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Finally, Michigan was able to grind out a tough road win

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The Wolverines swept the season series against Maryland, but it was never easy.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

All four of Michigan’s losses have come in opposing Big Ten arenas, and for a stretch it looked like a repeat of the same old story. Fortunately, the Maize and Blue was able to overcome some challenges to take down Maryland, keeping pace near the top of the conference standings.

It was not quite the same as the first time the two squads met, with both offenses improving since the duel in Ann Arbor. Though the Wolverines are likely not too happy to allow 1.07 PPP, the defense did just enough to earn a tough road win against a ranked opponent.

Willing the team to victory

The Michigan offense was frustrating for much the afternoon, struggling to find its rhythm for large stretches. Poor shots were blocked six times, and it seemed like the shot clock was always in single digits without much movement or plan. Somehow, the Wolverines still managed 1.19 PPP and on a 49.1 percent eFG against the Terps.

This is almost single-handedly due to the duo of Ignas Brazdeikis and Zavier Simpson. Brazdeikis was outstanding in front of a hostile crowd, willing to take it to the hoop and take charge when his teammates would not. The freshman led with 21 points and was the recipient of a few sharp Simpson passes, as the point guard tallied 10 assists in total.

Everyone — for good reason — is talking about Simpson’s incredible hook shots, but their value is in more than just the spectacle. His ability to take on opposing big men and neutralize them with his creativity is a huge asset when the rest of the offense feels stuck and is getting their shots blocked. Simpson does not need to drop 20 points a game, but his impact is immeasurable, as demonstrated by his absence with foul trouble early in the second half. Michigan was lucky to stay in the game with Simpson (and therefore the offense) sitting on the bench.

Guard the paint

In addition to causing some issues on offense, one common thread in Michigan’s season has been a struggle to deal with size on defense. Jon Teske has been very solid in conference play, but numerous teams have been able to hammer the paint and cause problems, especially when fouls get involved.

Maryland seemed to have one strategy to score on Sunday and it worked for the most part. The Wolverines were not awful defensively but ceded a ton of points near the basket. This weakness was only exacerbated by poor rebounding. Giving up offensive rebounds has not been the absolute worst for Michigan this year, but it has shown up on multiple occasions. After playing 25 seconds of solid defense, it is always frustrating to give up an easy putback, and it has happened too many times this year.

One to go

Michigan has a shot at a conference title, but at this point it seems unlikely. The most important thing is preparing for the postseason, which will bring a lot of different elements to the table. Offensively, the Wolverines are pretty well defined at this point. A healthy Charles Matthews would be helpful in terms of driving to the basket, but his return is not guaranteed. The hope is that everyone can be smarter with their shot selection in March, but that may be too much to ask.

The rematch in East Lansing will be curious from a strategy standpoint. Michigan got lit up in Ann Arbor and looked helpless defensively at times. However, this is the quality of opponent the Wolverines are hoping to face in the Tournament, and there is no hiding at this point of the season. The level of play needs to step up, starting now.