Michigan's Big Ten regular-season title hopes aren't dead yet.
The Wolverines beat the Maryland Terrapins on Sunday 69-62 behind 21 points and seven rebounds from Ignas Brazdeikis. Zavier Simpson added 12 points—on a number of improbable and entertaining driving hook shots—and 10 assists, while Jon Teske provided a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks).
Bruno Fernando (12 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks) led the way for Maryland, while top scorer Anthony Cowan Jr. was largely invisible for much of the game, scoring 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting from the field, though he found his rhythm late in the game. It was too little, too late for the Terps, however.
With the victory, Michigan moved to 26-4 on the season and currently sits in second place in the Big Ten, while Maryland is now 21-9 and fifth in the conference. Everybody is chasing Purdue (22-7, 15-3 in the conference), which holds a half-game lead on Michigan.
Both the Wolverines and Terps are locks for the NCAA tournament, so the result didn't change much outside of some potential seeding down the road. But as the Big Ten season winds to a close, Sunday's victory will have reverberations around the league.
Michigan's Defense Still Capable of Carrying Team to a Conference Title
Sunday's game wasn't pretty. Frankly, much of the game was a defensive grind and the sort of aesthetically unappealing contest that Big Ten junkies love and fans of free-flowing, high-scoring basketball lament.
And that's precisely the type of game Michigan is so good at winning, and the style and swagger—as featured by Brazdeikis—the team will need to rely on in the quest for a conference title.
Michigan doesn't control its own destiny in the race for a regular-season title. If Purdue wins its next two games, the title goes to the Boilermakers. But come the Big Ten tournament, Michigan will have the chance to grind out wins. And given that the Wolverines have won the last two, they'll arguably be the favorites.
How they fare against Michigan State on Saturday will be an important measuring stick. In the first meeting, Michigan State locked down defensively, stifling driving lanes and forcing Michigan to settle for contested perimeter looks. Michigan's excellent defense couldn't slow down Cassius Winston, meanwhile, who went for 27 points.
That game exposed Michigan's main weakness, a lack of a dynamic, elite scorer, a weakness that limits the team's upside in the NCAA tournament. But it may play less of a factor in a Big Ten tournament that doesn't feature another truly elite team.
The Spartans are the best of the bunch, but Michigan will have the chance to take them down a notch in a week. Purdue, Maryland, Wisconsin and Iowa are solid teams, no doubt, but aren't in the conversation for a national title (barring some unforeseen and miraculous run). Michigan can still grind out a conference title.
The Wolverines proved that much Sunday, especially considering the win came on the road and without third-leading scorer Charles Matthews. It helps when players like Brazdeikis, Teske and Simpson are all excellent or when all five starters score double-digit points.
Michigan's ceiling is dictated by its offense. But its floor is incredibly high because of that defense. In the Big Ten, that floor is still good enough to win a third straight Big Ten tournament championship.
Maryland Can't Survive in March if Anthony Cowan Jr. Goes Cold
Cowan is Maryland's leading scorer and its best playmaker, but when he doesn't perform, Maryland simply lacks the top-end talent to overcome elite teams.
In Maryland's two losses to Michigan, Cowan has scored a total of 20 points and shot 8-of-27 from the field, with more turnovers (seven) than assists (four). Obviously, the Wolverines are a tough matchup for Cowan.
As Seth Davis of CBSSports.com noted, "[Michigan's] Simpson has a knack for making opposing point guards disappear." That was very true on Sunday.
And when Cowan struggles, the Terps become a very average team. Cowan has had six games with 10 or fewer points this season, and Maryland is 3-3 in those games. In the team's two-game losing streak, Cowan has nine turnovers to just one assist.
Turnovers, in general, are a major issue for Maryland. The team's 0.99 assist-to-turnover rate is tied for 202nd in the nation.
Now, this isn't meant to pile on Cowan—every player has down games. That's to be expected, and Cowan is no exception. The issue for the Terps is that they really struggle to pick up Cowan in those instances, especially against tougher opposition.
They didn't do so on Sunday, shooting 30 percent from three and finishing with more turnovers (nine) than assists (eight). It may cost Maryland a bye in the Big Ten tournament. And if it happens at the NCAA tournament, it will cost the Terps their season, too.
Michigan has a huge rivalry matchup against Michigan State on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, while Maryland will face Minnesota on Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET.