CHICAGO — Twelve minutes into the first half, Michigan’s offense was stalling again. Long, unyielding scoreless droughts cost the Wolverines against Michigan State twice in the last two weeks — and in doing so, cost them a Big Ten title. And here Michigan was, again, having gone six minutes without a field goal, its lead cut to one.
Then, the ball found Eli Brooks and for just the second time since late December, the sophomore guard drained a 3-pointer.
“Coach (John Beilein) just definitely told me to keep shooting this year in practice,” Brooks said. “And they gave me a lot of confidence. Actually, if I don’t take the shot, I’m coming out.”
But his wasn’t the only outside shooting to return in Friday’s game.
In the first half alone, the Wolverines drained 7-of-16 shots from beyond the arc, one fewer than they did in the entire game last week against the Spartans. After Brooks broke the scoreless drought, Michigan’s offense suddenly looked like a juggernaut, jumping out to a double-digit lead over the next five minutes.
The offense never stopped looking that way as No. 10 Michigan (27-5 overall, 16-5 Big Ten) moved on to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals with a blowout 74-53 win over Iowa (22-11, 10-11). And, after Minnesota knocked off Purdue earlier in the day, the path to a third-straight Big Ten Tournament final is falling into place.
Defense turned to offense, the ball hummed — Zavier Simpson notched eight assists by halftime — and the Wolverines suddenly had their shooting stroke. Six different players hit 3-pointers for Michigan, junior center Jon Teske being the lone starter not to get on the board. Charles Matthews returned from injury to play 25 minutes and notched a 3-pointer for his only field goal. Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole looked every bit themselves, scoring 15 and 11 points, respectively, as Isaiah Livers put up 13 of his own.
“When the energy’s going through the arena and the team and everything,” Poole said, “everybody’s having fun — you just feel more confident shooting the ball.”
Six weeks ago in Iowa City, the Wolverines had no answer for the Hawkeyes’ offense once Teske got into foul trouble. On Friday, Teske played 24 minutes — most of his time on the bench coming once the game was already over — and the scoreboard reflected it. The Hawkeyes scored .815 points per possession while Teske dunked his way to 12 points.
“The big difference in the last game — remember, Iggy was in foul trouble,” Beilein said. “Jon was in foul trouble. He did not have, with the exception of one or two, he played really smart basketball to stay in the game. We all did.”
Since that first game against the Hawkeyes, a 74-59 loss, Michigan has struggled to look like itself for more than one or two games at a time, letting the Spartans come back twice in the second half and falling to Penn State on the road. Friday, the Wolverines scored their 60th and 61st points with 12:32 to play.
Consider it a reminder. When things are firing on all cylinders, Michigan is pretty tough to beat.
After the game, Matthews brimmed with positive energy, joking with reporters about his eating habits — “I’m not fat fat, but I eat a lot” — and being back in Chicago. He scored just five points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field, but looked himself on defense.
“I’m not 100 percent but I feel good enough to play,” Matthews said. “I’m not worried about hurting myself again or anything like that, but I know I’m not 100 percent.”
The injury — one Michigan had called an ankle injury and one Matthews repeatedly referred to as a foot injury on Friday — wasn’t an isolated incident, but built up over time until the first Michigan State game three weeks ago. “That was just the big explosion,” Matthews said. Despite that, Beilein said there was no concern about playing Matthews on a back-to-back. Matthews himself didn’t look to hedge.
“I’m back,” he said. “Just trying to get on a run now.”
As Matthews threw on a pullover, turned to the family section and flashed a smile with 15 minutes left in the game and the Wolverines up by just as many, the meaning of that statement was more than clear.