LINCOLN — Coming off of its most complete effort of the season in Saturday’s win over SDSU, the Michigan men’s basketball team still had something to prove. It was fair to wonder if the win was a critical juncture in the Wolverines’ season, or if they would revert back to their old form shown in a stretch of mediocre performances prior.
But from the second Michigan took the court Tuesday, it proved Saturday’s win was no fluke.
The Wolverines (6-3 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) dominated throughout, easily handling Nebraska (5-5, 0-2), 102-67.
“We’re gelling,” senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. said. “We’re still gelling, so it’s coming along. It’s a long season, and I think it’s the right time to be doing it.”
Michigan came out of the gates hot, scoring 11 points before the under-16 timeout. Johns returned to the starting lineup due to the absence of freshman forward Moussa Diabate and led the effort early, tallying seven points in this stretch.
The Cornhuskers, though, kept up through the first portion of the half, and it wasn’t until about midway through the first half that the Wolverines were able to pull away.
That separation came from what happened beyond the arc. While Nebraska floundered from deep, Michigan shot as well from 3-point range as it had all season. Backed by the consistent 3-point shooting, the Wolverines went on a 26-9 run over an eight-minute span.
Unlike in past games, when most of its shooting came from freshman wing Caleb Houstan and fifth-year guard Eli Brooks, Michigan got stellar performances from all around. Houstan remained a threat, knocking down two 3-pointers in an eight-point half, while Johns and sophomore forward Terrance Williams II each made two of their own.
“They’re going to double (sophomore center) Hunter (Dickinson) because he’s an All-American,” Williams said. “What comes with that is double teams. So we just gotta be ready when the ball comes to us. Be shot ready.”
And as was the case on Saturday, as the 3-pointers fell, the offense flowed. The paint opened up for Dickinson, who scored nine in the half, while graduate guard DeVante’ Jones was able to find open men and limit the mistakes that have plagued him all season, to the tune of four assists and no turnovers.
“Yeah, I was extremely happy to see how the ball was just moving,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “It was popping. And it was great to see our guys sharing the game. There were times when we passed up an open shot for a better shot when a guy was either open in the corner or on the slot. (We) did a really good job of driving the basketball, not just settling for jumpers.”
Powered by a 9-for-22 performance from long range and 16 of a career-high-tying 20 points from Johns, the Wolverines took a 51-32 lead into halftime.
Michigan struggled to get out to a fast start in the second half, and Cornhuskers guard Alonzo Verge Jr. looked to close the gap with 13 points in the first seven minutes, but Brooks prevented him from taking over afterward. After failing to connect on all five of his attempts from long range in the first half, Brooks buried 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions, sending droves of fans up the stairs and to the exits.
From there, with the game firmly in hand, Michigan continued to shoot the lights out. Houstan hit two more from deep to finish with 16 points, while Williams added another to total 20 as the Wolverines finished 15-for-32 from beyond the arc.
“We always made the extra pass,” Johns said. “Everybody was in their spots. We made each other look great and it was awesome.”
When all was said and done, Michigan once again blew out a lesser opponent. But more importantly, the Wolverines showed that the same improvements they made on Saturday weren’t just a one-off. They were the start of a trend. And for Michigan to reach the heights of its preseason expectations, that trend needs to continue.
Saturday felt like a turning point for the Wolverines. Tuesday, they backed it up.