After Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop clinked a 3-pointer off the front iron, it was a mad dash to grab the basketball.
Sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson had the quickest step and promptly lofted the ball to Moritz Wagner. The junior forward had no one in front of him as he sauntered to the hoop for the easy layup, but not before getting fouled by CJ Jackson for an and-one.
In classic Wagner fashion, he celebrated — flexing his muscles to the fans along the south baseline. For a team that typically makes its money on offense with long jumpers and shifty layups, it was an unusual flaunting of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s hard-nosed play.
But in Sunday afternoon’s 74-62 victory over No. 8 Ohio State, Wagner’s flex symbolized exactly how the Wolverines earned their second top-ten win this season: A previously unseen physicality.
“Give Michigan credit,” said Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann. “I thought they played really physical today. They played well, putting us in difficult positions.”
On multiple occasions the two teams bumped elbows. They tangled in a number of loose-ball scrambles, even getting into shoving matches after jump ball calls. On one loose ball in the first half, Wagner emerged from the dogpile, beating his chest and chanting at the crowd to rile them up, even for a routine deadball play that gave the ball to the Buckeyes. The significance of Senior Day and a rivalry were clearly not lost upon Michigan, and that lit a fire for the team, according to Simpson.
Simpson has been the sole constant in having a physical, swarming presence, and his teammates have called him a “pitbull” because of it. Sunday was no exception. In Simpson’s 30 minutes, he limited Buckeye point guards Jackson and Andrew Dakich to three combined points, and exposed them for 13 points of his own.
“I feel like I’m the middle linebacker of the defense,” Simpson said, “just playing hard defense because my energy is contagious. Once they see me doing it, then they’ll start doing it.
“We definitely played aggressive which is good, and we’re proud of that.”
Duncan Robinson’s name hardly comes up in the discussion of stifling defenders. He is more commonly characterized as Simpson’s antithesis than his counterpart. But on Sunday, the fifth-year senior silenced critics with one of his best defensive performances of the year, combining with freshman forward Isaiah Livers to limit the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Bates-Diop to a 5-for-17 performance. The stingy defense comes just four days after Robinson stymied Iowa’s Tyler Cook to just 10 points.
“You take a guy like Duncan Robinson and you go, ‘Oh, it’s senior night, he’s gonna hit some threes,’ ” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “No, he should be known for the job he did on (Bates-Diop). He was absolutely terrific. He and Isaiah Livers just — Did they shut him down? No, but it changed the momentum of the game when they took the top scorer in the league and marginalized him a little bit. It was just a great effort by him.”
While Robinson and Simpson were the standouts, the intensity coursed throughout the lineup. The newfound defensive identity was emblematic of philosophy change for Beilein — a one-on-one battle mentality that puts the glamourous aspects of basketball to the wayside.
“You get down to it, they realize all the pretty plays or all the 3-point shooting, it doesn’t win games, that you’ve gotta be able to really defend,” Beilein said. “In my earlier coaching career I was more into technique and scheme. … When you’ve got a guy, it’s a personal battle. Who’s gonna win? I think we’ve taken that on.”
Beilein claims his team needed a little “magic in a bottle” to complete the aggressive win. But it also may just be a thinly-veiled characterization of the typical Beilein team — the Wolverines are in a nice groove at the right time, and they sure look hungry for more.