overtime.

“Hopefully that first half showed us we can’t just step on the floor and expect to win a game,” Robinson said. “We were pretty dead, our energy was low, and it woke us up in the second half. It’s specifically on Muhammad and I as seniors to get us going. And to step into a moment like that, in the Garden, understanding it’s only the first round, it was still pretty cool.”

Robinson has been around long enough to not be awed by the environment, but still eager to crave the moment. It has been an adjustment since he lost his starting job to freshman Isaiah Livers in January, and it hasn’t always been easy. But with 11 clutch points in the second half, Robinson got his own taste of what he could provide in his last run.

In some ways, this was the ideal test, facing adversity against a lesser opponent. And for all the criticism levied at the Big Ten for holding its tournament far from its predominately Midwest campuses, the atmosphere in the Garden felt bigger, thicker with anticipation.

The players said they loved it. When they got to their locker room, Wagner immediately grabbed the stall normally occupied by the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis. On the court, the spotlight seems brighter, contrasted against the dimmed seats, and the noise rises from the darkness. When the Wolverines launched an 11-0 run to start the second half, the decent-sized crowd was legitimately raucous.

Shine of Big Apple

For all the debate over the New York venue, Beilein appreciates what it adds.

“(The Big Ten) had to sacrifice a lot to put ourselves in this position to be in the Garden (playing a condensed schedule),” Beilein said. “And I think when it’s all said and done, we’ll all say it was worth it. If you witness these games we’re having right now and how New York loves basketball … March in New York is just — I don’t know why — it’s a really favorite time of mine.”

Beilein wasn’t having a good time for long stretches in this one, but for what the Wolverines lacked in aesthetics and fundamentals, they compensated with sweat and grinding. Would they rather win with efficient deep shooting and palatable free-throw shooting? Of course.

But at least they’ve shown they have more ways to pull games out, and more players they can count on. And when they have to mix it up physically, they’ve shown they can.

“We have the personnel to play better defense, a lot of quicker, athletic guys,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “But it comes with the game -- when playing aggressive on defense, you’re gonna foul. We just gotta limit it to good fouls.”

If the postseason goes foul for Michigan, foul-shooting could be the culprit with a percentage (68) that ranks near the bottom of the conference. Players shake their heads and admit it’s a mental issue. Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews are fine in practice but around 50 percent in games.

“The foul-shooting drives me crazy,” Beilein admitted. “But you don’t want to show too much emotion, so I just smile a little bit. You can’t fault our defense, that’s for sure. It was excellent in the second half.”

If the Wolverines shoot like this, their defense will have to be better than excellent to keep playing in March. At tournament time, officiating changes game to game and every opponent is desperate, and if the Wolverines get down, they’ll have to get their hands dirty.

They left smudged fingerprints all over this one. It was revealing at times, in good ways and bad. If they didn’t recall exactly what they’re diving back into, they should remember it now.

No. 15 Michigan vs. Nebraska

Tip-off: 2:30 p.m. Friday, Madison Square Garden, New York

TV/radio: BTN/WWJ 950

Records: Michigan 25-7; Nebraska 22-9

Outlook: Nebraska won the only meeting between the teams this season, 72-52 in Lincoln on Jan. 18. Michigan made just 4-of-18 from 3-point range in that game and shot 37.5 percent (21-of-56) from the floor.  … Michigan had been 8-0 against the Cornhuskers since they entered the Big Ten in 2011.