Early on, junior center Courtney Sims looked like that over-sized sixth grader back in middle school. You know, the one who all the parents thought lied about his age but really was just a victim of an early puberty. He may not have been the most elegant player on the court, but he used his height well.
Sims was five inches taller than any defender on Butler, and he used this extra height to his advantage throughout the first half. He had 16 of Michigan’s first 20 points and 18 points in the first half alone. He controlled the first 20 minutes. Whether it be an alley-oop or just a simple jump hook, Sims played like he was going to score 40. He kept the Wolverines going when most of them looked like they would rather get seconds on Thanksgiving leftovers than play the Bulldogs. His efforts secured an eight-point lead for Michigan heading into break.
But someone had to get Sims the ball, and that same someone had to save the game for the Wolverines just as he had done against Boston.
Enter Daniel Horton.
Butler decided to actually defend Sims with a second defender – wise decision coach Todd Lickliter. With Sims neutralized, Michigan was lost for the first 15 minutes of the second half. The offense lacked flow – not an uncommon sight for fans of the Wolverines. The team didn’t know what to do when Sims had a second defender covering him. But when things looked bad, the team just turned to its default offense, Horton.
Often, the offense would rotate the ball around the perimeter of the 3-point line for the first 25 seconds. But then, the realization came that someone needed to take action. Horton got the ball, and the rest of the team basically got out of the way.
Case in point, with less than three minutes remaining, Horton received the ball and tried a dribble drive. But three Butler defenders met him in the lane as he put his shot up – it never got close to the hoop. But in the ensuing scrum, the 6-foot-3 Horton somehow got the ball back and put it in from four feet away.
Horton’s not Michael Jordan circa 1997; he needed a little help or at least an offensive setup, but when all things failed, Michigan went to its senior leader.
“(He had an) unbelievable line, and the thing he probably won’t get credit for is his heart and will and passion he has and how that permeates through the rest of our players,” coach Tommy Amaker said.
And Amaker wasn’t pulling the wool over our collective eyes. Horton’s ability to control both the tempo and the game allowed others who hadn’t done much all game to step up.
Ron Coleman hit a key jumper after a Sims screen, largely because the Bulldogs knew they had to cover Sims and Horton.
Even when the Bulldogs knocked Horton down, he got back up and kept his team in the game. And make no mistake about it, this is Horton’s team. He had his problems in the past, but everybody, including Amaker, knows that for this team to finally have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament Horton has to lead. And that’s what he did.
A Butler defender gave Horton a little shove and knocked the Cedar Hill, Texas, native down on a drive to the basket. From the press row, I could hear the skin tear as he skidded across the hardwood floor. He got up, didn’t complain and shook his hand a little bit. Instead of whining, Horton kept his composure and nailed a jumper to put Michigan up 72-70. Then, Horton put the game away with six straight free throws.
“I was trying to stay poised and patient,” Horton said of the contest.
But he said that the whole team had to do that to win the game. Horton even admitted afterward that, two years ago, the Wolverines may have lost this game because of a lack of maturity. I agree with him. But even with its newfound maturity, Michigan would have lost this game if Horton weren’t playing.
And that’s the reality right now for the Wolverines. Sure, Michigan is 3-0 and Horton is playing extremely well, but it’s just three games. And the Wolverines haven’t exactly blown teams away. Last year, Michigan started 3-0 last year, and we all know what happened. If Horton continues to stay under control while playing with the chip on his shoulder that he’s always had, we can all get a little more excited. Because we can’t count on Sims playing against guys almost half a foot shorter than him every game.
– Matt has a new appreciation for Michigan after spending Thanksgiving here A– he rode a mechanical bull. He can be reached at email@example.com