After a 19-point victory over rival Michigan State on Thursday to claim the Big Ten regular season championship, No. 2 Michigan gave a disappointing effort in Sunday’s rematch. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines by a final score of 70-64.
In the opening minutes of the game, Michigan senior Eli Brooks drove the lane and lofted a floating shot for a basket, but Brooks appeared to turn an ankle upon landing. With the game tied, 5-5, the senior left the game and did not return.
Both teams struggled offensively through the first 13 minutes, with the Wolverines and Spartans both shooting around 30 percent from the floor through that stretch. MSU held a slight 15-14 lead.
Turnovers were a problem as well, with each team committing five in the first half. The Spartans held a 30-26 edge at the break.
In the second half, Michigan State remained in control and started to assert themselves, extending their lead to 55-44 at the six-minute mark.
Sensing the game slipping away, the Wolverines mounted one last comeback effort, pulling to within 61-59 with just a minute left to play after Hunter Dickinson converted on an three-point play. But on the very next possession, Spartan senior Joshua Langford hit a big triple to take the last wind out of Michigan’s sails.
1. Eli Brooks injury raises concerns
The injury to Brooks is very concerning. In the only full game that the senior missed this season, Michigan was beaten soundly at Minnesota by a score of 75-57. Brooks is a very good perimeter defender, stretches the floor with his perimeter shooting and has the quickness to penetrate the lane – creating shots for himself and others. The Wolverines doesn’t have the same depth at the guard position as they do on the wings or in the post. With Brooks out, freshman Zeb Jackson saw an increase in his role during the first half, and provided some quality minutes, but the youngster is not far enough along in his development to be able to fill the shoes left in Brooks’ absence. It’s unclear at this time how severe the ankle injury is for Brooks – he was seen in a walking boot on the bench during the second half – but Michigan is now 0-2 with him out of the lineup. Should this injury keep the senior out for an extended period, the Wolverines are vulnerable in the upcoming Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.
2. Too little, too late for the Wolverines
Michigan played really poor basketball for the first 34 minutes of this game. Yes, the injury to Brooks had an impact, but the Wolverines looked sluggish even in the few minutes that the senior played. While it’s understandable why Michigan came out flat – they wrapped up the Big Ten championship on Thursday, they’ve played now seven games in 17 days – it remains disappointing that they played like this in a rivalry game. The Wolverines had an opportunity to keep Michigan State on the NCAA Tournament bubble had they defeated the Spartans today. Instead, MSU punched their ticket with today’s victory. Beyond that, this has been one of the best rivalries of the sport over the course of the last 8-10 years. The Wolverines should have showed up ready for a fight. Juwan Howard and his staff deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve done this season, and I’ve been quick to give him his due. However, the head coach is responsible for getting his guys ready to play in a game like this, and Howard failed to do so.
3. The Big 3 struggle in the loss
Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner and Hunter Dickinson have been the “Big 3” for Michigan this season. When Brooks went down, the Wolverines needed those three to raise their level of play – and it didn’t’ happen. Livers went just 3-of-9 from the floor on his way to 9 points and 4 rebounds. Wagner came alive late, but finished with just 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting. He pitched in 6 rebounds and 5 assists, but had 3 turnovers. Dickinson also had a disappointing performance. He was consistently beaten in rebounding battles, forced too many shot attempts out of his post-ups, and found himself in foul trouble. Alongside Wagner, the freshman helped Michigan in its last-ditch comeback attempt, but the effort fell short. Dickinson had 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting, and grabbed 7 rebounds. These are Michigan’s three best players. In tournament play, the Wolverines will go as far as these three carry them. There’s plenty of talent in this trio to get to a Final Four, but they’ll have to play much better than they did today.
4. Brown steps up, others must follow
Through most of the season, the Wolverines have gotten good production out of a three-man bench rotation that includes Austin Davis, Chaundee Brown and Brandon Johns Jr. Of late, however, that trio has been quiet. After just the bench scored just 2 points in the first half in East Lansing, Michigan got much better production in the second half. Brown came alive to score 13 points, and he also grabbed 4 rebounds. Davis had 4 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists before fouling out. If Brooks misses time, Brown will likely fill his spot in the starting lineup. Perhaps we’ll see more of Zeb Jackson and Terrence Williams moving forward. Regardless, the Wolverines need support from their bench moving forward.
5. Michigan stumbles into tournament play
After winning 17 of its first 18 games, Michigan has now dropped two of its last three heading into the postseason. The fact that the Wolverines won the Big Ten title should not be overlooked here, but the way Michigan looked in its two losses this week gives me an uneasy feeling. Before the loss to Illinois, the Wolverines looked like a legitimate national title contender – on par with the likes of Gonzaga and Baylor. But just a week later, it’s fair to wonder if Michigan peaked too early. Maybe that’s an overreaction to losses against the No. 4 team in the country and a desperate rival, maybe it’s not. The point is, I’m not as confident about this team as I was before, and I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.