When I walked over, all lowered their laptops in unison. This is not a public operation. Washington and assistant coach Luke Yaklich will take me through their scouting process, but neither dares to divulge a single detail about Michigan State.
Saturday afternoon against 7th-seeded Minnesota, 3rd-seeded Michigan (28-5 overall, 15-5 Big Ten) displayed those championship habits and then some, storming out to a 76-49 demolition of the Golden Gophers (21-13, 9-11). Just as the Big Ten regular-season title did last weekend in East Lansing, the tournament crown will come down to Michigan and Michigan State.
That leadership, though, manifests itself best when he’s taking the ball up the court, springing teammates into open looks before returning to the other end and making sure Michigan’s opponent can’t do the same.
And for the next 30 minutes, Simpson did exactly that, leading the Wolverines to a 74-53 win.
For all the achievements No. 9 Michigan (26-4 overall, 15-4 Big Ten) earned in its 25-4 start, that’s not something that its head coach has often been able to say away from the Crisler Center. But Saturday afternoon the Wolverines beat No. 17 Maryland (21-9, 12-7), 69-62, to notch the signature road win that had eluded them since beating Villanova in mid-November.
Last Thursday in Minneapolis, freshman forward Colin Castleton stood in a cramped hallway outside the visiting locker room as reporters attempted to swarm Jordan Poole. Only Poole wouldn’t let them, forcing each reporter to ask Castleton a question before they could talk to him.
The evidence disagrees. Michigan’s offense averaged 73.2 points per game before the new year. In January, that figure dropped to 68.5. With one game to play in February, it sits at 67.1. On the other side of the ball, the Wolverines have gone from allowing just 57.9 points per game in January — the first month of Big Ten play — to 65.0 this month.
“We didn’t have that fat L that a November loss is, cause we were 19-0,” Livers said. “So we kinda had to learn the harder way, in our conference, which kinda sucks.”
Even while remembering the celebratory final moments, he didn’t crack a smile. His comments alternated deflected praise with a focus on Indiana, Michigan State’s next opponent. When asked where this ranks among the biggest wins of his career, he merely said, “It’s up there” and re-emphasized the importance of winning a conference title.
But beneath it all, there was an air of relaxed satisfaction that can only come after dumping a proverbial monkey off one’s back.
“We just gotta be extremely locked in and come out to play every night,” said sophomore Jordan Poole, relaying their message. “Take the exact same approach. It can be hard if you go and play a team that doesn't have that many wins in the league or you beat a team already earlier in the year.”
Thursday night, faced with an opponent who checked both those boxes, the Wolverines did exactly that, beating Minnesota, 69-60.