Michigan rediscovers its identity in win over Minnesota

Thursday, February 21, 2019 - 10:01pm

Junior guard Zavier Simpson had 12 assists and 6 rebounds in the Wolverines' 69-60 win at Minnesota.

Junior guard Zavier Simpson had 12 assists and 6 rebounds in the Wolverines' 69-60 win at Minnesota. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

MINNEAPOLIS — Last Tuesday, Michigan’s season met a flummoxing low point in its loss to last-place Penn State — a result that left many in a futile search for answers.

Charles Matthews, though, had no problems pinning an explanation to the loss.

“Sense of urgency, lack of focus right there,” the redshirt junior said at the time. “Simple as that.”

So after the loss, Matthews and junior guard Zavier Simpson, the team’s unquestioned leaders, imparted their wisdom on the rest of the Wolverines’ young roster.

“We just gotta be extremely locked in and come out to play every night,” said sophomore Jordan Poole, relaying their message. “Take the exact same approach. It can be hard if you go and play a team that doesn't have that many wins in the league or you beat a team already earlier in the year.”

Thursday night, faced with an opponent who checked both those boxes, the Wolverines did exactly that, beating Minnesota, 69-60.

In the entirety of Michigan’s 31-game schedule, there may have been no easier game to overlook than its trip to Minneapolis. For months, the season has built to a crescendo of the Wolverines’ weekend showdown with Michigan State. The two schools have resided at the top of the conference standings all season, ranking in the nationwide top-10 together, bound on a collision course that will meet its destination over the next two weeks — in Ann Arbor on Sunday and then 13 days later in East Lansing.

So when Michigan’s offense came out flat against the Golden Gophers, hitting just 11-of-31 shots before halftime, it would have been easy to concede that this wasn’t its day and move on to bigger things. Simpson and Matthews, though, wouldn’t let that happen.

“They stay on us,” Poole said. “They know that the game can change at any point in time and runs happen so we gotta stay locked in 24/7. Being able to have figures like that who've been in situations like this before is huge.”

Led by its two leaders — who finished with five of its six steals — the Wolverines’ defense paved the way for a dominating win that could have been anything but, considering the offensive struggles.

If Michigan’s first-half offense was ugly, Minnesota’s teetered on unwatchable. When the officials came back onto the court minutes after the halftime buzzer to rule that Daniel Oturu’s putback had beat the clock, it sent the Williams Arena crowd into a frenzy — out of reprieve as much as joy. After all, the points merely decided which pitiful point total the Golden Gophers would enter the break with, 16 or 18.

“With the guys that we have defensively right now, I think that they understand that this is the one consistent thing we can have every day,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.

At the heart of it?

“If you listened to our walkthroughs, you would hear Zavier and Charles talking to people about what’s next and what we can do and giving alternatives to things,” Beilein said. “They’re coaching that defense just as much as our coaching staff is.”

And when the Wolverines’ offense got back on track in the second half — hitting eight of its 14 threes — they raced out to a 20-point lead that consigned the early struggles to history.

That same offensive spurt, though, also came against Penn State, when Michigan scored 20 points in the first eight minutes of the half to cut its deficit to five. The problem then was that a 16-point deficit proved insurmountable. On the back of a renewed focus, that wasn’t an issue this time around.

Or — for a simpler answer — just ask assistant coach Luke Yaklich, who strode into Poole’s postgame scrum, coughed and offered up one word before moving on:

“Defense.”