As a sports writer, you might say I am a keeper of cliches, and there were certainly a lot of those you could throw at Michigan’s 76-73 overtime win over Minnesota on Saturday afternoon at the Crisler Center.
‘Free throws really do matter,’ that’s a big one. Michigan shot just 12/28 from the line in a game that went to overtime, the second-worst performance from the team this season. Coincidentally, it was another nationally televised game ending in an overtime win that saw them perform even worse, as the team shot 8/22 from the line against UCLA in December.
‘Turnovers matter’ is in there, too - it was only when Minnesota started giving the ball back in the second half that the Wolverines found oxygen to go on its runs in the second half. ‘Defense matters’ - Michigan entered this one with the thirteenth-ranked scoring D in the country, but struggled against Minnesota’s speed and ability to probe the paint.
But the biggest cliche, I think, is this: Michigan has to come together down the stretch, and the young talent that’s played a small role to this point will be vital in doing so.
I don’t want to horrify you, but this Michigan basketball season has more than a few similarities to Michigan football’s 2017 season.
Both started off with lower expectations due to a mass exodus of talent, but then got everyone’s hopes up and now is hoping to prove it’s a well balanced and dominant group that can beat Wisconsin and Ohio State. (Well, Wisconsin isn’t quite the contender in basketball; but U-M does play both down the stretch and the February 18th matchup with Ohio State is the most important game left in the season.)
For the football team, fans were looking at Brandon Peters and Donovan Peoples-Jones more out of necessity. For Michigan basketball, there’s more solidly defined leadership and veteran play-making, thanks to Moe Wagner, Duncan Robinson, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews. But it’s also clear when watching MAAR and Charles Matthews go through occasional shooting slumps that Michigan needs someone other than Wagner and Robinson to keep this team’s offense afloat when things aren’t going well, if it wants to beat the good teams consistently.
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That extra play-making might come from Zavier Simpson, who scored 16 against Purdue last week and has a clean 3.15 assist-to-turnover ratio. (He also had 7 of Michigan’s 13 points in OT against Minnesota.) It might come from 6’7” freshman forward Isaiah Livers, who’s started the last 7 games and pushed Duncan Robinson back to a sixth man role. It might come from fellow freshman Jordan Poole, who enjoyed a career-high 19 points in December against Indiana and has a sweet 41.0% three-point percentage.
Whoever it is, it’s clear that something small is missing from this talented Michigan team. It’s not the talent or the coaching, as there’s plenty of that. Not the effort, either, as this team has fought hard to get to this point.
Maybe it’s that ‘click’ of everything falling into place. Maybe it’s the fruit of all the labor as Michigan turns the calendar to March. Maybe it’s a little bit more tenacity when things aren’t going well, or something as simple as fixing those darned free throws. Whatever it is, Michigan has a looming date with Ohio State to help motivate them down the stretch, and more it needs to prove.