Last month, the Michigan basketball team went to Northwestern and unexpectedly encountered its toughest challenge of the season, escaping with a two-point victory. That night, the Wildcats found success forcing the Wolverines’ less-heralded shooters — namely junior guard Zavier Simpson — to hit 3-pointers.
On Sunday, Northwestern tried to revive that strategy. This time, Michigan responded with an 80-60 victory — its 17th in a row to start the season, a new program record.
After the game, both coaches were asked what went differently for Simpson — and both came up with the same response.
“The ball went in.”
That was the only explanation necessary on Sunday night, as Simpson and junior center Jon Teske — both sub-30 percent 3-point shooters on the season — went a combined 8-of-15 from deep.
“When you play them, you got to figure out, ‘What are some things that you’re gonna live with?’ Because they space you so well, they’re really good at every position,” said Wildcats coach Chris Collins. “And we were going to live with some Simpson threes and some Teske threes. And give those guys credit.”
The Wolverines (17-0 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) opened the evening in the same fashion as they have throughout the season, using five inside baskets to open a quick 10-0 lead. But when Northwestern (10-7, 1-5) clawed back within two, the game turned weird, with Simpson hitting a three to break the mini-run.
Then, with four minutes left in the first half and Michigan protecting a 10-point lead, it took a turn nobody could have seen coming. Teske collected a pass from Simpson just beyond the 3-point line and — despite his 20.8 career percentage from deep — let go. It found bottom. Two minutes later, he let loose again, with the same result. So when Teske entered his shooting motion on Michigan’s next possession, every corner of a sold-out Crisler Center rose to its feet in anticipation. Yet again, the junior center delivered, putting the Wolverines up 18 and blowing the roof off the building.
Teske’s last three put the finishing touch on a three-minute span in which he single-handedly outscored the listless Wildcats 11-2, effectively ending any hopes they had at a comeback before half time.
“It was awesome,” Teske said. “Got the crowd going. … When we get a little roll like that, it’s kind of hard to stop.”
Teske’s 3-point barrage helped extend Michigan’s lead to 50-28 before a sluggish start to the second period allowed Northwestern to draw back within 13 with 10:47 to play. But each time the Wildcats threatened to make it a game, the Wolverines responded with ease.
First, redshirt junior Charles Matthews drove along the baseline, emphatically dunking over Miller Kopp, and ending a nearly three-minute scoring drought. Then, it was Simpson’s turn, as he hit three deep balls in five minutes to stretch a 14-point lead into a 24-point rout with four minutes to play.
“A 20-point lead can become a 13-point lead like that,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, snapping his fingers. “Even if you get good shots, it can become like that. And so, if you have good defense, and you learn from those mistakes — and we had some mistakes — and don’t do it again, eventually they’ll miss and you’ll be able to go out and make them.
“And obviously, Zavier made all those plays. That’s where all our scoring was.”
And just like that, the Wolverines have their best start in program history. Beilein doesn’t put much weight in such records — when he returned to the locker room after Sunday’s game, his first move was to update his team’s Big Ten record to 6-0. Eventually, though, the overall record followed suit.
For the first time ever, it read, “17-0.”