NEW YORK CITY, NY. — It was the epitome of a scare.
The No. 17 Michigan men’s basketball team (14-5 conference, 25-7 overall) was tested by Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. It took overtime, but, despite foul trouble and outside shooting woes, the Wolverines escaped to live another day, etching the Hawkeyes, 77-71, on Thursday.
But Friday brings a quick turnaround and a more challenging opponent — one that delivered one of the Wolverines’ five conference losses in lopsided fashion.
Back on Jan. 18, Nebraska dominated Michigan, coasting to a 20-point victory in front of a rambunctious crowd in Lincoln.
“They came in with great quickness and great game plan and were just much better than us,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on Thursday. “And that’s all it was. They were just better than us.”
Added freshman forward Isaiah Livers “It feels like that game opened our eyes.”
The setting changes on Friday — from Pinnacle Bank Arena to Madison Square Garden — but the simple fact remains: The Cornhuskers (13-5, 22-9) have their best team in years and are hungry for a win that could push them off the bubble.
Both of those things were apparent in the teams’ first matchup, as the Wolverines were simply stifled on the offensive end. Michigan shot just 38 percent from the floor — including 22 percent from the beyond the arc — committed 12 turnovers and scored just 52 points.
The root cause of this was Nebraska’s strategy of switching on screens. Instead of running their patented pick-and-pop play — which usually features junior forward Moritz Wagner setting a screen and then flashing for a 3-point attempt — the Wolverines were forced to improvise, and usually unsuccessfully so.
One poor shot after another, Michigan looked lost against Huskers, frequently bleeding the shot clock down with ultimately directionless passing around the perimeter. And when the Wolverines’ point guards went back to calling for screens, Nebraska’s defense had a strategy that worked time and time again.
That’s what happened on this play early in the first half, leading to a turnover. And at the time, it was such a new look that Michigan couldn’t adjust in-game.
In the clip above from later in the half, the Wolverines called for two ball screens on the same possession, neither of which really worked.
“They switched everything. On every screen,” Beilein said afterward. “… I don’t know if it would be successful with the big guys, but that’s a thing we’re going to see again from many teams.”
Most teams have indeed switched screens against Michigan down the stretch — but the Wolverines have improved and even excelled against the strategy thanks to augmented aggressiveness from Zavier Simpson.
Here, when Purdue switches the screen to put a seven-footer on the sophomore point guard, Simpson explodes to the hoop with a crossover dribble, allowing him to hit an off-balance layup.
But Simpson is also making plays for others off screen looks — even when it means not taking the pick to begin with.
On this play, Simpson hedges that he’s taking the screen but quickly drives instead, getting to the basket and eventually leading to an open 3-pointer.
“I think we’ve learned a lot since then,” Beilein said. “I think a lot of people as a team and individually we’ve grown a lot. So hopefully that will be on display tomorrow.”
Livers said the Wolverines’ key for Friday is hitting 3-pointers — something they struggled with against Iowa, going just 3-of-19 from deep.
But considering the success Michigan has had from beyond the arc this season, including a 15-for-31 effort on Sunday against Maryland, Thursday’s shooting performance could be an anomaly. At least, against a Nebraska team that they couldn’t play with the first time around, the Wolverines should certainly hope so.
“I think now that we got today out of the way,” Livers said, “we’ll come out tomorrow on fire.”