When Michigan went to East Lansing in early January, it was ugly. The Wolverines didn’t seem to have answers for anything that Michigan State threw their way.
They couldn’t contain the volatile Spartan offense, led by star senior point guard Cassius Winston and junior forward Xavier Tillman. Their own offense was lost without junior forward Isaiah Livers. Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo seemed to quite literally have their number at every turn. Michigan drowned in the chaos of the Breslin Center.
Saturday in Ann Arbor was a different story.
Michigan State was still Michigan State. Winston and Tillman were still Winston and Tillman; Tom Izzo was still Tom Izzo. But with Livers back and a home crowd decked out in maize behind them, the Wolverines finally had some answers.
Michigan (14-9 overall, 5-7 Big Ten) managed to grit out a win over the 16th-ranked Spartans, 77-68, on Saturday as Livers and sophomore guard David DeJulius led a 3-point-heavy offense and the defense did enough to propel the Wolverines past an unusually quiet Michigan State (16-8, 8-5).
“Any time you can beat those guys, it feels amazing,” senior center Jon Teske said. “Especially being a senior, (point guard Zavier Simpson) and I, this may be our last time playing them. It’s special.
“We just had to come out from the start. And that’s what we did. Just start to finish, everyone played well; defensively, offensively.”
Livers made his return to the starting lineup, his re-aggravated groin injury healed, to the delight of the Crisler Center crowd. His offensive presence, tipping rebounds and firing off passes, was felt immediately. When he put up a three from in front of the Spartan bench to give Michigan an early 6-3 lead, the arena erupted.
“[Livers] makes this team better in many ways,” Simpson said. “His leadership, his voice. On the offensive end, he spreads the floor. He can attack. It’s just his presence.
“Sometimes it’s not about the stat sheet, or anything else. Sometimes it’s just about someone’s presence, and I think Isaiah definitely gave us a confidence boost before the game.”
The Wolverines needed Livers to return some spark to the offense that had been inconsistent at best in his prolonged absence. With Livers back, but wearing a brace, the offense channeled the junior forward’s tenacity, and against one of Michigan’s toughest conference opponents, it worked. Behind a series of drained 3-pointers and a solid defensive effort, the Wolverines managed to take a 29-23 lead into halftime.
The second half was even harder-fought. Coming out of the break, the Spartans seemed to find the shots they weren’t making in the first half, and they brought it to a one-point margin by the under-16 timeout.
But Michigan remained unshaken, getting junior guard Eli Brooks the look he wanted on a pass from Simpson. The resulting 3-pointer found nothing but the sweet swish of nylon. They allowed a layup to freshman guard Rocket Watts, but followed up with a Simpson layup and a massive one-handed dunk from Teske on a perfect alley-oop from Brooks.
“Eli and I locked eyes, and I saw him throw it up, and I went up and got it — I’m not really sure how,” Teske laughed. “I’m not really sure how I got it, but I saw enough.”
This time around, Michigan finally had the answers that had been missing. The factors that cost them the game in January were still present. But they weren’t game-deciders. Instead of allowing Winston and Tillman to dictate the game, the Wolverines did that themselves.
“Every player is not always going to be perfect,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “But I loved the way we were able to respond when we did make mistakes.”
After dropping their previous three conference home games to Penn State, Illinois and Ohio State, in a conference where defending home court has been essential this season, it was a statement win this Michigan team badly needed. Until this game, much of its tournament resume was based off wins in late November and early December, and the slump that encompassed most of January was far from a glowing endorsement.
Two-and-a-half months later, the Wolverines seem to have rediscovered the clutch genes that lifted them to those non-conference wins, if only for an afternoon. With a demanding conference schedule yet ahead of them, if they can continue to deliver like they did on Saturday, there may yet be enough momentum to carry them through March.