For better or worse, Juwan Howard had a feeling Saturday would dictate the direction of the Wolverines’ season.
Before the Michigan men’s basketball team left its locker room to face No. 16 Michigan State, the first-year coach called it a “tone-setter.” Following a sub-.500 month defined by Isaiah Livers’ absence, the junior forward returned to the Wolverines’ lineup for the much-anticipated in-state rivalry.
His presence, Michigan hoped, would be a tone-setter of its own. The first few minutes of the game, however, looked anything but promising.
The Wolverines missed 10 of their first 11 shots. Three minutes elapsed before they scored. In the midst of a three-game losing streak in which Michigan hadn’t shot above 40 percent from the field, it appeared Saturday would set a tone in the worst possible way.
But after a slow start, a 3-pointer from senior point guard Zavier Simpson — who entered the game as a 29-percent 3-point shooter in conference play — gave the Wolverines their first lead. He followed it up by burying his next two attempts, giving Michigan a lead it wouldn’t relinquish in an eventual 77-68 win.
In the process, he set the tone Howard sought.
“This game was going to be a tone-setter,” Livers said. “I think we all did a good job coming out focused and staying disciplined to what the coaches believe we can do and the stuff that we do in practice. There’s no reason to get away from it. We weren’t rattled at all, we were just excited to come out with the ‘W.’ It was meaningful for us.”
Following a three-week span that included two losses at the buzzer and a narrow double-overtime win, Saturday proved to be exactly what the Wolverines needed. They played with the lead for nearly 35 minutes, trailing only at a score of 1-0.
“A lot of downers (lately),” Livers said. “A lot of games that came down to free throws. … Just little stuff that we did at the end of the close game was just like, ‘Dang, man, we could’ve had it.’ We put a lot of work in and I think it was good for us to actually see that all the work we put in in the gym actually works during the game time, so I was very happy with that.”
Just over a month ago, Michigan was run out of East Lansing in an 18-point blowout. Twenty-one of Michigan State’s points came in transition. Whether it was a product of the team’s lack of communication, mental lapses or the Spartans’ sheer will, it ultimately defined the Wolverines’ most lopsided loss of the season.
“It was very disappointing how our transition defense failed us the last time we played Michigan State,” Howard said. “As I recall, we gave up 21 points in transition because we were not good at communicating. … It was a big emphasis on me as well as my staff (today) on taking away some of those transition buckets because Michigan State does a really good job.”
On Saturday, they held Michigan State to just six fastbreak points. Michigan suffocated Spartans’ guard Cassius Winston, who poured in a career-high 32 points in their last meeting, to the tune of a dismal 5-of-18 shooting performance.
Howard’s responsibilities aren’t limited to just X’s and O’s, though. On Saturday, he took it upon himself to set a tone of his own.
“(Howard) is loud coming out of that coaching room,” Livers said. “You can hear him, already pumped up, like he’s about to play. … This dude is all up in your face like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go!” As a player, when you see that you got a coach that’s in your face — I don’t know about for other people, but my opinion is that I love it. When he’s got energy, we’ve got to match it.”
Howard wanted Saturday to be a tone-setter. The Wolverines delivered. Now, it becomes a matter of whether the tone becomes permanent.
“(Saturday) was huge,” Livers said. “Like I said, I think it’s a tone-setter. It’s letting the Big Ten know, don’t overlook Michigan.”