Wojo: Michigan muscles past rival, back on familiar roll

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

New York — Shove by shove, shot by shot, the Wolverines are altering perceptions. And when that happens, so does this: They’re altering expectations.

Once again, they’re rising at the right time and shaking stubborn labels. And once again, matched against their bigger, bawdier rivals, they flexed their strength. Michigan out-maneuvered and outworked Michigan State in the Big Ten semifinals Saturday, 75-64, and it looked so similar to the first meeting, it’s time to do some reassessing.

The Spartans (29-4) are still potent, their 13-game winning streak just snapped, but they give you pause. They’re not a No. 1 seed, maybe not even a No. 2, and might have lost their chance to open the NCAA Tournament in Detroit.

The Spartans looked weary, while the Wolverines (27-7) looked energized, winning their eighth straight. And if Michigan beats Purdue Sunday to win the the Big Ten tournament for the second straight year, a 3 or 4 seed should be possible. Anything is possible when the Wolverines play like this, with a chippy defensive disposition tied to their sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson, who’s taking on more and more, as John Beilein gives him more and more.

Michigan State’s Cassius Winston said he craved the rematch, after Michigan won in East Lansing 82-72 two months ago. Apparently, Simpson craved it just as much. He had 15 points and seven rebounds, and even drilled six of eight free throws in the clutch.

The Wolverines were more balanced — five players in double figures — and it’s not an overstatement to say they were more physically determined. Tom Izzo will cringe at that, but in the opening minutes, when emotions were gurgling in noisy Madison Square Garden, the Wolverines stood up to the Spartans and set the tone.

Simpson is affectionally called a pit bull, and the team even posts a photo of a snarling dog in the locker room. Simpson embraces it, and talks the way he plays — bluntly, forcefully, unabashedly. Asked if a couple of early shoving matches were remnants of a time opponents felt they could push Michigan around, Simpson nodded.

“They definitely feel like that because of our reputation in the past, that Michigan is not this big bully team,” Simpson said. “We’re more of a smart team, but then again, were not gonna just let somebody come into our house and take over.”

Flipping the script

It did seem like their house at times, with more Michigan fans than Michigan State fans in the sellout crowd of 19,812. In the first four minutes, both teams let their passion flow. Charles Matthews and Nick Ward jawed after one collision and players had to be separated. Moments later, Matthews and Jaren Jackson Jr. jostled after a rebound, and Ward ended up with a technical foul.

Not a big deal, not in a heated rivalry. And the Spartans bounced back, wiping out a 14-6 deficit and taking a three-point halftime lead partly because they grabbed seven offensive rebounds. They also ran at Moe Wagner and flummoxed him into 0-for-7 shooting.

The old narrative was setting up — Michigan State controlled the inside, Michigan tried to float on the outside. And then the oddest, newest thing happened again — it didn’t continue. Wagner started attacking the rim and the Wolverines allowed only two more offensive rebounds, and pulled away by hitting a blistering 66 percent from the field in the second half.

“Our guys are tough, just because we don’t talk about it a lot, we let our game do the talking,” Beilein said. “I had to talk about it at halftime — don’t back off if it gets chippy. Every team you play at this level, especially in rivalry games, they’re gonna test people. And it’s OK, we’re gonna stand in there and be tough. There’s a mental and a physical toughness, and we’re not beating our chest about it, we’re just gonna be that.”

This began more than a year ago, when Derrick Walton Jr. and teammates chafed against charges Michigan was a white-collar team. Beilein has joked that guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was a “tuxedo player,” elegant and eloquent but not overly feisty.

Oh, how that has changed. Abdur-Rahkman plays with a chip and an occasional sneer, and takes over at times like Walton did. He’s shooting 54.8 percent in the three games here, and his 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer — landing with a thud on the rim and dropping in — was the basket of the game, giving Michigan a 62-54 lead with 2:48 left.

The crowd roared, and for those who lamented the Big Ten bringing its show to New York City, it was a compelling sight. The conference announced it was the first sellout for a tournament session since 2014, and Michigan relished the stage.

“There was a lot of energy in the building,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “It felt like a home game, and we definitely fed off the energy.”

Channeling Bo

The Wolverines will need to feed more if they’re to beat Purdue for the championship. The Boilermakers narrowly won both regular-season meetings — 70-69 in Ann Arbor and 92-88 in West Lafayette — and likely are playing for a No. 1 seed.

It’s important not to overstate what one victory, or one conference run, can do for a team. It’s important not to understate it either.

The Spartans were down but undaunted, although they haven’t looked consistently dominant for a little while now. As he often does, Winston spoke for the team.

“It was a big game, but it’s not the end of our season,” said Winston, who shot 3-for-10. “There’s still another big goal that we’re very capable of achieving. So we just gotta use this to fuel our fire.”

Some teams don’t match up well with others, and once he got going in the second half, Wagner again outplayed Ward. Jackson seemed to struggle with Michigan’s athleticism, too, and Miles Bridges shot 7-for-18 and fouled out.

For Michigan, it funnels outward from Simpson, who even switched a few times to guard Bridges. The chemistry is growing, to the point Beilein was quoting Bo Schembechler afterward about the mantra of “the team, the team, the team.”

That’s what happens when your point guard is selfless and deeply motivated. Simpson didn’t become the starter until midway through the season, and now has to be practically dragged off the court for a rest. And those free-throw difficulties? He’s 12-for-17 in three victories here, expanding his confidence.

When told how much Winston had looked forward to the rematch, Simpson shrugged.

“I guess he got what he wanted,” Simpson said. “You’re supposed to have motivation, much respect to him. … Coach knows I’m a pit bull. It’s important I set the tone, have great intensity, and I want my energy to be contagious. If I come out there aggressive, loud, showing passion, it’s gonna run through to my teammates.”

It ran straight through to the Wolverines on a memorable New York City afternoon, and they ran straight through their rivals. There’s no telling where this run will end, but it’s becoming increasingly clear where and how it began.



Michigan vs. Purdue

Tip-off: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Madison Square Garden, New York

TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760, WWJ 950

Records: Michigan 27-7; Purdue 28-5

Outlook: The Wolverines, seeded No. 5 for the Big Ten tournament, and the Boilermakers, seeded No. 3, meet for the third time this season. Purdue won 70-69 on Jan. 9 in Ann Arbor and 92-88 on Jan. 25 in West Lafayette.