The Michigan Wolverines lost the regular-season finale to the Michigan State Spartans on Sunday by a score of 70-64. There is a major concern to come out of the game that is a bigger-picture concern than what the game result was.
Senior guard Eli Brooks injured his left ankle early in the first half after making a shot. He left the game and returned to the bench in a walking boot. Michigan’s scoring output was led by Chaundee Brown’s 13 points off the bench, which is encouraging given that he will have to be a big part of the operation as long as Brooks is out. Hunter Dickinson had 12 points and seven rebounds in the defeat.
MSU’s victory was sparked by Rocket Watts scoring 21 points off the bench. Aaron Henry chipped in with 18 points.
The story of this game outside of Brooks’ injury was simple. The Wolverines played one of their worst games of the season and the Spartans were able to make a ton of tough looks. MSU’s effort likely means that it is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd-straight season. Credit has to be given to Tom Izzo and his team for the ability to rip off a trio of top-five wins in the last few weeks to potentially inch their way into March Madness.
The most encouraging thing about Michigan’s effort is that there was not a huge dropoff defensively without Brooks on the floor. Michigan’s offense was a bigger concern. The loss of Brooks affected the spacing and movement on the floor. It allowed Juwan Howard to give some more run to true freshman Zeb Jackson, who at the very least looked like he can be a playable asset in the postseason.
Michigan said the other night it would not take Sunday lightly despite clinching a Big Ten Championship. Their play on Sunday rarely backed that up, as MSU was able to get to more loose balls and won the matchup on the boards. The Wolverines felt like they coasted a bit and everyone has to wear that, Brooks or not.
The severity of Brooks’ injury could determine Michigan’s ceiling this postseason because in two games without him, this group looked lost a lot of the time. There is not much of a reason to rush him back for the Big Ten Tournament if he is not ready to play and it would give Howard a chance to prepare for what life without him might look like. Brown and Jackson are going to be a big part of that.
The person that needs to be the biggest part of offsetting Brooks’ absence is Franz Wagner, who was quiet offensively until late in the game and then appeared to be injured on the final play.
It is not truly March until a fanbase is horrified that it could get popped at any moment in the NCAA Tournament, so perhaps Michigan fans are feeling a little more normal now. Dropping two of three games to end the year and losing a starter hurts and serves as the biggest gut check of the season to this point.
The Wolverines will be the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and play on Friday at noon in Indianapolis. From there, we will have to wait and see what happens. This was a bit of a sobering week, but all of the goals are still ahead of them.