ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan basketball earned an impressive and dominant victory over Maryland on New Year’s Eve, vaulting the Wolverines into 2021 as the only unbeaten team in the Big Ten.
At a glance, Thursday was by far Michigan’s best performance of the season. Maryland is a potential NCAA Tournament team coming off a road victory against No. 6 Wisconsin. Coming into the game, the Terps were 5-1 at home, albeit against mostly weaker competition.
But dig a little deeper and Thursday’s victory starts to look even more impressive for a Michigan team that was previously untested against quality teams.
From a player performance view, nothing was more encouraging than Franz Wagner finding his jump shot -- hitting three from beyond the arc and another contested mid-range jumper.
Wagner is one of Michigan’s best players even when he’s not shooting the ball well. His elite length and quick feet make him one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, and he’s taken his rebounding up a notch this year.
When Michigan is playing well, Wagner is picking off passes, cutting off driving defenders and dishing out assists, like the beautiful bounce pass he spun to Hunter Dickinson for an and-one that sparked the game-clinching run in the second half.
Speaking of Dickinson, he all but locked up another Big Ten Freshman of the Week award, making 10 of 11 shot attempts and six of seven free throws for 26 points and 11 rebounds.
The only blemish for Dickinson was a technical foul that appeared to be a bit of an early trigger for the official, but even that wasn’t much of a concern. His fire translated to the rest of the team, and Dickinson ultimately got revenge on his hometown team, which he says didn’t recruit him very hard.
Mike Smith quietly continues to play well, too. He scratched out 16 points on five of seven shooting while dishing out six assists and grabbing six defensive rebounds. Smith made both of his three-point attempts and only turned the ball over twice in 38 minutes.
Winning without vintage Livers
While Wagner, Dickinson and Smith played exceptionally well Thursday, it was perhaps even more encouraging to see Michigan win so convincingly without a strong game from Isaiah Livers.
Last season, when Livers went down with a pair of injuries, Michigan looked lost. After a 9-3 start with Livers, the Wolverines lost four of five Big Ten games while he sat with an injured ankle. When he returned against No. 21 Illinois, Michigan built a bit of a lead, only to see it vanish in the waning minutes after he suffered another injury.
After he returned against No. 16 Michigan State, Michigan ripped off five straight wins -- four with Livers in action.
Thursday was a sign that this year’s team might not be as reliant on any single player. Livers made just one field goal all game, finishing with seven points and three rebounds in 26 minutes. He played the fewest minutes of any starter by far, but the offense still put up an easy 84 points -- the most Maryland has allowed this season by 10.
At times, Livers can be Michigan’s best player. He’s scored in double figures while shooting at least 50% in five of eight games this season. But it bodes well for Michigan that it can survive a quiet night from its senior captain.
Dickinson’s technical foul wasn’t the only time Michigan had to take a punch and bounce back Thursday.
The Wolverines played their best half of basketball in the first half, but when they trotted to the locker room, the lead was only two points. That’s because Maryland, led by Donta Scott, made nine of 11 three-point attempts.
Some of Scott’s looks were open, but he also converted on a couple of strong defensive possessions.
Maryland’s hot shooting didn’t immediately level off in the second half, as another Scott jumper gave the Terrapins a four-point lead.
Michigan could have folded in that moment, on the road, with the Maryland bench going crazy. The most critical moment of the night came on the ensuing Michigan possession, when Livers missed a three-point attempt and Dickinson snatched the offensive rebound.
He found Eli Brooks, who found Wagner, who drilled a shot from beyond the arc. Two minutes later, Brooks threw down a thunderous dunk to cap a 10-0 Michigan run -- one they would never look back from.
Maryland finished the game shooting 59.1% from three-point range while Michigan made just six of 19 attempts. On top of an off night from Livers, the Wolverines only got six points, four turnovers and three fouls from their bench.
In the past, these might have been what we pointed to as reasons for a Michigan loss. Instead, Michigan breezed past Maryland, at one point leading by 19 points with under four minutes to play.
Being 8-0 and the last undefeated team in the conference is encouraging in and of itself. But it was the way Michigan took care of business that should grab the attention of the rest of the league, and maybe the country.