Towards the end of January, facing a trip to Lincoln, Michigan found itself staring down a crossroads.
The Wolverines had lost five of six, and sat at 2-6 in the Big Ten. Senior point guard Zavier Simpson was suspended after a traffic incident. A loss at Nebraska, the league’s bottom-feeder, would have sent a downward spiral into overdrive, throwing the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament status into question in Juwan Howard’s first season as coach.
“Through a process like this, it defines character, and it builds character,” Howard said the day before that first Nebraska game. “I love how our team’s been responding, and we have a lot more season to be played.”
And on Thursday, when Michigan cruised past Nebraska for a second time, 82-58, it got to see just how far things have come in the last five weeks. The Wolverines are safely projected to be in the NCAA Tournament — those worries having been eradicated by going 8-3 since that day in January. Without Simpson, they cobbled together a win at Nebraska, and with him, on his Senior Day, they dispatched of the Cornhuskers with the senior guard directing traffic with 11 points and 10 assists.
“We came a long way,” Simpson said. “We’re still working, still trying to get the job done.”
There was little drama, little worry. Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg called time before the under-16 timeout in the first half after his team coughed up an 11-2 run. That set the tone for a game Michigan would control throughout.
Nebraska kept things competitive in the first half, but despite a less than convincing performance from the Wolverines, never led. The Cornhuskers supplemented Michigan’s scoreless stretches with turnovers that snuffed out the chances of a game-changing run.
And in the second half, the margin went from arm’s length to a blowout within minutes. After a first half that saw him shoot 2-of-10 from the field, junior forward Isaiah Livers opened the second half with a one-handed dunk. That sparked a 14-4 run, punctuated by 3-point plays from both seniors, Simpson and center Jon Teske. When Hoiberg called timeout with just under 16 minutes to go in the game, Michigan led 46-32, the competitive portion of the night all but over.
The Wolverines would score 50 points in the second half, a resounding show of force that saw five players score double-digit points on the night — a testament to the balanced scoring Michigan sees when it’s at its best.
“On the offensive end, I felt that we also improved the ball movement,” Howard said. “The ball kind of sticked in the first half, we were settling for too many jumpers. We also were taking one pass and (a) shot. Second half, we moved the ball.”
Livers finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, leading Michigan in scoring on the night. At halftime, Howard said he simply told him to stop overthinking. He did, and the Wolverines’ offense hummed. The second half was the blowout the first half should have been.
Still, by no means did Michigan play its best basketball on Thursday. The Wolverines shot 45.7 percent from the field and failed to fully capitalize on 22 turnovers from Nebraska. They go into the regular-season finale at Maryland with Thursday as their best performance in their last three games — a fact that should perturb, not assure, with the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments looming.
“We know what we’re playing for,” Teske said. “We’re going to try to play spoiler if we can. But we’ve got to come prepared.”
Against a Nebraska team that’s playing out the string, hoping for brighter days in its own program’s future, any struggles Michigan had mattered little.
Unlike the first time around, this game was an NCAA Tournament team up against a doormat.