ANN ARBOR, MICH — The mission was simple. If Michigan could beat Northwestern for the second time this season, the Wolverines would establish a new program record by winning their first 17 games of the year, the best start in school history (previously 16 games, which the 2012-13 Michigan team also accomplished before falling in its 17th game.) Michigan opened the first half on a 10-0 run and closed the first half on a 10-0 run. As Chris Rock famously said, “Grand opening. Grand closing.” No. 2 Michigan declawed Northwestern 80-60 as Michigan marched into the second half of the season with a perfect record. The Wolverines completed a regular season sweep over Northwestern for the first time since 2012-13.
“It’s a great accomplishment. Respect to the people before us, the team (2012-13) that held the record before us, I am honored we could take this program to new heights.” said Charles Matthews regarding the team’s 17-0 start. Similar to the Ilinois game Thursday, the Wolverines opened the game at a blistering pace to secure an early ten point advantage. “I thought we came out with great fire in our defense and our offense just really clicked.” Said John Beilein at the podium after the game.
Jon Teske (17 points, 11 rebounds) set the tone early. The 7’1 junior center was moving up and down the court at a rapid pace, scoring a pair of long jumpers, collecting three rebounds, and blocking a shot all in the opening 2:30 of gameplay. Zavier Simpson (24 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) also played a vital part in Michigan’s dominating first half. Simpson and Teske combined for 29 first-half points, which outscored Northwestern’s entire team (the Wildcats had 28 points in the opening period.) As Teske and Simpson drained three-pointers as well as completing finishes closer to the rim, the Crisler Center crowd worked itself into a fervor unseen since Michigan defeated North Carolina in November. The Wolverines returned to their locker room having scored more points in the first half than any other game this season and carried a 22 point lead, 50-28.
“There’s five or six guys that are all capable of getting double-digits.” Teske said. “Just keeping it one day at a time, not being satisfied, being connected, Coach B always says, one heartbeat, we are always connected in everything we do. We love playing with each other.” Simpson echoed a similar sentiment about Sunday’s win not being a be-all, end-all or crowning achievement. “”It’s impressive but we want to just keep going.” Simpson said after his career-high scoring performance. “Stay inside the box and control things we can control and I feel like we will be in a good position… I just play. Every single day I just want to get better with my team. I don’t worry about the next day, at practice, I compete like I am competing for a starting spot.”
The second half started well for the Wolverines as Iggy Brazdeikis scored on the opening possession, but then a familiar, ugly face reared its head. Michigan’s shooting went cold for the next nine minutes. Michigan scored only four points until Charles Matthews finished a dunk and drew a foul for a three-point play with just over ten minutes to go. That period represented nearly a quarter of the game, and Northwestern was able to draw no closer than 13 points. The Wildcats were without star guard Vic Law Sunday night, a player who has given Michigan fits in past matchups, but Michigan was determined to win in front of a sellout crowd. Before that frosty start to the second half, Michigan shot 68 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range in the opening twenty minutes. When any team’s offense clicks like that, the opponent is in for a bad night. Considering Michigan was led by its center and point guard who is known more for his defensive prowess, it spelled doom for Northwestern. Four Wolverine starters finished in double-figures: Teske, Simpson, Matthews (13 points) and Brazdeikis (11 points.) Michigan finished the game shooting 53% from the field and 41% from downtown.
Michigan continued it’s season-long theme of having different players break out and lead the Wolverines to victory, but the team’s leadership insists that the unpredictability not only keeps opponents on their toes, it helps keep the Wolverines together as one cohesive unit. “As we’ve shown, you never know who can be the leading scorer on this team, you never know who can lead in rebounding, lead in assists, we just play to win. It can be anybody’s night at any given time.” Matthews said.
“A lot of people are gonna have highlights, film for each game they’re gonna watch it.” Postured Beilein. “Our highlight is to win. Find a way to win, that’s the highlight, in the long run, all those dunks will go away. You want to play on a winning team. You want to play on a championship team. That is what we are after.”
Michigan now enters uncharted territory; the team has never gone undefeated this far into the season. It also has an off night this week as the Wolverines next game does not come until Saturday afternoon at Wisconsin. The road has yielded different results on the court for Michigan thus far, but the Wolverines are collecting as many wins as possible through January will be vital if the team is to survive February with its eyes on the Big Ten title and a potential No. 1 seed come tourney time. The team will face Maryland and Michigan State twice as well as hosting Wisconsin in its final eight game stretch of the regular season. Sunday night was by no means a coronation, but it does prove that what you see from the Wolverines is no mirage, this team is well on its way to being one of Beilein’s best, and has a chance to break more records as the season progresses. Despite losing the players it did after last year’s run to the National Championship game, this start is surprising to just about everyone outside of Crisler Center. As for the players and coaches inside?
“We just put the record on after every game. I put 6-0 up before I put 17-0 up.” Beilein said with a smile, referencing the team’s Big Ten record as more important than its overall record. “I think that is really indicative of who you may be or hopefully who you may be. We’re such a day to day team and I am a day-to-day coach…Probably everybody would like to have me make some great statement about being 17-0 but it’s just another game and we got another one coming up Saturday in Wisconsin.”