ANN ARBOR, Mich. – At 14-1 and in first place in the Big Ten, Michigan basketball has had plenty of high points this season. But considering the circumstances, Sunday’s comeback over Wisconsin tops them all.
Before the game even tipped off, every conceivable advantage belonged to Wisconsin.
Most notably, Michigan hadn’t played a game in 23 days due to an athletic department shutdown aimed at stopping the spread of a COVID-19 variant. Nobody on the basketball team tested positive, but still, the team was forced to shut down, and five games were ultimately postponed.
For the first two weeks of the layoff, Michigan wasn’t even allowed to practice. That means while the rest of the league continued playing, the Wolverines cut off all the momentum they had built in the heart of the conference schedule.
It’s not easy to come back from that.
Take Michigan State, for example. The Spartans weren’t exactly on fire before their 20-day shutdown, but they had beaten No. 15 Rutgers by 23 points and suffered a close one-point loss to Purdue in the days leading up to the first cancellation.
When it returned, Michigan State scored just 37 points and lost to that same Rutgers team by 30. It was the worst offensive showing in the Tom Izzo era.
Would Michigan State have lost to Rutgers even if there hadn’t been a shutdown? Maybe. Would it have been a 30-point loss with that kind of offensive collapse? Not a chance.
We’ve seen it across the country this season: Teams spending a week or more without playing due to COVID-19 and taking awhile to get back in the flow. Most of them weren’t off for 23 days, either, and none have had to completely shut down practice and workouts like Michigan.
So for the Wolverines to need only one half to shake off that rust against what could be a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament -- it was pretty special.
Remember what happened the last time Michigan and Wisconsin met?
Just a month and two days before Sunday’s rematch, the Wolverines destroyed the Badgers, using a 43-6 run across both halves to win 77-54.
At one point, Michigan led Wisconsin by 40 points in that game. That doesn’t happen to Wisconsin very often -- ever, really.
Look no further than Minnesota to see what can happen after that type of beatdown. Michigan beat Minnesota by 25 points on Jan. 6, but when they made a return trip to the Barn, the Golden Gophers crushed Michigan by 18 points.
That’s still Michigan’s only loss of the season, and it was clear the game was personal to Liam Robbins and the rest of the Gophers.
Wisconsin is a prideful program, and the Badgers surely wanted to repay Michigan for what happened in mid-January. That Michigan survived some early blows and stayed within striking distance says a lot about Juwan Howard’s ability to push the right buttons.
When Michigan fell behind by 14 points late in the first half, and then 13 points early in the second, it would have been easy to mail it in for the day.
Nobody would have blamed Michigan for losing on Sunday. First of all, there’s never any shame in losing at Wisconsin, and that’s without a 23-day layoff.
Michigan already had a win over the Badgers, and currently, its lead in the Big Ten loss column is two games over Illinois. A hiccup in Madison wouldn’t have been the end of the world.
But instead, Michigan chipped away, little by little. Isaiah Livers cut the deficit to 12 points before halftime. Michigan quickly got it to 10 early in the second half. A few minutes later, it was down to six. Then, suddenly, a Franz Wagner triple about five minutes after halftime made it a 45-42 game.
Wisconsin isn’t going to blow many teams out because it doesn’t have great offensive firepower. But it’s also a difficult team to come back against because of its experienced, steady leadership on the court.
Michigan didn’t actually take the lead until much later in the second half, and once it did, Wisconsin punched back -- twice regaining the lead with critical buckets. But another Livers three off of a Hunter Dickinson offensive rebound erased the last lead Wisconsin would ever hold, and Michigan eventually hit enough free throws to win the game by eight points.
Leading Wisconsin by 40 points on Jan. 12 was flashy. It got the entire country’s attention. But the resiliency Michigan showed Sunday will actually be much more useful in the long run.
In January, Michigan became the only team in college basketball history to beat three straight ranked opponents by 17 points or more. That’s a tough act to top, but Michigan did that on Sunday.
Even without full stadiums, going on the road is difficult. Madison has been a particularly tough place for opposing teams the past decade, so winning there is rare.
There’s still a chance Michigan will need some time to get back to the level it was playing at pre-shutdown, but Sunday sure was a great start.
The Wolverines face an extremely difficult final stretch of the season. They have to travel to No. 4 Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan State. At home, they host No. 25 Rutgers and No. 15 Iowa. The game against No. 6 Illinois might also get rescheduled.
Michigan has its eyes set on a possible Big Ten title, but it’s not going to be easy. The next three weeks will determine if this goes down as one of the best Michigan basketball teams ever, or just another solid year.