With Simpson and Livers out, opportunities emerge for the rest
LINCOLN — What do you do when your most comfortable state is upended? When all sense of familiarity is thrown out the window?
For many, the answer may be to lose all sense of composure. Fold under the pressure that is the massive concept of perpetual and unexpected change and let the winds of chance sweep you away.
While this is clearly a melodramatic rendering of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against Nebraska — the Big Ten’s worst team, per KenPom — Tuesday’s critical road win for the Wolverines was their ferocious shout into the wind.
For in the end, that’s all they could do. Shout or be suffocated under a set of bruising circumstances and an even tougher schedule. After all, Michigan’s two best players on the team — senior guard Zavier Simpson and junior forward Isaiah Livers — were out due to suspension and injury, respectively.
When it was all said and done, the Wolverines (12-8 overall, 3-6 Big Ten) overcame a sense of overwhelming strangeness, showing the depth of their roster, to handle the Cornhuskers (7-14, 2-8), winning 79-68.
In the hard-fought triumph, the Wolverines had to tap deep into the well of its players and talents in order to secure a hard-to-come-by road win. In doing so, Michigan looked like a completely different team than it had in months.
“Today, a coach like myself had to work a little extra,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “And I don’t mind that. But our guys did an excellent job of collectively stepping in as a group and filling the void of one of our best players (Simpson).”
Junior guard Eli Brooks became the ball-dominant leader of the offense, distributing the ball and playing aggressive with repeated takes to the rim.
Sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. transformed into an offensive powerhouse, posting up defenders and shooting at a remarkably efficient clip.
Freshman forward Franz Wagner stopped shooting 3-pointers and began attacking the basket — a marked departure from his offensive rhythm thus far.
Sophomore guard David DeJulius started his first career game.
Junior walk-on forward C.J. Baird played in a non-blowout regular season game.
All telltale signs of player development and rather unthinkable play calls for this Wolverine team with an entirely healthy roster. And for most of the game, it all started with Brooks and Johns.
With Livers and Simpson out of the picture, the floor was open for Johns to take charge on the offensive end. He would end the night with 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting and seven rebounds. Feeling dissatisfied with his level of movement on the floor during his previous opportunities, Johns made sure his feet were active on the hardwood, forcing defensive miscues, especially around the rim.
“I think the more I move, the more I dive,” Johns said. “I think it brings people to me, so it opens up perimeter players, so I think the more I do that, the more effective I can be.”
Added Howard: “He’s been huge for us all season. He’s been playing with a lot of energy, toughness, did a really good job on the glass, got some opportunities to score inside. Kid is just growing. Day by day, getting better game by game.”
By playing through this wrinkle in the roster, the Wolverines were able to fully display the talents of their players. One such byproduct of this set of circumstances came from the walk-on Baird.
With Wagner in foul trouble in the first half, Baird entered as his willing back-up, entering over scholarship player, freshman guard Cole Bajema. Regardless, his teammates were happy to see him finally get an opportunity.
“It was awesome,” Johns said, pausing to draw out the word ‘awesome.’ “It was great seeing him out there. Just knowing what he does in practice and what he’s capable of doing, it was great seeing him out there. He should’ve played a little more confident, but I was just happy to see him out there.”
What’s more is that with Simpson off the floor, Wagner had the opportunity to expand his game beyond his normal sub-30 percent 3-point shooting mark and attack the basket. The freshman ended the night with 18 points and more confidence in his shot selection.
“I thought attacking the rim was very important, I tried to do that,” Wagner said. “I think everybody tried to do that. At the start, I think we shot a little bit too much instead of playing to our advantage down low, but I think it was good towards the end that we kept staying aggressive attacking the basket.”
Johns. Brooks. DeJulius. Wagner. Baird.
The list of players with an increased workload on Tuesday read like a laundry list, and in the end, with their postseason hopes on the line staring down a Quad 3 loss, they never batted an eye. They emotionlessly recited the mantra, “Next man up,” as drilled into their brains by Howard and continued shouting into the wind.