EVANSTON — Michigan coach Juwan Howard stepped off the plane in Chicago and inhaled deeply. He was back home. There was something different about the air in his hometown, he said.
Whether it was the nostalgia of being back where he grew up or the crowd of maize and blue in the bleachers at Northwestern or the herd of old friends — including former NBA All-Star Dikembe Mutombo — Howard felt different about Wednesday’s game.
Whatever was in the air though, clearly affected the Wolverines (15-9 overall, 6-7 Big Ten), who trounced the Wildcats (6-17, 1-12) to the tune of 79-54 in a full display of the team’s talents.
But things weren’t so rosy from the onset. Michigan started the game badly, opening up the contest 0-for-11 from the floor with seven of those shots registering as either layups or dunks. Most of the offensive stagnancy fell on the shoulders of senior center Jon Teske, who failed to convert around the rim, missing easy looks against a drastically undersized Northwestern team. He finished with six points on 3-for-14 shooting.
But that was the last time Michigan needed to worry about the outcome of the game.
And, as if possessed, the Wolverines’ shooters began to take things into their own hands.
Junior guard Eli Brooks lit it up from behind the arc, going 4-for-8 and finishing with a team-high 18 points. His quick release and deep range torched the Wildcats all night and earned the nickname “the silent assassin” from teammate Isaiah Livers.
Adding to the offensive production — largely in the first half — was senior forward Austin Davis, who checked in for the flailing Teske and added a much-needed presence in the interior.
If a programmer were designing a consistent, reliable player to fill the 10 feet or so in front of the rim, that player’s performance would look strikingly similar to Davis’s in the first half.
The big man opened up his scoring in style with a two-handed flush, making a statement that the lax interior presence would not continue. The new-life offense went on a 26-5 run to take a strong 38-23 lead into the locker room.
Oh, and the Wolverines did it all without star guard Zavier Simpson, who watched all the action from the bench with two quick fouls. Sophomore guard David DeJulius stepped up, as he’s done in the past, and filled Simpson’s shoes to the inch, finishing with seven points and seven assists.
“When (Simpson) came in, they told me it was my opportunity,” DeJulius said. “And I watched film and saw how they play defense, and I just executed the game plan.
“And I’m naturally a scorer, that’s just my game, but that’s not what I care about. I care about doing whatever is best for the team, and just to see that I got seven assists. … That feels good for me.”
If ever one play could characterize a game of basketball, it would have to be Livers’ ferocious slam late in the second half. With just over five minutes to play, Livers found himself streaking down the court after a massive block from Teske. The junior caught the feed from DeJulius and forced down a thunderous dunk to shake the building.
It also helped that the Wildcats sit comfortably in the basement of the Big Ten standings.
Northwestern showed some life later in the half though, catching stride with its shot selection. The Wildcats threatened to chip away at a 20-point Wolverine lead with an 8-0 run, but would never actualize the comeback with Brooks drilling a 3-pointer to snap Michigan out of the rut.
Brooks’s 3-pointer felt like more of an inevitability rather than a big-time shot by a veteran player. The game was never truly in doubt and the Wolverines proved to be simply too much for the undersized Wildcats. After all, they were never meant to spoil Howard’s homecoming.
Maybe that’s why the “Let’s Go Blue!” chants emanating from the stands in Evanston following Livers’s game-defining dunk didn’t feel out of place. Through Howard, this was Michigan’s home game too.