Feb. 22—Now that we’ve caught our breath after Michigan’s thrilling 92-87 win at Ohio State on Sunday, a couple questions:
Who knew that a regular-season college basketball game in an empty arena could be so raucously entertaining?
And should we name Juwan Howard the national coach of the year now? Or later?
In the first top-five matchup of the sort-of hoops rivals, third-ranked Michigan staked a clear claim as the best team in the best conference in a game that had it all.
Limbs flying. Bodies tumbling. … Shots falling.
Call it a full-contact ballet.
This time, we tuned in for the usual Big Ten rock fight and — and on afternoon that featured 11 ties and 17 lead changes as two elite offenses swapped one haymaker after another — the most beautiful game of basketball broke out.
As one of the officials could not help but observe to Eli Brooks, “This is a great game.”
“I was like, ‘You’re not wrong there,'” the Michigan guard said. “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 see talented people score and just have that level of competition.”
In the end, one sequence and one player made the difference.
The sequence came with Michigan ahead 77-74 with less than three minutes remaining, when Ohio State forward Justice Sueing picked the worst possible time to polish off his Globetrotters audition reel. His behind-the-back pass was seen by no one but the Wolverines’ Isaiah Livers, who took it the other way for an and-one.
The player was Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson.
The Wolverines sizzled from outside early — hitting 10 of 13 3s in the first half — then pounded inside to Dickinson late. The hosts had no answer for the 7-foot-1 freshman, who scored 16 points in the second half and provided the day’s indelible image.
After one Buckeyes foul, Dickinson crashed to the floor and took three opponents with him, leaving only six bodies to go for the spare.
“Big Ten basketball, baby!” Howard said.
For the second-year coach, it was the loudest statement yet in a homecoming that — speaking of performances in big rivalry games — continues to deliver the goods in a way that Jim Harbaugh almost certainly never will for Michigan football.
Count us impressed.
When Howard returned to his alma mater, it was easy to wonder if a guy who earned more than $150 million in 19 NBA seasons, lived on the waterfront in Miami, and had never been a head coach at any level — or coached in college period — was the right fit.
Would he really embrace the recruiting grind? What about his X’s and O’s chops?
While I thought Howard had great upside, this know-it-all declared his appointment an “unnecessary risk.” “If Howard had played at Minnesota instead of Michigan,” I wrote, “what would fans think of the hire?”
Yeah, about that.
[Ducks flying tomatoes.3/8
Howard has proven the best of all worlds
He’s an elite recruiter, having signed the top-ranked 2021 class in the nation — a six-member haul headlined by a pair of five-star Florida forwards (Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate). And he’s a truly elite coach, too.
Look at this Michigan team, which was picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten.
Yes, it has nice talent, including Dickinson, Livers, and sophomore guard Franz Wagner, all of whom could have NBA futures. But I’ll say it again: Like at Ohio State, the greatest strength of a Wolverines team that counts five seniors among their top seven scorers is how well they play together.
We saw it again Sunday.
The balance. The movement. The extra passes. The pinpoint decision making. It was an offense straight out of an instructional video. Michigan assisted on 19 of its 31 baskets, committed only seven turnovers, and had five players score in double figures. It shot 53.4 percent from the field and 47.8 percent on 3s.
This is a group in lockstep on both ends, the most complete team west of Waco, Texas.
And maybe anywhere.
If pressed, I would still pick Gonzaga or Baylor — the two undefeated juggernauts that rank among the top five teams in offensive and defensive efficiency and have proven the class of the land — to win the whole thing this season.
But, hey, as Howard and these indomitable Wolverines continue to show, I’ve been wrong before.
First Published February 21, 2021, 7:31pm
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