Niyo: Victory shows Wolverines moving in right direction (maybe)

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Turning points are hard to see until they’re in the rear-view mirror.

So it’s impossible to say for sure just what Saturday’s rivalry win over Michigan State really means for Michigan’s basketball team. But when asked if this game felt like a defining moment in the immediate aftermath, the Wolverines didn’t hesitate.

Michigan forward Isaiah Livers (2) and Michigan guard Eli Brooks, left, with a lead late in the second half.

“Honestly, yes,” said Isaiah Livers, the junior forward whose return from injury helped spark a 77-68 victory over the Spartans at Crisler Center. “We already said it after the game. Me or not, this game was gonna be a tone-setter.

“And I think we all did a great job of coming out focused and staying disciplined to what the coaches believed that we could do. … We didn’t get rattled at all. It was meaningful.”

Just how meaningful, or what this rim-rattling result — the teams combined to shoot 35% from the field — portends for either side, only time will tell.

But the Wolverines’ defensive effort — and overall intensity — spoke volumes about their intentions Saturday. And getting a full game from Livers for the first time in nearly two full months — Michigan’s most dynamic player sat out nine of the last 10 games due to a groin injury — reminded everyone what Juwan Howard’s team had been missing.

“Just his presence,” senior Zavier Simpson said of Livers, who finished with 14 points, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 31 minutes. “Sometimes someone’s presence can mean a lot. He definitely opens things up on the offensive end with his shooting ability. And then on defense, he’s a leader, he’s talking to us, and just covering up a lot of mistakes that we may make.”

Crash talk

Of course, it was Michigan’s bizarre cover-up, if you will, of the circumstances surrounding Simpson’s recent suspension following an early-morning traffic incident in Ann Arbor two weeks ago that dominated the headlines coming into this game.

Simpson insisted that it wasn’t on his mind — “I didn’t want to be selfish and let that affect me,” he said — and the senior, who led Michigan with 16 points and eight assists Saturday, reiterated after the game what he’d said before details emerged from the police report in recent days.

“We all make mistakes,” Simpson said. “I made a mistake that I owned up to, I apologized to my teammates, my family and friends, and also to our fans.”

Added Howard: “’X’ understands what’s asked of him. He understands the responsibility as a leader of the team, a senior and a captain. It was no surprise to me that he would be ready to play at a high level.”

It was also no surprise that Michigan opted to play the Spartans — and their superlative floor leader, Cassius Winston — differently this time around.

A month ago, Winston toyed with Michigan’s passive ball-screen coverages, pouring in a career-high 32 points in an 18-point Michigan State rout at Breslin Center. But Saturday, Howard had his team hedging hard and blitzing the Spartans point guard, while switching the primary 1-on-1 defensive responsibility from Simpson to junior Eli Brooks.

“Eli, he’s a pest, man,” Livers said. “He’s a real good defender.”

It showed Saturday, as Winston had trouble finding his way into the lane, got few open looks with Brooks hounding him — “I don’t think I got an easy shot today,” he said after finishing 5-of-18 from the field — and didn’t get much help from his teammates when he did pass out of double-teams. Livers’ presence helped with Michigan’s defensive rotations, just as it did in transition, where the Spartans had embarrassed the Wolverines in East Lansing. (They managed just six fast-break points Saturday.)

Triple trouble

But if you ask Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, many of his team’s problems in this one again were self-inflicted. After Winston’s 3-pointer cut the lead to 39-38 about 5 minutes into the second half, he followed up an MSU defensive stop with a contested 3-point miss on the ensuing possession. Then after Brooks drilled one of his own, center Xavier Tillman took — and missed — an ill-advised 3 that left Izzo grimacing on the visitors' bench.

“We get close like that and … it’s almost like we go brain-dead then,” Izzo said. “And that’s got to change.”

So do these horrendous starts his team is getting off to on the road. Big early deficits doomed the Spartans in their recent Big Ten losses at Indiana and Wisconsin, and Saturday’s start was about as ugly as it gets for both teams. They were a combined 2-for-17 with eight turnovers in the first 6 minutes, and it took even longer for the Spartans to settle down as Michigan took advantage of loose-ball offensive rebounds and knocked down some wide-open. second-chance 3s.

Simpson’s 3s, in particular, were galling. A 33% shooter from behind the line this season, he started 3-for-3 from deep and finished 4-for-7 — the second-most he has made in his career.

“Some guys hit some shots that weren’t supposed to,” Izzo groused.

But just as problematic, some guys on whom Izzo relies heavily are stumbling — the coach blamed himself for playing a worn-out Tillman nearly 37 minutes Saturday — while others are still fumbling opportunities. Sophomores Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham were scoreless in more than 31 minutes combined, while freshman Rocket Watts was a minus-22 in less than 15 minutes on the floor and Malik Hall’s final stats looked better than his defense did on some key possessions.

“Our freshmen just aren't ready,” Izzo said, well aware that ready or not, his team's schedule doesn’t get any easier from here.

Michigan State has lost three in a row, and six of the Spartans' final seven games are against likely NCAA Tournament teams, including a pair with league-leading Maryland. And while the players can point to last year’s squad, which rallied after a three-game skid at this point in the season — winning 14 of their last 15 to reach the Final Four — that team certainly had more experience than this one does.

“But we'll get out of it, we really will,” Izzo said, before adding later, “There’s a lot of basketball left, guys. A lot of basketball.”

Enough, certainly, for Michigan (14-9 overall, 5-7 Big Ten) to make a run to the tourney as well, provided Livers can stay healthy.

Only a handful of teams in the country have more than the Wolverines' six Quadrant 1 wins right now. But with a month left to go in a Big Ten season that’s been shaken like a snow globe, Michigan desperately needed a win like this, both to bolster its postseason resume and to reassert itself against a rival that had won the last four in this series.

That it was Howard’s first win over the Spartans as a head coach wasn’t lost on his players, even if their fashion statement went largely unnoticed Saturday. (It wasn’t until after the game that Howard realized they’d all worn black socks in honor of the Fab Five.)

Still, there was no mistaking the intensity Howard brought to this game.

“He is loud,” Livers said, laughing. “Coming out of that locker room, you could hear him, already pumped up like he was about to play.”

Afterward, it was more of the same, though Howard wanted to make one thing clear in his postgame press conference.

"It is never about me," Howard said. "It is all about this team. I'm just real proud of the fact that our guys responded and got a victory. They did it. The players did it.”

As for what it'll mean in the end, well, that depends on what they do from here.