As the Michigan men’s basketball team took the court on Wednesday, there were a lot of season firsts.
It was the first time freshman big man Moussa Diabate and sophomore forward Terrance Williams II dressed in team-manager attire, saddled with one-game suspensions. It was the first time Michigan coach Juwan Howard, suspended for the remainder of the regular season for his actions in Sunday’s postgame scrum in Madison, wasn’t on the sideline. And, of course, it was the first time acting head coach Phil Martelli had his name bellowed by the Crisler Center announcer pregame.
The Wolverines (15-11 overall, 9-7 Big Ten) won their first contest in what will be a five-game stretch with Martelli at the helm, taking down Rutgers (16-11, 10-7), 71-62.
“I asked them to play hard, to play smart and to play together,” Martelli said. “And they played together. They were connected 15 strong.”
At first, Michigan didn’t look all that different from the team that suffered another deflating loss Sunday. Within the opening seconds, a defensive lapse led to an uncontested dunk from Scarlet Knight center Clifford Omoruyi, putting the Wolverines in an immediate hole.
The offense looked the same as well. Twelve points from sophomore center Hunter Dickinson in the first half led the team and freshman wing Caleb Houstan chipped in with eight points. Michigan stayed just ahead of Rutgers through the first half, holding a two-point lead at the break.
Houstan’s two early second-half 3-pointers were a welcome sight for the Wolverines; he had shot just 3-for-16 over the previous three games. Michigan then channeled that energy into a teamwide performance.
“(Caleb) scoring opens the floor,” Martelli said. “The only thing important for Caleb… is the next shot, not the last shot. And, (this year), for long periods of time, you’ve watched him, it’s been the last shot.”
On the backs of fifth-year guard Eli Brooks and freshman guards Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin, the Wolverines went on an 11-0 run, giving them a healthy 14-point lead early in the second half.
Michigan never relinquished that lead.
Houstan continued to shoot the lights out, exuding confidence and tallying a career-high 21 points.
But it was more than the impressive shooting performance that proved pivotal for the Wolverines. During Michigan’s second-half run, it found success where it has faltered all too often this season: with defense. The Wolverines frequently forced Rutgers to put up contested shots, take drives into the crowded paint and hoist up late-shot-clock jumpers.
As the confident offensive possessions and solid defensive efforts continued to pile up, it became apparent that even in the absence of so much, the Wolverines were good enough to take down one of the nation’s hottest teams in the Scarlet Knights, who entered having won four of their last five.
On the heels of a tumultuous past couple of days, the Wolverines were back in control — at least, for 40 minutes. After all that occurred Sunday in Madison, it wasn’t quite redemption, but rather a sign that Michigan could still move forward, even without Howard present to lead the charge.
As the clock wound down on a victory, Martelli looked on from where he stood in the coach’s box, his demeanor never changing. With his arms crossed, he took it all in. One game in, one win checked off.
“The last statement I made to them before they went on the court. Warde Manuel did not ask me to try to coach the team,” Martelli said. “He said, ‘do it.’
“So I did it.”