Niyo: After rivalry win, Michigan basketball has that Final Four feel

The Wolverines (16-1, 11-1 Big Ten) are certainly stating their case as a…

Niyo: After rivalry win, Michigan basketball has that Final Four feel 1

John Niyo
 
| The Detroit News

Niyo: After rivalry win, Michigan basketball has that Final Four feel 2

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Juwan Howard on Michigan’s win over Ohio State: ‘Like a boxing match’

Wolverines coach likens victory over No. 4 Buckeyes to two teams exchanging blows before No. 3

The Detroit News

Isaiah Livers had never won a game in Columbus. Chaundee Brown had never even been there before.

But after watching a pregame video of Ohio State celebrating last year’s win over its archrival — Michigan’s basketball drought in Columbus dated back to 2014 — Brown says he just had a feeling as he took the court prior to Sunday’s showdown at the Schottenstein Center.

“I told Isaiah in warm-ups, ‘I like these rims. I love these rims,’” laughed Brown, the Wolverines’ senior transfer from Wake Forest. “And then I hit my first shot (in the game) and I was like, ‘Yo, it’s gonna be a good one.’”

It was a good one for Michigan, all right. A great one for Big Ten hoops as well, as two of the best teams in the best conference in college basketball this season went toe-to-toe and put a show for more than two hours Sunday afternoon as the Wolverines held on for a 92-87 victory.

“They’re No. 4 in the country for a reason and I think we’re No. 3 in the country for a reason, too,” said Hunter Dickinson, Michigan’s freshman phenom who finished with 22 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in another dominant performance Sunday. “Obviously, this game lived up to the hype.”

Tantalizing run-up

Even without a packed arena, it really did have the look and feel of an NCAA Tournament game. Neither team led by more than six points until the final minute Sunday. And if this is a sneak preview of coming attractions, we’re all in for a treat between now and April, when the final credits roll on this season and a Big Ten team may very well be the one cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.

Michigan certainly is stating its case as a legitimate national title contender, validating its early-season success with its play this month while coming off a two-week pause due to COVID-19 cases in the athletic department. Since returning to action, the Wolverines have won three games in eight days, including a pair against ranked teams in gyms where Michigan historically has struggled.

A week ago, it took a furious second-half rally to overcome a 12-point deficit at Wisconsin. Sunday’s contest was a struggle of a different kind, though, as both Michigan and Ohio State made shot after shot — the Buckeyes averaged 1.3 points per possession and lost — while playing with the kind of pace and offensive execution few teams can match.

Iowa and Illinois are two other such teams, which speaks to the overall strength of the Big Ten this season. But so does this in-game anecdote Michigan senior guard Eli Brooks shared after Sunday’s thriller.

Niyo: After rivalry win, Michigan basketball has that Final Four feel 3

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Michigan’s Eli Brooks on ‘a great game’ to be part of Sunday vs. Ohio State

Wolverines player shares a conversation he had with an official Sunday about what tremendous game they were taking part in.

The Detroit News

“I remember one of the refs looking at me at one point, and he was, like, ‘This is a great game,’” Brooks said. “And I was like, ‘You’re not wrong there.’

“When people are scoring and the ball’s going in, it’s a fun way to play. Obviously, it’s not how we want to play every game. But it’s pretty cool to … just have that level of competition.”

Pretty telling, too, the way Michigan (16-1 overall, 11-1 Big Ten) keeps raising its own level of play, isn’t it?

The Wolverines have bristled at some of the criticism they’ve heard lately about their schedule. Then again, they also were unranked in the coaches’ poll to start the season.

“So I don’t think it’s anything new to us,” Dickinson shrugged. “One way or another, they’re gonna have to realize who we are and what we’re about.”

Sunday, the Wolverines were about as efficient as you’ll see for long stretches. They shot 53.4 percent from the field, hit 13 3-pointers, dished out 19 assists, committed only seven turnovers — one in the second half — and made clutch free throws down the stretch to seal the win.

And yet it was the way they did it collectively that stood out in the end, with five players scoring in double figures — Franz Wagner would’ve been the sixth had he not missed a free throw with 14 seconds left — and eight players scoring the first half alone as Michigan went 10-for-13 from three-point range.

A couple of those came off heady cross-court feeds from Dickinson, whose passing ability out of double teams is one of his many talents. The second one set up Brown for his third consecutive bomb, this one detonating directly in front of a chirping Ohio State bench as Michigan took its first lead of the game.

Then on the ensuing possession, point guard Mike Smith returned the favor for the freshman big man, working a nifty pick-and-roll with Dickinson, whose two-handed dunk prompted Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann to angrily call a timeout.

Sharing the sugar

“It’s such an unselfish team,” Dickinson said. “I feel like I say that after every game — how unselfish the team played. But everybody just really enjoys playing with one another, so it’s really easy to share the ball.”

Much of the credit for that goes to Howard and his staff. Ditto the veterans like Livers and Brooks, who took a mid-career coaching change in stride and then helped bridge the gap. But don’t discount the roles the new guys have played in their own assimilation, or in Michigan’s emergence as an elite team this winter.

Brown finished with 15 points in 23 minutes against the Buckeyes, while Smith, the Ivy League grad transfer, added 11 and seven assists — against just one turnover — in 29 minutes. And it’s evident their arrival, along with Dickinson, is what has made this a complete team, filling in the gaps where most other teams are vulnerable.

“I know on a lot of teams, there’s a lot of jealousy, a lot of hating, guys not liking another person because they’re playing more minutes than them or taking their spot,” Brown said. “But here, it’s just different. … Everyone’s happy for each other’s success.”

There’s a reason Howard made such a point of delivering the game ball to Brown after the win at Wisconsin a week ago. He’d only scored one point that afternoon, but it just happened to be the 1,000th point of his career. And Michigan’s coach used that to make a larger point in the postgame locker room, lauding Brown’s willingness to sacrifice personal goals for something more.

“When you talk about all-in teammate, Google that (expletive),” Howard told his players, “Chaundee Brown Jr. comes up.”

Indeed, a player who’d started 74 games at Wake Forest has embraced his role coming off the bench for the Wolverines. And Sunday, he came up big when his team needed it most, grabbing two huge offensive rebounds on one possession with 6 minutes left and the game tied.

Brown’s putback after the second miss set of a wild celebration on the visitors’ bench — “It inspired us,” Howard said – and it gave Michigan the lead for good at 71-69.

From good to … great? That’s certainly the way it went Sunday for the Wolverines. And the way they’re playing, it seems as if that feeling could last a long while.

jniyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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