And @umichbball is up in the first half at Iowa: pic.twitter.com/Pym8llWtTB
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 3, 2018
The first six minutes of the conference re-opener against Iowa were an ugly slog. Eli Brooks committed a turnover on the team's first possession trying to fit an entry pass to Charles Matthews. Moe Wagner coughed up two turnovers and committed a foul, hitting the bench early. Wagner and Duncan Robinson had a tough time containing Iowa forward Tyler Cook, who opened the game with a Wagner-like behind-the-back dribble and dunk.
As Charles Matthews split a pair of free throws to cut Iowa's lead to 10-8 with 13:43 to go in the first half, John Beilein sent in Zavier Simpson and Isaiah Livers to replace Brooks and Robinson. It paid off immediately. Jon Teske, in for Wagner, rebounded the second free throw; the ball found its way to Livers, who dropped it off to Teske for an open midrange jumper.
Livers or Simpson were involved in Michigan's next four baskets to give the Wolverines a comfortable lead, and the two maintained a high level of play for the duration. Simpson was a bona-fide scoring threat, leading the team with 15 points on ten shot equivalents as he kept Iowa off-balance with aggressive forays to the basket and smooth spot-up threes. He also ran the offense beautifully, dishing out seven assists with no turnovers, and came up with two steals while playing his usual intense defense.
Livers, meanwhile, had the best game of his young career. While he scored 13 points, made all three of his three-point attempts, and added two rebounds, three assists, and two steals, his impact went beyond his stat line. While Michigan never slowed down Cook, who scored a game-high 28 points on 10-for-15 shooting, the presence of Livers greatly improved the overall defense. With Livers also shooting better than Robinson, Beilein went with the freshman for most of the game, playing him 27 minutes. While one-game plus-minus stats can be misleading, it's impossible to ignore that Livers finished a game-high +23 while Robinson was -18. There was a similarly sizeable split (+14 to -7) between Simpson and Brooks.
— Michigan Men's Basketball (@umichbball) January 3, 2018
With those two leading the way, Michigan pushed the lead as high as 15 points in the first half and 17 in the the second. They took their foot off the gas early, allowing the Hawkeyes to get within single digits in the very late going, but they were never in danger of losing.
There is some danger in taking too much away from this game; Iowa is now 0-3 in the conference and, beyond Cook, looked to be at a significant talent deficit. That said, Simpson wasn't doing this kind of stuff against anyone last year, and Livers finally getting his outside shots to fall could be the key to getting Robinson back to the sixth man role to which he's best suited.
The team's ball movement tonight was as good as it's been all season; they had 18 assists on 28 field goals and ripped apart Iowa's zone when they attempted a defensive changeup. They won on the road in a conference game despite getting almost nothing (4 points, 2/6 FG, 2 TO) from Wagner. The reliable playmaking of Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman (15 points, six assists) and Charles Matthews (14 points) went a long way towards covering for that lack of production.
Those are significant developments, even against a team that doesn't look like it'll get any sort of postseason action. A John Beilein team with a true score-pass threat at the point is a dangerous thing indeed; ditto one that can field a lineup with the athleticism and defensive potential of, say, Simpson-MAAR-Matthews-Livers-Teske without seeing a significant drop in shooting ability. This team is taking shape, and they're looking dangerous.
[Hit THE JUMP for the box score.]