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Michigan Picks Up Two Huge Wins in Critical Stretch

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Following Michigan’s 82-72 victory over Michigan State in East Lansing, most thought the Wolverines would be ranked. After all, Michigan played their best game of the season in the Breslin Center, especially in an arena that had been quite unkind to the maize and blue in the past. Moritz Wagner, he of the troubled ankle, had no trouble at all slicing through the depleted Spartan defense. Wagner finished with 27 points in 27 minutes, using a dazzling array of post moves and off-the-dribble drives mixed in with three-pointers to showcase his wicked offensive talent. Zavier Simpson and his nifty arsenal of floaters (not his free throw shooting, but more on that in a minute) tallied 16 points, while Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews had 14 and 10 respectively to balance four Wolverines in double figures.

While Saturday’s game was relatively straightforward, Monday’s tilt against Maryland was the exact opposite. Michigan came out flat and sluggish, only scoring 20 points in the first half against an injury-riddled Terrapin squad.

Then Jordan Poole happened. In a span of just over two minutes, Michigan knocked down five three-pointers, including three from Poole to turn a 37-30 deficit into a 45-41 lead. Michigan remained largely in cruise control, as a Charles Matthews jumper extended Michigan’s lead to 59-49 with six minutes to play. But the Wolverines got complacent, and Anthony Cowan’s hyper-charged play kept the Terrapins in the game.

Then things got really bad. Kevin Huerter, Maryland’s most complete player with the season-ending loss to Justin Jackson, knocked down all three free throws to make it a 61-58 Michigan lead. Michigan was able to re-extend the lead to five with 25 seconds to go, but a Cowan three, two missed free throws from Zavier Simpson, and a Huerter three with three seconds to go gave Maryland a 67-66 lead. Silence fell over Crisler.

Michigan had one last trick up its sleeve. Maryland inexplicably left former baseball player Isaiah Livers alone on the baseline, and he darted a perfect half-court pass to Abdur-Rahkman in stride. The senior, who has been Mr. Steady for Michigan since arriving on campus, took two dribbles toward the basket before Maryland freshman Bruno Fernando clotheslined him. MAAR, never phased, calmly knocked down two free throws. After Michigan fans felt they got robbed by a free throw against Purdue, the pendulum swung back the other way. Michigan 68, Maryland 67. Exhale.

This is one of those games where Michigan definitely did not play its best basketball for 40 minutes but found a way to win. In a weakened Big Ten, this is what separates the top four teams from the rest of the league. Maryland played about as well as they could, especially given that only seven guys played for the Terrapins, but Michigan was simply able to make one more play down the stretch.

MVP of the Week: Moritz Wagner

It’s hard to fully express what Wagner is doing right now. The junior is hitting his stride at the perfect time, and he’s the hardest cover in the Big Ten when he’s able to knock down shots from the perimeter. While four players scored in double figures led by Wagner’s 27 in East Lansing, only two guys (Wagner and Poole) scored in double figures against Maryland. Wagner’s consistency, especially making a concerted effort on the glass, means he can play more minutes and not just be an offensive threat. He’s gone 7-10 on 3’s in his last two contests, and the two major interior challenges he faces left this season are Isaac Haas and Jordan Murphy. Look for Wagner to continue his monster year for Michigan.

Surprise of the Week: Jordan Poole

While Poole didn’t have his best game against Michigan State only scoring two points, he still provided defense, rebounding and solid play for seven minutes. Against Maryland, Poole was ready. Michigan desperately needed a spark, and Poole’s nine quick points were exactly that. While his all around game isn’t perfect, his quick trigger and ability to get open threes is exactly what Michigan needs right now. There’s a major logjam for minutes behind Matthews and MAAR, but maybe Poole’s play will force Beilein to move MAAR to backup point guard and play the three of them together for five minutes a game? Until Jaaron Simmons or Eli Brooks wrangle away some PG minutes, Poole should be on the floor.

Moritz Wagner Highlight Play of the Week

I’d be remiss if we didn’t feature Mo’s filthy ankle-breaking move on Nick Ward. With the game still in the balance, Wagner put Nick Ward on skates. He starts on the right side just outside the three-point line, makes his signature behind-the-back right hand dribble to his left and finishes off a nifty move.

At this point, Ward is on the seat on his pants, helplessly on the floor as Wagner finishes off the layup. The game turned into a free-throw shooting contest pretty much from this point on, but Wagner’s layup (and overall play) helped cement a major victory for the Wolverines.

The Week Ahead

After Michigan’s last three games against the upper echelon of the Big Ten, the Wolverines need to take care of business against some of the weaker teams in conference. This starts Thursday night in Lincoln against a Nebraska team that usually gives teams trouble at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Michigan has had a lot of success there, but coming in with a ranking is a major target on your back. The Huskers just defeated winless-in-conference Illinois after James Palmer’s three-pointer with less than one second remaining gave Nebraska a 64-63 victory. Palmer, much like Charles Matthews, has been a revelation in his second collegiate stop. The junior is averaging 15.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. He’s only been held under double-figures twice all season, and will be a great test for Matthews, Livers and Duncan Robinson.

On Sunday, Michigan welcomes 1-5 Rutgers to Ann Arbor. The Scarlet Knights have been dreadful following a 10-3 start, including a victory over Seton Hall. They get Iowa at home on Wednesday night, but only mustered up 46 points against Ohio State on less than 29% shooting. Corey Sanders, Geo Baker and Deshawn Freeman are all capable of having big games, but expect Michigan to handle Rutgers with little trouble.

Overall, these are two games against mediocre opponents that Michigan should absolutely win. Given the Big Ten’s overall bad start to the season, most of Michigan’s games down the stretch are potential pitfalls rather than marquee victories. Of the 11 games, Michigan has two against teams that will very likely make the NCAA Tournament (OSU and Purdue), three against teams with a medium chance (Nebraska, Minnesota, Maryland), and six against teams with less than a 10% chance (hello, Penn State, Northwestern twice, Iowa, Wisconsin and Rutgers!)

Win against teams in the first grouping and you can actually improve your resume. Win against teams in groups two and three will do nothing but add another victory to the win column. Michigan can probably afford one loss against a team in the second group on the road, especially given that Maryland will be out for revenge in College Park for the last game of the season. But for now, Michigan just needs to keep on winning. Oh, and let Jordan Poole keep dancing too.