The Michigan Wolverines spent their January being more or less unstoppable. From Dec. 21 on, including two nonconference wins against Stanford and Holy Cross and the first eight games of its Big Ten schedule, Michigan went 10-0 in high style. Nik Stauskas emerged as a dual-threat scorer and made a ridiculous percentage of his shots; the Wolverines’ offense pummeled all comers into submission. When they beat Michigan State on the road, and Stauskas waved a kiss to the Izzone on his way out the door, the message was clear: Mitch McGary or no, the Big Ten title chase was headquartered in Ann Arbor.
Then, on Feb. 2, Indiana did something no team since Duke had managed to do: It stopped Stauskas. And it beat Michigan, which had last lost to then-No. 1 Arizona.
On Saturday, when Iowa stomped a lifeless, disengaged version of the Wolverines in Iowa City -- the final score was 86-67, and even that might have been deceptively close -- the warning sirens went full blast. All of a sudden, Michigan looked beatable, vulnerable, even -- gasp -- on the verge of collapse.
After Tuesday night, it’s time to make another grand pronouncement about the Wolverines. Are you ready? Here it goes.
Michigan’s 70-60 win at Ohio State on Tuesday night should, at least for the moment, quell any doubts about whether the Wolverines have the fortitude to hold on to the Big Ten pole position they share with Michigan State. The Wolverines’ first win at OSU in the Thad Matta era was a genuinely impressive victory -- a blend of great offensive execution and good-enough defense on the road against a team seemingly designed to prevent exactly that.
When Indiana beat Michigan, it did so by hassling Stauskas with the smaller, quicker Yogi Ferrell. On Saturday, Iowa followed Tom Crean’s counterintuitive lead. It appeared the Big Ten hive had figured out a way to stop one of the most potent offensive players in the country, and now Michigan would have to go on the road to face to an Ohio State group with not one but two of the nation’s best perimeter defenders, Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott.
What ensued was a classic John Beilein chess match abound with beautiful offensive wrinkles. The Wolverines worked Stauskas off screen after screen, changing directions and using OSU’s aggressiveness against it. Stauskas finished with 15 points on nine shots, and there were a handful of possessions that should be immediately become mandatory inclusions in coaching seminars.
But Michigan’s performance was much more than Stauskas. That might have been the most encouraging thing about it: Derrick Walton Jr. didn’t shoot well, but he still scored 13 points and added 10 rebounds and six assists. Zak Irvin made two key 3-pointers off the bench. The Wolverines’ big men, Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, combined to go 7-of-9 from the field for 14 points and 12 rebounds. Beilein’s team was just judicious enough offensively -- it made 8 of its 17 3s -- to tough out a road victory in which it shot just 41.5 percent overall.
Ohio State’s poor shooting helped, of course. The Buckeyes made just 3-of-20 from 3, and that was the biggest difference in the game. But Michigan also rebounded 42.4 percent of its own misses and 75.8 percent of OSU’s. The Wolverines’ ability to find and can open looks from the outside stemmed both from Beilein’s clever push-pull sets and from post-offensive rebound scrambles. Michigan scored 1.20 points per possession against a good defensive team as a result.
In the process, they avoided falling back to the middle of the Big Ten pack. That’s a tough place to be, a place where Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State are scrapping like crazy to stay within striking distance of the title chase -- a place where a .500 record in a deep and difficult conference is a legitimate concern. Instead, Michigan is out to 10-2. On the next two Sundays, it hosts both Wisconsin and Michigan State. Those games aren’t easy wins no matter where they take place, but they effectively end the Wolverines’ top-half responsibilities -- and might just end the Big Ten race once and for all.
Of course there are no guarantees. But the Wolverines’ ability to win on the road in a variety of ways remains very much intact. Saturday’s disaster against Iowa looks more like an outlier than a sign of things to come. Never mind all that. Michigan should be just fine.