Two months ago, when the Michigan men’s basketball team looked at its upcoming Big Ten schedule, a midweek trip to Lincoln probably didn’t ring any alarm bells.
The Wolverines had just beaten now-No. 2 Gonzaga in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game and jumped out to a 7-0 record to start the season.
That was then — and it feels like a lifetime ago.
Whatever Michigan may have thought at that point has been turned on its head. It lost junior forward Isaiah Livers to a groin injury and then a subsequent hip injury. It dropped five of six conference games in January. And to make matters worse, its senior point guard and unquestioned leader Zavier Simpson was suspended Monday for violating team policy.
All that is to say, entering Tuesday’s contest, what had previously appeared like a mundane road game was anything but. Without a true road win to date, the Wolverines’ backs were against the wall and they needed to take a step forward.
“Every team goes through adversity,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said on Monday afternoon. “Through a process like this, it defines character, and it builds character.”
In short, Michigan did take a step forward last night, albeit a small one. Collectively, the team filled the voids left by Livers and Simpson en route to a 79-68 victory over the Big Ten’s bottom-dwellers — and looked good doing it.
Junior guard Eli Brooks showed once again that he can be depended on both offensively and defensively, registering a stat line of 20 points, nine rebounds, four assists, a block and two steals. Freshman wing Franz Wagner’s 18-point performance highlighted his potential, while sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. — typically the Wolverines’ spark-plug on the boards — had an impressively efficient and career-high 16 points. Others contributed too; sophomore guard David DeJulius took the reins at point and his classmate, Adrien Nunez, played 17 minutes despite recent struggles.
And so, Michigan returns to Ann Arbor a bit more comfortable than when it departed. The Wolverines avoided disaster, and now at least have an opportunity to get back into good standing in the Big Ten.
“It was a huge win for us,” Howard said after the victory. “To be able to get a road win, seeing the guys stepping up and giving us some minutes — Adrien Nunez, who hadn’t played in a while, but being able to give us a spark. It was a total team effort. Proud of all of our guys.”
And yet, given that everything looked so new and different, I feel obliged to ask: Did we learn anything from last night’s win?
Anything? Yes, as onlookers, we learned something about this Michigan roster under Howard. The Wolverines responded, away from home, to a cascade of setbacks from the previous two weeks — showing mental fortitude and their acceptance of the “next man up” mentality.
“I just liked how everybody stayed aggressive and was confident out there,” Wagner said. “Obviously stuff went wrong, but I liked how we stayed the course. People stepped up and stayed ready.”
It’s also fair to say, in Brooks’ 10th double figure game of the season, the junior is a key cog in Michigan’s machine. The Wolverines are 7-3 when he scores more than 10 points, and with Livers sidelined for the foreseeable future, Brooks’ ability to space the floor and knock down shots from the perimeter gives Michigan a much-needed dimension.
Additionally, speaking to the team’s depth, we learned that the Wolverines can win without a dominant display from senior center Jon Teske. Despite holding a pronounced height advantage over the Cornhuskers’ 6-foot-9 starting ‘5’ Yvan Ouedraogo, Teske only managed nine points on 4-of-7 shooting. Nevertheless, for the first time this season, Michigan won a game in which Teske didn’t reach double digits offensively.
We learned all these things about the Wolverines — they can be perseverant and tough, Eli Brooks is a reliable outlet for them going forward and they’re deeper than we may have thought, winning a game without Livers, Simpson and a stellar game from Teske.
What we didn’t learn though, is whether Michigan will turn this taste of momentum into something more. Record wise, Nebraska is the second-worst team in the Big Ten at 2-8 and 7-14 overall. In his first year in Lincoln, coach Fred Hoiberg has tried to implement the up-tempo offensive philosophy that was so successful during his stint at Iowa State, but doesn’t have the necessary personnel yet. And so, while any win on the road in the Big Ten is a “good win,” they sure as hell aren’t all made equal.
Michigan travels to Madison Square Garden at the end of the week to take on a resurgent No. 25 Rutgers, ranked for the first time since 1979. A win in that game would register much higher on the Richter scale than yesterday’s.
There is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty swirling around the Wolverines. According to Howard, Simpson’s one-game suspension was going to be “re-evaluated” after the Nebraska game. With no official word yet on his status going forward, it may be a bit naïve to think Simpson will definitely be back by Saturday. Sure, DeJulius and Brooks played well in his stead, but to reiterate, that was against the Cornhuskers — the Scarlet Knights are a different beast.
“It was very important to see how much (Zavier) gives us every single day,” Wagner said after Tuesday’s game. “I can see now how much he does except just initiating the offense. There’s a lot more to (Zavier) than just X’s and O’s — to be able to talk, to get everybody involved and everybody ready.”
Similarly, after suffering a hip injury in his first game back against Illinois, Livers’ situation is also up in the air. As documented, his absence extends well beyond his 13.6 points per game. His athleticism and ability to space the floor opens up Michigan’s offense and allows Simpson — when he plays — Brooks, DeJulius and even Wagner to penetrate the opposing defense.
Missing that veteran duo may have galvanized the Wolverines on Tuesday, but it seems foolish to believe they can adequately fill in for both Simpson and Livers against better opponents over the next few weeks.
So yes, with the pressure on, Michigan bounced back in a big way against Nebraska. But at the same time, you’re quite the idealist if you believe the team is automatically back on track after one road win.
Then again, given the circumstances, maybe the Wolverines need to be optimists.
Brennan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ConnrBrennan.