Ann Arbor — You could see it in the red, watery eyes of Franz Wagner and hear it in the solemn tone of Juwan Howard, as he tried to process his most-crushing loss as Michigan’s coach. And you could sense it in the eerie silence in Crisler Center when Isaiah Livers crashed to the floor, his groin injury aggravated, his immediate future back to uncertain.
This was as tough as it gets for the Wolverines, their season now teetering after a fourth straight loss, 64-62 to Illinois on Saturday. It was a classically tight Big Ten game in the midst of an incredibly tight Big Ten season. And in the clank of a missed free throw — then another and another and another and another — and in the gasp of buzzer-beating magic by Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu, Michigan fell hard and far.
Suddenly, after a rollicking start that shot them to No. 4 in the polls, everything is in jeopardy. The Wolverines dropped to 11-8 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten, tied for 11th. The Illini (15-5) soared to 7-2 and first place. Suddenly, after so many big early victories, Michigan is on a slide that could drop it right out of NCAA Tournament contention.
This was a game the Wolverines should’ve won, but frankly, deserved to lose. They missed five consecutive free throws in the final three minutes, while holding a two-point lead each time, and the Illini did what good teams do when handed free chances.
Michigan is an incomplete team, short on shooters, but it’s clearly compounded by Livers’ injury. He returned after missing six games and was sparking the crowd and his teammates with seven points and five rebounds, right up until he thudded to the floor early in the second half. He was fouled as he attempted to dunk, writhed in pain, and got up clutching the same injured area. If he returned from the original ailment too soon, I imagine the training staff will be even more careful now.
'Define your character
Howard was somber afterward, and could only report that Livers was day to day, and “we pray that he comes back healthy, 110 percent.” Livers is their best outside shooter, and at 6-7, 230 pounds, has the size and versatility to play all over the floor.
Does his absence explain all the Wolverines’ issues right now? Not all, and they should be able to hit open shots (and free throws) without him. But it’s significant. They lost four of the six games he was out, and in their last three home games, they beat Purdue in double overtime and lost to Penn State and Illinois.
Can they survive if he’s out for an extended period again? Remains to be seen, but in his absence in the second half Saturday, Michigan was desperately looking for a take-charge guy. Zavier Simpson always tries mightily, but his shooting deficiencies — he missed two free throws with 3:22 left — make it difficult. He was clamped solidly on Dosunmu in the closing seconds, but Illinois’ terrific sophomore guard muscled up the winning jumper with .5 second left.
“You come in after a game like this, you see nothing but red eyes, heads down, been some crying, and it hurts you as a coach, because I feel like I let them down,” Howard said. “And that’s the worst feeling ever. I’m just proud of our guys, and something special is headed for them. The beauty of this sport is, at times it will bring you to your knees, but it also will define your character.”
Howard almost always is upbeat and puts the blame on himself. This will be a tremendous test of that demeanor, because the Wolverines appear to have a confidence crisis. How else do you explain missing 18 of 20 shots at one point in the first half? How else do you explain the poor shot selection? How else do you explain all the missed free throws — 12-for-21 in the game — including two by Wagner (87 percent for the season) with 1:17 left?
Wagner was asked if Michigan is missing an ingredient right now, and he flashed a touch of defiance.
“Nothing,” he said. “We got everything we need. I like the way we fought through the whole game. We just gotta make free throws.”
In this game, it was almost as simple as that. For the season, it’s a bit more complex.
The Wolverines are still a solid 32nd in the Kenpom ratings and have played the toughest schedule in the country. Their resume needs work, but it’s not unsalvageable. It’s just hard to see where they’ll get a lift if Livers is out.
Wagner shows promise as a shooter but was 1-for-6 on 3's against Illinois. Jon Teske is tough inside but also was 1-for-6 on 3s. Howard and his staff adjusted their defense and completely shut down touted 6-10 freshman Kofi Cockburn. The Illini were second in the nation in rebounding margin and Michigan edged them on the boards 37-34. That surprised Illinois coach Brad Underwood, who also acknowledged the benefit of not facing a healthy Livers, calling him “one of the best pro prospects in the league.”
'Keep feeding confidence'
You have to wonder if Livers will ever be fully healthy the rest of his junior season, and his teammates’ raw emotions indicate they wonder too.
“You can only imagine how bad he wanted to be out there for his brothers,” guard David DeJulius said. “You can’t only stick together when things are going good and you’re on a streak. We have to stay together during these rough patches as well. In the Bahamas (for the Battle 4 Atlantis preseason tournament), we were having fun, playing more free. Now we’re kind of over-thinking things. We don’t have the answer yet, but I’m sure we’ll find an answer.”
Simpson is the puzzle that Howard still must solve. He leads the nation in assists, but more and more teams are backing off, daring him to shoot. Remarkably, Michigan had zero assists in the first half and five for the game. To his credit, Simpson stayed under control this time, hit seven of 12 shots, and directed an offense that only committed two turnovers.
Until someone provides dead-eye deep shooting, defenses will clog the lane. Early in the season, Simpson could get anywhere on the court because players were drilling 3s. In the Wolverines’ run through the Bahamas, they hit a scorching 33 of 70 on 3-pointers (47 percent) while beating Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
That island vibe has evaporated in the thick muck of the Big Ten. Getting it back will be difficult, but Howard is opting for positivity over panic.
“When we have open shots, I want our guys to keep taking them,” Howard. “Keep feeding confidence.”
Feeding it is one thing, finding it is another. The Wolverines have a lot to digest, and not a lot of time to do it.