Coming into its game against Michigan State on Sunday, the Michigan men’s basketball team already had a Big Ten regular season title under its belt. It’s been a season full of highs.
However, it ended on a resounding low.
In a game that could only be described as ugly, the Wolverines (19-3 overall, 14-3 Big Ten) were edged out by Michigan State (15-11, 9-11) in a 70-64 defeat to close out the regular season.
The first half provided a prelude to what proved to be a less than ideal shooting display, with Michigan starting the game making just two of its first nine shots. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson notably looked bothered, missing two point-blank shots off the backboard and struggling to get good post position all night. Dickinson shot just 4-for-10 from the floor, while the team shot a paltry 41.7% overall.
“Usually we shoot the ball a lot better, but you have those days where the ball’s just not going in,” graduate transfer guard Mike Smith said. “Today was one of those.”
Senior guard Eli Brooks left the game after landing awkwardly on his ankle following a floater. As coach Juwan Howard and head trainer Alex Wong carried Brooks off the court, he walked back to the locker room, where he was fitted with a walking boot to watch the rest of the game from the sidelines. His teammates felt the loss on offense, as the ball movement and spacing along the perimeter became less efficient and crisp after his exit.
“I think on the defensive end and the offensive end, both ends of the floor, he makes plays offensively and defensively, he’s kinda the glue guy of the team,” Smith said. “When he went down, we had to figure out another way to pick up for him.”
After Brooks went down, the Wolverines’ offense looked lethargic. The team spaced the floor nearly as efficiently as they normally do, and Spartan guard Rocket Watts took over after Brooks’s departure, scoring 11 points in the first half alone and finishing the night with 21. Michigan’s thinner rotation caused freshman guard Zeb Jackson and junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. to see extended action, and while each had their moments, neither made a true impression on the box score. Despite having beaten the same team by 19 just three days prior, the Wolverines looked outmatched.
“You have to be ready to play from start to finish versus a team you won convincingly in your building,” Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said. “And now you play in their building and a team like that, one of the things they pride themselves on is physicality. We were not as aggressive as they were.”
While the Wolverines’ bench struggled to shine on Sunday afternoon, Michigan State’s second unit proved to be the difference maker. Led by Watts, the Spartans got 41 points from their reserves, while Michigan could only muster 17, with senior forward Chaundee Brown Jr. accounting for 13 of them.
After halftime, the Wolverines’ offense began to rediscover its identity. Brown and senior forward Isaiah Livers scored Michigan’s first eight points of the half while the ball movement and spacing on the perimeter improved. While the Wolverines began to rediscover their offensive stroke, so did Michigan State. Seemingly every time Michigan rattled off a scoring run, the Spartans were ready with a rebuttal of their own, whether by the hand of Watts or forward Aaron Henry.
“We gotta do a better job of defending,” Howard said. “We always pride ourselves on defense being a staple of getting stops, but unfortunately today, we didn’t do a good job of getting stops when we needed it. I loved guys’ effort but we gotta do a better job of being more locked into the details.”
The Wolverines eventually cut the Spartans’ lead to two points with just under a minute to play following an and-one finish by Dickinson. Michigan State once again was ready with an answer, though, when Spartan guard Joshua Langford nailed a deep 3-pointer to push the lead to five and put the game virtually out of reach.
“It was a little too late,” Smith said. “I think we needed to be more aggressive at the beginning of the game and the half.”
On Thursday, Michigan felt on top of the world. Sunday afternoon painted a far different picture: one of a sobering return to reality.
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