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Michigan basketball, after weeks away from gym, proves it’s still Big Ten’s best

The Wolverines won at Wisconsin on Sunday.

Visiting Wisconsin after a long layoff, the excuses would have been as available to Michigan as cheese curds and brats.

The Wolverines hadn’t played in 23 days. They couldn’t even get in the gym for a good chunk of that time off. They had only practiced for a few days as a team. And their first game back was on the road against a ranked Wisconsin team with a penchant for winning revenge games.

And yet, Michigan was the more energized and efficient team down the stretch in a 67-59 win on Sunday afternoon.

If anyone forgot about the best team in the Big Ten, Michigan provided a reminder.

The Wolverines committed just six turnovers, shot 41 percent from 3, and frustrated Wisconsin with aggressive defense and backbreaking offensive rebounds.

“We kept it simple,” Howard said. “Simple plays, limiting our mistakes, valuing the basketball. It was a pause. We couldn’t do anything about it. I’m impressed with how our guys responded after a long layoff and not making excuses for themselves.”

Early on, and even for a chunk of the first 30 minutes, a different narrative -- perhaps the more expected one -- was building. Michigan wasn’t sluggish, exactly, but didn’t quite resemble the hurricane that whipped through the Big Ten for most of January.

Michigan trailed by 12 at half, having shot just 34 percent to Wisconsin’s 54 percent.

The first 10 minutes, Howard said, “was a big concern of mine coming in.” Would the Wolverines have the required energy level out of the gate? And if they did, could they sustain it?

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson said the first few minutes of any game are the toughest on the lungs. That was especially true, he said, on Sunday, given the extended break.

While Michigan fans prepared themselves for the team’s second loss of the season, Howard was smiling and clapping in the Kohl Center visitors’ locker room.

“This is where we want to be,” Howard told the Wolverines, then implored them to up their defensive intensity.

Michigan started chipping away after halftime and found an extra spark after starting point guard Mike Smith took an inadvertent elbow to the face from the Big Ten’s leader in inadvertent elbows, Brad Davison. Howard, or at least the Michigan bench, drew a technical for questioning the no-call.

“I was a little fired up too,” Howard said.

Howard masterfully dialed Smith’s number on the ensuing possession, and Smith delivered drove for an and-one basket.

Still, Michigan trailed 51-44 after a Wisconsin basket with 10:56 left. As the final score indicates, Michigan’s defense put the clamps on the rest of the way

Wisconsin’s final 18 offensive possessions resulted in just two baskets and eight points.

At the other end, Michigan’s freshman center dominated the offensive glass. Dickinson had four offensive boards in the final 6:37 and they all resulted in points, including an assist to Isaiah Livers for a go-ahead 3 with 2:48 left.

Michigan, an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed as things stand presently, improved to 14-1 overall and 9-1 in the Big Ten. Illinois is next in the conference standings at 10-3, Ohio State is 11-4, Iowa is 9-5, and every other team has at least six league losses.

That Michigan was victorious, if not dazzling, on Sunday speaks to the team’s mindset during the last few weeks.

“That pause, I knew what was going to happen,” Livers said. “We were going to come back and everybody was going to talk about ‘rusty, tired.’ I knew. That’s why I was outside, I was doing jump ropes, doing everything necessary to stay in shape. A lot of other guys were too. We had a program and we all stayed true to it.”

Livers scored a game-high 20 points and made four 3-pointers. He played 38 minutes.

It’s noteworthy that this was Michigan’s first close game in months. Michigan’s last game decided by single digits was on Dec. 13 against Penn State. Even Michigan’s lone loss, at Minnesota, came by 18 points.

“This was a great experience for us,” Dickinson said. “This will be really beneficial for us later in the season when the games are not as (lopsided).” Dickinson credited Michigan’s veteran leaders and the unflappable head coach.

“Coach Howard is always great in those moments,” Dickinson said. “He’s played in NBA Finals games so I don’t think anything can really shake him.”

Michigan will get Monday off, then begin work for Thursday’s home game against Rutgers. Perhaps the second game back catches up with Michigan, as has been the case with some other programs returning from a long break. Sunday’s performance, though, was another reminder that Michigan isn’t like most other programs.

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