Despite a 10-0 start to the season, many questioned whether or not the Michigan men’s basketball team was truly worthy of its No. 7 ranking, considering the team lacked a marquee win.
On Tuesday, those questions were answered.
Led by a dominant display on the offensive end, the Wolverines (5-0 Big Ten, 10-0 overall) netted their most impressive win of the season with a 77-54 victory over Wisconsin (4-2, 10-3). Senior forward Isaiah Livers, who finished the night with 13 points and three blocks, set the tone for the night early with two blocked shots and a 3-pointer in transition. As Livers stopped and launched, it was clear that he wasn’t afraid of Wisconsin.
“I want to be aggressive from the start,” Livers said. “I feel like a lot of our other players are like that as well.”
In the first half, the Wolverines’ dominant defensive unit operated like a hydra: With so many heads to the monster, the Badgers found themselves covered at every turn. In the first 20 minutes alone, Michigan forced seven turnovers, six blocks and five steals, with sophomore wing Franz Wagner accounting for three of the thefts on his own.
The typically sweet-shooting Badgers went cold from the field, shooting just 3-of-13 from the 3-point range after coming into the evening shooting at a 41.4% clip. Wisconsin, which typically likes to space the floor to get looks from the perimeter, struggled to get into a rhythm all night. The Badgers’ top scoring option in guard D’Mitrik Trice was completely neutralized, shooting just 3-for-6 from the field and committing two turnovers with senior guard Eli Brooks draped over him like a cornerback at every turn.
“Man, (senior forward) Chaundee (Brown) or Eli, they’re gonna fight for that defensive player of the year,” Livers said. “I don’t know which one’s gonna get it, but one of them’s gonna get it.”
On the other side of the floor, the Wolverines protected the ball with great success, turning the ball over just seven times after coming into the night averaging 12.9 turnovers per contest.
“(Wisconsin does) a great job of packing the paint, not allowing drives, and one of the key things that we talked about as a team is just making the simple play and not trying to make the home run play,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said.
As good as the Wolverines’ defensive effort was, their offense was just as dominant. Typically, they can count on freshman center Hunter Dickinson to lead its offense, but on a night that saw him tally just one basket in the first half, Michigan put up 40 points against a team that many consider to be one of the best defensive teams not just in the Big Ten, but in the country. A 3-pointer by graduate transfer guard Mike Smith put Michigan up, 40-23, capping a 14-0 run and a 25-8 spurt overall to close out the first half. Despite Dickinson’s relatively quiet 12-point night, the Wolverines’ offense looked like a well-oiled machine. Even with a 17-point edge, Howard’s squad wasn’t satisfied. They wanted more.
“I heard guys in the locker room reminding each other that we still have 20 minutes to play, looking at the score as 0-0,” Howard said. “It’s good to hear when it’s coming from the players, and they’re holding each other accountable instead of a coach having to say it.”
Michigan clearly took these comments to heart as the second half tipped off, opening the second half on a 14-3 run. Dickinson scored six points in the first four minutes alone, finally looking more comfortable on the offensive end after the Badgers’ Micah Potter picked up his third foul early in the half. After a 3-pointer from Smith, Livers raced down the court with his arms outstretched, letting out a scream as the Wolverine bench and family members in attendance erupted, making the relatively empty Crisler feel like a packed house for just a few moments.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Wagner said. “I think in this type of year where we don’t really have fans, I think that’s very important that you have energy coming from the bench.”
After a throwdown from senior center Austin Davis to put Michigan up 67-29, Michigan capped a 41-6 scoring run. By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Wolverines had four of their players score in double figures led by Smith with 16 points.
“There are gonna be nights where the leading scorer might not be the leading scorer and somebody else will step up, but it’s great to see that it’s a group effort,” Howard said. “And also great to see that Hunter did not get discouraged or frustrated with himself and put himself in positions where he could be effective and he responded.”
Every team will have big wins over the course of a season. For Michigan on Tuesday night, this one felt like a prelude to something bigger.