MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time this season, the No. 7 Michigan men’s basketball team found itself on the losing end of a basketball game.
Stymied by a dominant defensive effort from Minnesota (4-4 Big Ten, 11-4 overall), the Wolverines (11-1, 6-1) fell, 75-57.
The Gophers came out strong on the defensive end from the opening tip. After allowing freshman center Hunter Dickinson to score a career-high 28 points on Jan. 6, Richard Pitino’s team keyed in on slowing the big man down. In the first five minutes alone, Dickinson committed three turnovers and rarely found himself able to get in good position for post-ups. Dickinson managed just nine points on five shot attempts — the first time he has failed to score in double figures in his collegiate career — and struggled to slow down Minnesota’s Liam Robbins, who scored 22 points after being limited to just five in the teams’ first meeting.
“Like everybody else on this team, (Dickinson’s) resilient,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “He’s gonna get back, watch film. He’s gonna shake his head like we’re all gonna do at our performances, but he’s gonna keep digging, keep grinding.”
With senior guard Eli Brooks out with a right foot injury, senior forward Chaundee Brown stepped in and performed admirably against Minnesota’s Marcus Carr, limiting the Big Ten’s third-leading scorer to just six first half points on 2-for-10 shooting and scoring six points of his own. The second half, though, was a different story, with Carr scoring 11 points and routinely coming up with big shots inside.
“One of the plays, he had a backdoor cut on me for an and-one, he got downhill two times on me,” Brown said. “That’s just me taking plays off. I know I have to be locked in every play when I’m playing against a person like him.”
Despite Brown’s team-high 14 points, Brooks’s absence left a gaping void that was impossible to ignore on both ends. The Gophers seemingly had an answer every time Michigan cut into their lead, and the Wolverines’ offense, which normally runs like a well-oiled machine, seemed to struggle to sustain any true consistency.
“It’s not a surprise to the team nor the staff that Eli Brooks means a lot to this group,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “With his leadership and also his play on both ends of the floor, you can see that he was truly missed.”
Despite the Wolverines’ poor first-half performance, they entered the half trailing by just seven. However, Michigan’s mistakes remained present even after the break, committing two early turnovers and struggling to capitalize on looks in transition. The Wolverines had a season-high 20 turnovers on Saturday, just four days removed from surrendering the ball just eight times against Wisconsin.
“I have never been on a team that had 20 turnovers and won the game, especially on the road,” Livers said. “That’s definitely something we had to clean up. I think we had 11 in the first half. Like I said, we weren’t ready. They came out and hit us first defensively.”
Brown, though, was determined to keep the Wolverines afloat. After nailing a 3-pointer, Brown stripped Carr in the backcourt to force a 10-second violation, letting out an emphatic fist bump and appearing to give the Wolverines life for the first time in the second half.
The momentum was short lived, though. After Brown subbed out for freshman guard Zeb Jackson, the Gophers went on a quick 7-0 run to extend their lead to 13, punching Michigan in the mouth when it finally appeared to be finding its footing.
“That was supposed to be our run,” Livers said. “Especially when Chaundee gets it to a great ball-handler like that, makes them get a 10-second violation. That was supposed to be our run. That was key. We were down all game, that was us scratching and digging back.”
The Wolverines cut it to eight with 11:08 minutes to go, but Minnesota responded with a 13-4 run. Robbins’s triple from the top of the key pushed the Gophers’ lead to 17 and effectively ended any hopes of a late comeback.
The first loss of a team’s season is never one that will be easy to take for its players. For the Wolverines, the key will now be how they respond going forward.
“This loss right here is a loss that we’re gonna learn from,” Howard said. “I expect our guys to be ready to play next game.”