SportsMonday Column: A blueprint for a turnaround

Sunday, February 2, 2020 - 7:21pm

Michigan left Madison Square Garden with a 69-63 win over Rutgers.

Michigan left Madison Square Garden with a 69-63 win over Rutgers. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

NEW YORK — If this is what a turning point looks like, Michigan will take it.

Last week was ugly. It brought an urgency that should never have been required for two mid-winter games. It started with a bomb that, in the moment, seemed as if it could be a final blow for Juwan Howard’s first season in charge. It ended with an escape, a buzzer sounding and a palpable exhortation of relief.

For how last week felt on Monday afternoon, when news of Zavier Simpson’s suspension came down and the Wolverines were suddenly staring down a must-win game at a listless Nebraska without two of their best players, they couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. 

Michigan survived in Lincoln, stringing together minutes from walk-on C.J. Baird and sophomore wing Adrien Nunez, getting by when a loss would have put a serious dent in its NCAA Tournament hopes. With Simpson back Saturday against Rutgers, Michigan again scraped by, behind a 20-point performance from Brandon Johns Jr., some pick-and-roll mastery from Simpson and by making the late free throws it missed against Illinois. It put the seven days prior in a new light, because it’s easier to press on the gas when the speed bumps are in the rearview mirror.

Simpson’s suspension now looks more like a speed bump than anything lasting. On Saturday, Johns looked like someone at the developmental endpoint of getting tossed into the fire. Michigan shot 9-of-19 from 3-point range and got production from all five of its starters. If the Wolverines are going to survive the next month, it will look something like that.

Afterward, conversation focused on Simpson’s return and Johns’ breakout. The bigger picture — Michigan finally starting to get out of a hole it spent most of January digging — wasn’t mentioned. But its shadow draped across everything.

“Brandon’s been playing great for us all year,” Howard said. “A lot of the things that he’s been doing for his team to help us win is things that doesn’t really show up in the box score.

“So what happened today is, he got off to a great start. Finished with 20 points, but the points is not where it shows up. It’s effort, it’s attention to detail, being able, defensively, to guard ‘1’ through ‘4.’ Being able to rim protect at the basket.”

Howard has spent much of the year insisting that Johns does more than his statistical output. Saturday — when Johns scored double digits for the second consecutive game, looked confident with the ball in his hands and played a central role in Michigan’s best win this year — was the first time that felt evident to the plain eye.

If one good thing could come out of Isaiah Livers’ extended absence, it would be Johns playing like this.

“I’m just so, so proud of Brandon,” Simpson said. “He’s a guy who’s been through a lot since his freshman season. Come in this season with a new coach, new offense and a lot of different things but he managed to keep his head up. He’s worked hard every single day in practice, he gives it his all, he’s locked in. Before the game, he’s sitting down with coach Howard, watching film. It’s the small things like that I feel like come into play. I felt like his hard work is definitely paying off.”

A few minutes afterward, Simpson was cordoned off by a spokesperson in a room behind the tunnel leading to the court, answering questions about his suspension for the first time. He didn’t go into much detail but spoke with a leader’s voice.

“Yes, I spoke with my teammates,” he said at one point. “That’s what a captain should do, right?”

His leadership is as defining to this Michigan team as anything else. Reacting to the last week of events in the right way — the way he did Saturday, a way that makes his teammates have his back the way he said they did — is vital. 

This iteration of the Wolverines is not as talented as last year’s, which spent half of the season blowing teams out of the water. It isn’t molding an identity made for March, like two years ago, when Simpson’s persona melded into focus over the course of Big Ten play. Right now, it’s doing just enough to survive in a stacked Big Ten, to bridge the gap between the last year of the John Beilein era and the first recruiting class of the Juwan Howard era.

If Michigan gets over that gap with an NCAA Tournament appearance (or with any success in the tournament itself), it’ll be thanks to Simpson’s leadership, to a potential Johns breakout and to games like Saturday’s.

It won’t be pretty or loud — that’s not the style of this group. It’ll scrap and claw, and in the end, it’ll do just enough.

If nothing else, the past week proved that.

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu or on Twitter @ethan_sears.