LINCOLN — It was decidedly different from the Michigan lineup that’s shown up most of this season, and decidedly different from the fast-paced, physical style of play that has become a trademark of the Wolverines this season.
Still, though, it was a win. And on Tuesday in Lincoln, when Michigan came in looking to snap a disheartening four-game losing skid and improve a bleak conference record, a win was more than enough.
The Michigan men’s basketball team (12-8 overall, 3-6 Big Ten) defeated Nebraska, 79-68, on the road on Tuesday night behind the leadership of junior guard Eli Brooks and an offensive explosion from freshman wing Franz Wagner.
Notably missing from Michigan’s lineup was senior point guard Zavier Simpson, who did not travel with the team after sustaining a suspension for violating a team policy. Junior forward Isaiah Livers traveled with the team but did not play after re-aggravating a lingering groin injury in Saturday’s game against Illinois.
After a rocky start to the game, the Wolverines seemed to settle in. Brooks stepped into a commanding role on offense, contributing 20 points and nine rebounds on the night, while playing all but thirty seconds of the game.
“It was good to see guys like Eli Brooks step into that leadership role,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s been a leader throughout the year, so it wasn’t a surprise to me and the coaching staff.”
Wagner also helped provide some spark on offense, with 18 points and eight rebounds on the night. It was a resilient performance from the freshman, who missed two free throws late Saturday that could’ve changed the game’s outcome; Wagner was visibly upset in Saturday’s post-game press conference.
It was an offensive presence that Michigan has been missing without Livers, and the Wolverines’ offense was much the better for it. A combination of Wagner, Brooks and sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. helped make up for the points lost when Simpson and Livers were sidelined; the three of them combined for 54 points and 24 rebounds on the night.
“I just wanted to really focus on being active tonight on the offensive end,” Johns said. “The more I move, the more I dive, I think it opens up a lot of perimeter play. So I think that the more I do that, the more I affect the game.”
Michigan put the game away for good with just under ten minutes left in regulation, going up 63-55 on a three and then a dunk from Johns, Jr. From there, the game was never in question. Despite a valiant effort from Cornhuskers’ guards Cam Mack and Haanif Cheatham, who combined for 36 points on the night, Nebraska couldn’t seem to keep up.
From there, the game was never in question. The Huskers never drew back within one possession of the Wolverines. It started to look more like the game that had been predicted between these two teams at the beginning of the season.
Without two of its best talents, Michigan got off to a slow start. DeJulius, in the starting lineup as a replacement for Simpson, had his ankles broken by Mack, who easily sank three with DeJulius out of the way. Wagner missed the response three, and after Cheatham made a layup, Michigan went down early, 5-0.
A layup from Wagner and a wide-open three from junior guard Eli Brooks tied the game at five, but the Wolverines continued to struggle to put shots in the net, and after allowing another layup, they went into the under-16 timeout trailing, 7-5. Things improved after the break, though; Michigan went down by four, 9-5 and then 7-11, but drew within a one-point margin on another Brooks three-pointer, and took their first lead of the game, 12-11, on a layup from Wagner just inside the 13-minute mark.
“Franz is a high-IQ basketball player,” Howard said. “He knows that we need his offensive leadership. He knows that we need his offensive talent. And today, he did a really good job of mixing in both by attacking the basket and making outside shots.”
Ultimately, it was different. And it wasn’t always pretty.
But it was enough.