Lincoln, NE -- Michigan men’s basketball came to play on Sunday, even if they could have gotten away with a day off. Even with a loss, Michigan was probably safely in the NCAA tournament, and a win would not greatly improve their resume. After finding themselves on the wrong side of madness on Wednesday against Northwestern, this matchup against Nebraska was the consolation prize of the two game road trip. Despite coming off possibly their most demoralizing loss of the season and having their Big Ten tourney seeding determined before tip off, the Wolverines refocused on the game ahead of them rather than March Madness speculation. Meanwhile, Nebraska had a chance to improve their Big Ten tournament seeding from 12th to 10th and had an opportunity to send lone senior Tai Webster out in style on senior night. Still, Michigan looked like the team whose season was on the line.
After surrendering a 2-0 lead on Nebraska’s first possession, Michigan flew out of the gate with three three pointers and a Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman dunk on the Wolverines’ first five possessions. The tone was set for the rest of the night, as Michigan never allowed Nebraska to think about staging a comeback. By the end of the second half, Michigan’s bench was frequently louder than the crowd at Pinnacle Bank Arena. While Michigan could’ve gotten away with a half-hearted performance in Lincoln, the team came out energetic on both sides of the ball and was clearly excited to be playing basketball in the now, free of any tournament distractions.
The Wolverines’ sensational stat line while shooting the ball jumps out as the most impressive aspect of their game last night. Connecting on 63% of their field goals, 52% of their three point attempts, and 79% of their free throws, Michigan’s greatest strength was on full display. Five different Wolverines hit multiples three pointers, making this offense a nightmare to guard for any team. Not to be overshadowed by his team’s accuracy, Derrick Walton Jr. set a Michigan men’s basketball record with a sensational 16 assists. However, the offense should not be the lone storyline for this game. In January Michigan defeated the Huskers in Ann Arbor by a tally of 91-85. With this in mind, Sunday’s 93-57 win serves as a testimony to how far this team has come defensively. Since a 85-69 loss in Champaign to Illinois on January 11, Michigan has allowed over 70 points just once, in an 83-78 OT loss in Minnesota. With an offense that turns the ball over less than any other team and that has been shooting as well as anyone in the country, Michigan’s newfound identity will allow them to compete with any team in the tournament.
Perhaps most importantly, Michigan picked up its third road win of the season. While not a win that will stand out on their resume, the lack of easy road games on Michigan’s schedule is largely to blame for their poor road record. Last night’s dominant display showed that Michigan is not dependent on a home crowd. Nebraska even beat regular season champs Purdue in Lincoln this year, adding to the value of this win on Michigan’s resume. For now, Michigan must prepare for a noon Thursday matchup with 9th-seeded Illinois in the Big Ten tournament. The winner of that matchup will move on to play Purdue. Michigan has beaten every team ranked higher than them, besides Northwestern and Minnesota, and both of those games were a possession away from a different outcome. A Big Ten tournament title is a perfectly reasonable goal for this team. A strong conference tournament performance could land The Wolverines in the conversation for a sixth or seventh seed and make them a top pick for being a bracket buster. But right now, Michigan has been playing as if they’re not concerned with the committee. This team is taking it game by game. They’re on to Illinois.