EAST LANSING — Maybe the most surprising part of Sunday afternoon was how inevitable it all felt.
As Cassius Winston walked off the Breslin Center floor for the last time with 16 seconds left in the game, a final hailstorm of noise coming down, Zavier Simpson’s hands were on his hips. Everyone’s hands were on their hips. At least those wearing maize.
They looked at each other. They glanced at the floor. They had no answers, and never really came close to finding any.
Really, as soon as Michigan showed up in East Lansing with Isaiah Livers donning sweats during warmups, it felt like it would take something unforeseen to win the game. Even when the game stayed within arm’s reach, Michigan State’s lead hovering at 10 or 11 throughout the second half, it felt like a mountain.
All of Michigan’s warts were magnified without Livers — a 50-percent shooter from 3-point range, a capable ball-handler, a versatile defender. Its lack of depth and its lack of experience chief among them.
“We had them scrambling, couldn’t really set up,” Winston said. “We were making plays like that.”
Of all the elements that have come to define Michigan-Michigan State, a sense of predetermination hasn’t been one in a long time. But the Spartans walked off the floor with an 87-69 win that never came into doubt, not from the moment it became clear that Livers would miss the game with a groin injury.
The Spartans collapsed the floor against Zavier Simpson, daring the Wolverines to shoot. They shot an abysmal 5-of-23 from 3-point range. When they missed, Michigan State beat them down the floor, as Michigan struggled to match — or keep — up.
By the end of the first half, the Spartans had 44 points — the most Michigan has allowed in a first half since a Nov. 29, 2017 loss at North Carolina, before Simpson was the starting point guard and before the Wolverines went two straight years with a top-five defense in adjusted efficiency.
Right now, the Wolverines are 29th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They’re 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and in three true road games — all losses — they’re shooting 18.3 percent from three. They’re startlingly dependent on the three players left who played over 50 percent of minutes on last year’s team: Simpson, Livers and Jon Teske.
Without Livers, Michigan needed Brandon Johns Jr. to step into his role, confidently take 3-pointers and defend anyone put in front of him.
“He’s disappointed,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said of Johns, after a performance in which solid top-line numbers belied a 1-of-4 performance from three. “He’ll probably tell you right now that he played badly.”
Without Livers, Michigan needed Franz Wagner to hit shots from outside and space the floor. Desperately.
“Wagner hit one,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, after his team held Wagner to just three attempts from 3-point range, a low-impact performance. “But we did a decent job and (what) we had to do to win the game.”
Without Livers, Michigan needed Eli Brooks and David DeJulius to take some of the load off Simpson.
“We did a pretty good job on Brooks and David DeJulius,” Izzo said, after his team held them to a combined 4-of-14 from the field. “And I think that was the difference.”
Howard was predictably noncommittal when asked about Livers’ status for Thursday’s game against Purdue, saying only that Michigan would “take a look at it.” It’s hard to pick apart what on Sunday happened because of Livers’ absence and what happened because of problems that might have existed either way.
The right answer might be somewhere in the middle.
These problems were there when Michigan lost at Louisville, came up short in overtime against Oregon and couldn’t get going at Illinois. On Sunday, without Livers, they multiplied in severity, and his return might cover up those issues against some teams. But that would only serve to belie the point.
Simpson, Livers and Teske are the only three players on Michigan’s team who have played a big role in a road win of the kind Sunday’s would have been. They’re the only three who battled through a run to the national championship game in 2018. (Brooks was on that team, but essentially out of the rotation by that point in the year).
Experience like that breeds confidence — something the rest of the Wolverines seem to lack, both during the game and afterwards, when they talked about second-guessing open shots and communicating more on defense. Those two areas don’t tend to be concerns on experienced, confident teams.
“You’ve just got to believe you can make it,” assistant coach Saddi Washington said of the shooting woes. “It’s definitely not a lack of ability. But you’ve got to step up and shoot the ball with confidence.”
“You’ve got to sprint back, but you also have to run with vision,” Howard said of the problems in transition. “Guys have got to be talking so that we’re getting matched up and not allowing easy layups or open 3s in transition.”
This is the fine line between a top-20 team and a top-five team. There’s ample time for Michigan to grow past what it is right now — ample opportunities for Wagner, Johns, Brooks and DeJulius to grow into the players Michigan needs them to be. Two years ago, Simpson, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole did just that. That team wasn’t ranked until January, and, in the interest of fairness, nobody expected the Wolverines to be a top-20 team before the season — they raised that bar with their play in November.
Now, it’s on them to raise it again.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.