Saturday, February 25, 2017

Michigan 82, Purdue 70: Senior send-off

On Senior Day, it was a sophomore star who shined the brightest overall for the Wolverines, but a senior who made the biggest play.

Sophomore Moritz Wagner kickstarted Michigan's effort against No. 14 Purdue, scoring 12 of Michigan's first 23 points. Purdue's Caleb Swanigan was completely out of his element against the mobile Wagner, who tallied 22 first-half points, doing it both inside and outside (4-for-6 from beyond the arc in the first half). Michigan went into the half up 45-30 and led by as many as 22 in the second.

Purdue, however, stormed back and cut Michigan's lead to six with just over two minutes to play. Memories of earlier defeats (e.g. Virginia Tech) resurfaced.

Derrick Walton (17 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) then made the play Michigan needed most, burying an off-balance 3-pointer to beat the shot clock and push Michigan's lead back to nine late, a crucial shot in the face of Purdue's surge. Michigan held on for an 82-70 victory, moving to 19-10 (9-7) on the season and most likely locking up an NCAA Tournament berth.

Michigan showcased its diametrical brand of basketball when, late in the first half, DJ Wilson and Wagner collaborated on a pick-and-roll, with Wilson finding Wagner on the dive for an easy two. Yes, Purdue had the size and physicality advantage, but in space its frontline players looked like Chris Graham trying to stay with Anthony Gonzalez in the 2006 iteration of The Game.

There is another version of this game in which the Boilermakers' size overwhelms Michigan with a barrage of putbacks, dunks and baby hooks. Today's game did not offer that version. Instead, Michigan used its speed and offensive precision to outmaneuver Purdue's frontline advantage.

After a 66 percent mark in the first half, it was unlikely the Wolverines could continue hitting at that clip. Wagner picked up his third foul, too, with 15:48 to play. And even though Michigan missed its first seven 3-pointers of the second half, Purdue couldn't get closer than 11 (until late). Michigan's defensive shape, paired with a number of missed bunnies by Haas et al, kept the Boilers at bay for most of the second half.

Even when Purdue wasn't missing relatively easy looks in the paint, Michigan's defense forced turnovers via well-executed double teams and traps. Michigan is not an elite defensive team by any stretch, but they've improved significantly since the early part of the Big Ten schedule, when several opponents shelled the U-M D (Illinois, 85 points; Iowa, 86 points; Maryland, 77 points; Nebraska, 85 points).

Michigan created some breathing room for itself when Xavier Simpson swished an open corner three, then Wilson and Duncan Robinson followed suit with triples of their own to make it 66-44 just before the penultimate media timeout. The Wolverines appeared ready to cruise to an easy victory, another statement win at home.

Purdue, however, wouldn't go away so easily. A 13-2 run cut Michigan's lead to 11 with just over five minutes to play. Fittingly, with Michigan needing an answer, Wagner scored his first (and only) points of the second half to push the lead back to 13.

Purdue kept charging, eventually cutting the deficit to six points with 2:13 left. Walton's shot-clock-beating three took the wind out of Purdue's sails, and Michigan was afforded the opportunity of giving its seniors a standing ovation from the Crisler crowd.

Ignoring the clunker of a win at Rutgers and the overtime loss at Minnesota, Michigan has hit its stride at the right time. For even the most paranoid, this victory probably gets Michigan into the tournament field. Now, Michigan can focus on improving its seeding with road victories at Northwestern and Nebraska, then a strong showing in the conference tournament.

As for the seniors, it's almost hard to believe that the careers of Walton and Irvin are near their end. Both have enjoyed great highs and experienced lows. Walton has turned it up of late, while Irvin has, for the most part, struggled mightily this season.

Whatever happens, if Irvin can find himself the rest of the way, no one will remember the rest of it. Hit a big shot, make a big play, keep the season going -- do any of those things, and history smiles fondly.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Michigan 64, Wisconsin 58: Groove back

It was only a matter of time.

Senior Zak Irvin came into tonight having averaged 3.25 ppg in his last four outings, with a macabre 4-for-31 mark from the field during that stretch. Luckily for Michigan, fellow senior Derrick Walton has carried the load, but Irvin was relegated to the shadows in the process, seemingly set to play out his college career beset by a particularly aggressive case of the yips (or some variation of that).

The thing about the yips is that it often makes a dramatic exit once its clawing embrace is shed. Irvin made several big second-half shots -- including what must have been a cathartic breakaway dunk to put Michigan up eight with under three minutes to play -- en route to 18 points and a 64-58 victory against No. 11 Wisconsin Thursday night in Ann Arbor.

Although Wisconsin was without guard Bronson Koenig, this will still go down as a resume-building win for the Wolverines, who looked to avenge the loss in Madison. Michigan played with fire in that first meeting Jan. 17 at the Kohl Center, choosing to avoid double-teaming Badgers big man Ethan Happ. That strategy paid off, as Happ finished with 11 points on 5-for-13 shooting, a mediocre night for him.

Eventually, though, the fire burns you. In tonight's matchup at the Crisler Center, Happ hit the Wolverines for 18 first-half points (8-for-9 from the field). More importantly, however, Happ managed just four second-half points before fouling out in the final minute.

Luckily for the Wolverines, Moritz Wagner brought his A game, too, tallying 12 points on 4-for-7 shooting in the first half to keep Michigan afloat in the face of Happ's prolific first half. While Irvin's line was encouraging, Wagner (21 points) was the undisputed star of the show. Perhaps the most impressive of his buckets was a take from the left wing, when Wagner started right then went left behind his back en route to a nifty finish at the rim.

Not much else went well for the Wolverines in the first half. Michigan struggled most when reserve center Jon Teske drew into the lineup -- Happ went to work on Teske. Compounding the frontcourt issues, DJ Wilson put up zero points in the opening frame (he went scoreless in the matchup at Kohl). On top of all that Derrick Walton went 1-for-6 in the first half for three points, despite coming off of a string of superb play that had pushed him into the All-Big Ten First Team discussion. It was also an uncharacteristically sloppy half for the Wolverines (seven turnovers).

Nonetheless, UW went just 1-for-7 from beyond the arc in the first half, which ended with the visitors up just 31-30.

Michigan's turnover issues continued to start the second half, when a Dmitrik Trice steal turned into two points the other way. Then, Zak Showalter buried a three and Happ backed Wagner down for an easy two (after which Michigan started doubling him) to open a 38-30 lead.

Michigan did not allow the game to get away, embarking on a crucial 8-2 run that included Wilson's first -- and only -- points on a dunk assisted by Irvin.

In a key sequence to follow, Irvin banked in a shot-clock-beating triple and Happ picked up his third foul with about 12:34 to play. Not long after, Irvin buried a long two to get him to 12 points on the night, his first strong showing since he scored 12 in the home blowout of Indiana.

With the score knotted at 47, Walton (five points, five rebounds, eight assists) found a way to make a non-scoring contribution, driving into the lane and dishing to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman who knocked in a triple while being fouled, putting Michigan up 51-47 after his free throw with just under eight minutes to play. Michigan kept rolling when Mark Donnal blocked a Happ shot that led to an Irvin three at the other end.

Irvin's aforementioned dunk put Michigan up eight with just under three minutes to play, and the Wolverines held on for the win to move to 7-6 in Big Ten play.

Although Walton's streak of prolific scoring came to an end, he found other ways to contribute. Wagner produced a masterful performance to neutralize Happ's big first half and the Wolverines made adjustments at halftime to limit Happ in the final 20 minutes.

Sure, UW was without Koenig, but this will still look like a good win. More importantly, if Irvin's performance is indicative of how the rest of his season will play out, the Wolverines might just finally be rounding into a stabilized, dangerous form as postseason play approaches.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Michigan 75, Indiana 63: Exorcised

Indiana's Assembly Hall, Michigan's "house of horrors": it's become a cliche, but one with teeth. After all, things become clich├ęd with a reason, not by rhetorical whims.

The reason? Coming into today's matchup, the Wolverines had gone 1-17 in Bloomington in their last 18 meetings, the last win coming in 2008-09.

So, naturally, in continuation of Michigan's season of wild unpredictability, the Wolverines notched their first Big Ten road victory on Sunday, racing out to a 10-point halftime lead and holding on in the second to win 75-63 and move to .500 in conference play (6-6).

Once again, the senior Derrick Walton led the way. Whether it was the Illinois "white collar" comment or the realization that his college career's end draws near, or a combination of the two, Walton has played the best basketball of his four-year career over the last month.

With 2:40 to play, Walton converted a step-back mid-range jumper from the elbow, the kind that confident players make when they're feeling it, getting a friendly shooter's roll on the typically unkind Assembly Hill rim. Luckily for Michigan, Walton has been feeling it in a big way.

After scoring 20-plus points in his previous four outings (IU, MSU, OSU and MSU again) he tallied 25 points on 7-for-13 shooting, plus five rebounds, four assists and three steals. He capped his day with a steal at midcourt, taking it the other way for an uncontested layup and the cherry on top of the Assembly Hall victory sundae.

Michigan got off to a hot start, going 6-for-10 from three in the first half, whereas the Hoosiers went 0-for-6 while also committing 10 turnovers. Walton again led the way for the Wolverines with 10 first-half points.

Even so, Indiana hung around, particularly early in the second half when Michigan failed to turn offensive rebounds (sometimes two in a single possession) into points. Michigan eventually snapped a scoring drought lasting more than eight minutes when Moritz Wagner buried a pick-and-pop triple just over four minutes into the second half.

Indiana cut the lead to six, but none other Walton converted an and-one bucket, and a few minutes later Duncan Robinson buried a DJ Wilson-assisted three. Wilson added a sweeping take to the rim for two shortly thereafter.

Michigan pushed its lead back up to 13 with five minutes left and Indiana looking incapable of mounting a run, despite Michigan's earlier drought. James Blackmon Jr. appeared as if he wasn't 100 percent in just his second game back from injury, going just 2-for-7 from the field for six points (he didn't attempt a shot in the first half).

This isn't a particularly good Indiana team, but a road win is a good win every time, especially at the place that has handed much better Michigan teams losses in recent memory. Michigan did what it had to do to make the officiating irrelevant, building a lead and keeping it watered and well-maintained throughout.

Now, Michigan turns to the final third if its conference schedule. A tournament berth is certainly not assured yet, but today's win went a long way toward mitigating the disappointment caused by the home loss against the Buckeyes.

Michigan will have an opportunity to score a marquee win when the Badgers visit the Crisler Center on Thursday.

Bullets
  • Michigan turned it over just eight times to Indiana's 15. That's one way to keep the refs out of it. 
  • Xavier Simpson had another encouraging outing. He's beginning to stack up some solid performances as a reserve spelling Walton, and also while sharing the floor with the senior. Two assists, two rebounds, a steal and, most importantly, zero turnovers for the freshman point guard today. 
  • While shooting just 4-for-11 from the field, Wagner tallied a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds). 
  • Since his zero-point effort in Madison, DJ Wilson has averaged 11.3 ppg over the last six games. While he's still putting it all together, there are points in the game when you can see the future NBA player he can be. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Michigan 86, Michigan State 57: When it all comes together

Michigan has had two chances to avenge earlier conference road losses so far this season. First, they did it against Illinois in the motion picture "Back in Blue," the biting, redemptive sequel to "The White Collar Boys." 

They also did it tonight against Michigan State, handing the Spartans their worst loss against Michigan in 21 years. 

If you needed any indication which iteration of Michigan had showed up, the Wolverines forced four MSU shot-clock violations by the game's second TV timeout. 

Michigan's outside shooting soon followed its defensive energy, reprising the lights-out performance against Indiana. That 30-point win against the Hoosiers was Michigan's most lopsided victory against Indiana since 1998. With a 86-57 victory tonight, Michigan notched its most lopsided win against the Spartans since Feb. 27, 1996 (also a 29-point victory, 75-46) and broke a five-game skid in the rivalry series. 

The Wolverines shot 75 percent from the first half (8-for-11 from three), staking claim to a 55-29 lead, Michigan's most prolific first half of the season. On top of that, they forced 12 first-half turnovers, many directly yielding points.

The in-state rivals last met not long ago, Jan. 29 in East Lansing, a 70-62 loss for the Wolverines in which Derrick Walton seemed to be the only guy ready to play. Making matters worse, a flu-ridden Zak Irvin scored as many points as the Atlanta Falcons made smart offensive playcalls late in the Super Bowl on the doorstep of the New England red zone (that would be zero). 

This time, Irvin made his mark on the scoresheet early with a triple (although he was again quiet in this game overall, not scoring again after that triple). The three was the first of many for Michigan, which raced out to a 32-19 lead on 6-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc. 

The Wolverines rode a balanced attack in the half, getting contributions from just about everyone, including Xavier Simpson, who put in some of his best minutes of the season spelling Walton. In the first half, Walton had 12, Moritz Wagner had 13, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had 10, and Simpson and Duncan Robinson chipped in five apiece (including a Robinson buzzer-beating three to close the half).  

Naturally, the game got chippy. DJ Wilson picked up a technical foul after dunking on Kenny Goins. Not long after, Nick Ward picked up a tech of his own by tripping Wagner while the teams headed to their respective benches for a timeout. 

But, when you're up by 26 at the half, an unnecessary technical will probably be allowed to slide. 

As for Michigan State, things were going so poorly that Tom Izzo was forced to call a timeout 1:09 into the second half after a Wilson dunk (assisted by Wagner). 

Speaking of Wagner (19 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals), he continued to do work in the second half. Unlike the first matchup, in which Wagner was hamstrung by foul trouble, he had no such trouble tonight, using his athleticism to get easy buckets on smart cuts and simply by taking the ball to the rim with strength. 

Aside from Miles Bridges (15 points, five rebounds) and his spectacular dunk, MSU had no answers on either end of the floor, and never cut the deficit to fewer than 22 points. 

Michigan's home loss to the Buckeyes could come back to haunt it later. But if there's a palate cleanser better than a 29-point victory against Michigan State, I don't know what that is. 

Bullets
  • You might roll your eyes when players talk about negative chatter and how they'll be motivated to prove the doubters wrong -- Derrick Walton has been saying such things of late. In this case, though, he's followed through on his words. Walton is in the midst of his most inspired stretch of basketball in a while. He finished with 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds. 
  • Xavier Simpson had his best game to date. Defense will always be an issue for him, based on his size (or lack thereof) alone, but he flashed some playmaking ability and simply looked more comfortable with the ball in his hands. Simpson tallied seven points on 3-for-4 shooting with two assists to one turnover. 
  • Michigan lost to a bad Ohio State team at home and followed that up with a blowout of Michigan State. Attempting to find any reason or use any kind of predictive model to assess this team is futile. 
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman put up a season-high with 16 points. He started conference play scoring zero points in eight minutes at Iowa. He's quietly put together very strong games in three of his last four outings. If Michigan can get peak MAAR down the stretch, that would be a huge boost. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Michigan 62, Michigan State 70: A tale of two seniors

Michigan's offense hummed Thursday night against Indiana, zooming like a brand-new sports car.

On Sunday in East Lansing, the car hit pothole after pothole and broke down, a helpless wreck sending tendrils of smoke snaking to the rafters.

After a stretch during which Michigan defeated Michigan State in six of eight tries, the Wolverines came into today's matchup having lost the last four meetings. That losing streak became five straight on Sunday afternoon, as the Wolverines fell, 70-62, despite a motivated effort from senior Derrick Walton (24 points, nine rebounds, five assists).

Zak Irvin, however, finished 0-for-8 from the field, with zero points and three turnovers, his worst outing of the season and worst since a 1-for-8 performance against Texas on Dec. 6.

Meanwhile, Walton did his usual work on the glass, while also attacking the rim -- he didn't always finish, but went to the line more often than not.

Despite some rough first-half offense from the Wolverines -- seniors Irvin and Walton combined to shoot 2-for-13 for five points, all from Walton -- they found themselves down just 32-28 at the half.

The Wolverines shot 32.4 percent from the field, while the Spartans managed to shoot 50 percent. On top of that, Michigan was well off its torrid points-per-possession pace from the Indiana game, putting up just 0.88 points per possession in the first half today.

A team can survive that for a half, but two? The Wolverines would need to find the offensive rhythm they had Thursday against the Hoosiers in Ann Arbor if they were going to come away with a key conference road win.

Things started auspiciously enough in the second half when Walton buried Irvin-assisted triples on consecutive possessions. The good vibes didn't last long, though, as the Spartans were able to enter the bonus with more than 11 minutes remaining in the half and build a 51-42 lead.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman stemmed the tide with a triple for a scuffling Michigan, but MSU's Matt McQuaid buried his third trey in three tries to put the home team's lead back at nine with 10 minutes to play.

Unfortunately for Michigan, that second-half offensive renaissance never came. With around seven minutes to play, Michigan had more second-half turnovers than second-half made field goals.

Michigan was within striking distance late, but in the sort of way that a football game is a two-score game when a team is down 16. Walton didn't have a great day from the field himself (4-for-12), but he was the only one who proved determined enough to make something happen.

While Irvin will get most of the flak, DJ Wilson was also just 4-for-12 from the field (0-for-3 from beyond the arc), Moritz Wagner scored 10 but was limited at times by the usual foul trouble and Michigan's bench was mostly irrelevant.

A win against a Michigan State team that had lost three straight would not have been an upset or a huge surprise, like it might have been in the past. The Wolverines, however, just didn't have the answers for Michigan State's defense, the latest chapter in a season's worth of shapeshifting. Unstoppable one moment, eminently stoppable the next.

Which Michigan will turn up down the stretch? Your guess is as good as mine.

UPDATE: Per Beilein, Irvin has been battling the flu, which would certainly explain today's performance.



Bullets

  • Xavier Simpson had a nice dish in the first half, wheeling around the right side before dropping a nifty pass to Mark Donnal in the paint. 
  • Moritz Wagner continues to be plagued by foul issues, picking up an early one that saw him yanked for Mark Donnal. This goes without saying, but Michigan's best lineup includes both Wagner and DJ Wilson on the floor. 
  • Speaking of Wilson, his first-half block from behind was a thing of beauty. 
  • Zak Irvin finished scoreless for the first time all season. While Wagner and Wilson are/should be the heart of this offense, Michigan can't beat anyone when Irvin is playing like that. 
  • MSU's Miles Bridges is quite good (15 points, 13 rebounds). Sometimes, there's just not much you can do when a future NBA player is feeling it, as he was in the second half. 
  • Cassius Winston flashed creativity and speed toward the basket, scoring a Spartans team-high 16 points, mostly from the line, where he went 10-for-11. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Michigan 32, Florida State 33: The (third) one that got away

Some games are close, others "close," others somewhere in between.

Michigan's Orange Bowl matchup against Florida State Friday night fell somewhere in that in-between No Man's Land. After all, Michigan lost by one on a last-minute Seminoles field goal. They made some big plays in the second half, namely Mike McCray's pick six and, later, Chris Evans juked a Florida defender out of this dimension to put Michigan ahead with 1:57 to play.

That juke was the future in motion, an example of what can't be taught and what Michigan desperately needs more of: raw, unmitigated explosion. The ability to make people not just miss, but miss so badly that they fall to the ground, questioning what is up and what is down. It's the type of play elite talents make in big moments. Grinding opponents into dust on 10-play drives is fun, but Michigan has usually done that because it had no other option. But when you have the ability to take a shortcut, you take it, and that's what a player like Evans brings to the table.

In Evans, and some other promising players on offense (and, hopefully, some on defense, to be unleashed next season), Michigan has a game-changing talent. Unfortunately for Michigan, it didn't quite have enough of it this season when it counted, especially on offense. A close loss at an offensively challenged Iowa team, a brutal loss at Ohio State featuring five fourth-quarter yards and a bowl game with just 252 yards of offense, 4.3 yards per attempt through the air and this on the ground ...


... and it's safe to say Michigan's fall from possible eliteness to a degree or two below that starts here.

Even so, Michigan had a chance to pull out a 2012 Sugar Bowl-esque victory (I was at that game in New Orleans, and it was the kind of game that almost left you feeling compelled to apologize to the opposing fans for winning). Alas, 65 yards of Keith Gavin kick return yardage later and the Noles were in position to comfortably drive for a score, which they got ... by throwing at Jourdan Lewis in the corner of the end zone.

Go figure. Sometimes there's not much to say. Things happen. When Dalvin Cook runs around and past your defense a few times like they're painfully limited pawns on a chess board, that's one thing. When a team gets your All-American corner for a touchdown in a key situation?

Well, that's football.

---

When a season concludes, especially one like this one, there's always an urge to categorize it, to tag it, to fit it into a neat, little box.

Was it a "successful" season or was it a "disappointment"?

In truth, it's a little bit of both.

Michigan's three losses came by a total of five points. It's disappointing that with this collection of talent, Michigan wasn't able to find the one or two plays it needed to join the playoff field.

But, only four teams go, and only one team wins. If we're categorizing all seasons that don't end in a playoff berth or a national title as failures, just about every fan should be disappointed. That's no way to live.

What is disappointing is the still lingering conference title drought. As a high school sophomore in 2004, I never thought that would be Michigan's last conference crown for a long, long time.

Here we are, though. Next year, Michigan probably won't be a playoff-caliber squad, simply by virtue of what they need to replace on defense -- I do think, however, that competing for the division crown and a trip to Indianapolis are within reach, once the early-season growing pains are sorted out.

While the 2016 season ended with a thud, it can't be said enough: Michigan has won 10-games in consecutive seasons, just two years after going 5-7 and getting a coach fired. Yes, Hoke recruited fine in parts, but a failure to identify offensive talent, namely on the line, hamstrung Michigan this year.

Right now, for all of Michigan's defensive talent, that's the difference between them and the cream of the crop: Michigan's line just couldn't stand up. For further example of what that looks like, watch the tape of the Ohio State-Clemson game.

Until Michigan upgrades its line and fields upper-echelon skill position talent, its defense can never be good enough to carry it to a title, where it is at this point a pretty solid bet they'd have to beat Alabama.

One day. It didn't come together this year, and likely won't in 2017 by virtue of roster turnover.

After that? Anything is possible.

---
Of course, no season finale is complete without fond reminiscences over the players taking their abilities elsewhere, whether into the real world or the NFL.

This year is especially heavy on the heart, as Michigan loses a cast of likeable, not to mention very good, football players. Jourdan Lewis, Jabrill Peppers, Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Ben Gedeon, Taco Charlton, Channing Stribling, Delano Hill, Dymonte Thomas -- and that's just defense.

The odds are good Michigan will never have another Taco -- both in name and in his particular combination of size, speed and agility. While Michigan lacked game-changing ability on offense, there was no shortage of it on defense, thanks to players like Charlton. He was a bringer of doom, a destroyer of poor, unprepared tackles.

Lewis? Despite his size, he blanketed receivers, with such grace and ease -- even when a receiver seemed open, that was never the case.



As far as interceptions go, that play falls in the same category as Charles Woodson's in the 1997 Michigan State game. That's something. No one will remember the particulars of this year's defensive slugfest against Wisconsin, but they'll remember that play -- it's hard to forget something like that.

As for the defensive linemen, it will be some time before a Michigan defensive line is so unflinchingly dominant again. Wormley is a guy who has seemingly been around for eight years -- like Mike Martin, he's an example of a human being who is impossibly agile for his size. Watching him play, it's still hard to believe that Wormley weighs more than 300 pounds. Losing an agile, versatile planetoid on the defensive line will be a major loss, to say the least.

As for Glasgow, his journey -- and his brother's before him -- is all you need to know when considering why some think Jordan Glasgow could be something far more than a special teamer. Whatever it is, that family has it. Michigan missed Ryan Glasgow's presence late last season when he was knocked out with an injury -- they'll certainly miss it next year when he's beginning what should be a long and productive NFL career.

Peppers hasn't officially announced his departure, but it's safe to assume he's probably gone (rather, it would be a surprise if he returned, simply based on his draft projections). All in all, it feels like only yesterday when he committed to Brady Hoke's Michigan: a different time, a different world. Fans were robbed of a full 2014 season when he went down with an injury, but he entered the fray in 2015 and truly began to shine brightly this season. Few Michigan players, if any at all, have ever brought his overall speed, instincts and playmaking ability on defense and special teams. I only wonder if Michigan couldn't have done more with him; but that's over and done now.

For our purposes now, I'll say this: it might cause some whiplash when opposing teams run successful screens next season, or Michigan's punt returner, whoever it is, doesn't make the first few would-be tackles miss like they're not even there.

All of the above is not to discredit the offense, of course. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, for example, had some big moments in their career. While Darboh had some unfortunate drops and lacked big-play speed, he was a mostly reliable option and a guy who could usually churn out some tough yards after contact. With Chesson, we'll always have the Florida game.

Then, of course, there's Jake Butt, whose Michigan career unfortunately ended on a sour note. (An aside, but for what it's worth, my personal opinion is that if the player wants to sit out a non-playoff bowl game to get ready for the draft, I have no problem with it. Would it be disappointing, from a selfish fan's point of view? Sure. But, the truth hurts: any bowl game not involving Alabama, Washington, Ohio State and Clemson this bowl season meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.) Like Wormley, Butt offered a unique combination of size, speed and technical ability. When Butt dropped an easy pass in a game this season, I was shocked, because it happened so infrequently.  When Jake Rudock to Wilton Speight needed a play, they could throw it up to him and count on him coming down with the ball more often than not. Michigan has some promising tight ends waiting to step up, but none will be Butt right away, if ever -- after all, most would probably agree he's the best tight end in program history.

The worst part is that none of these guys will play for Michigan again. They were all fun to watch, in good times and bad. It's a shame their times as Wolverines has to come to an end, but all things do.

And while 2016 ended on a down note, the season brought far more good than bad. And, eventually, Michigan will find itself on the winning side of the sort of games it lost this season, when a play or two flipped things.

It'll all come together, in due time. For now, fans will just have to be patient, and remember how things were not too long ago.

Until then, enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Michigan 70, Virginia Tech 73: Highs and lows

For the second time in less than a week, a Michigan team let one get away.

After a macabre showing at South Carolina and a game against Mount St. Mary's we know took place because there is a box score as evidence, Michigan looked to regain the confident step it found in New York City not long ago.

The Wolverines found that step early, a confident strut, against visiting Virginia Tech, staking claim to a 15-point lead at one point. That strut gave way to a nagging limp, however, as the Hokies would claw back to within two early in the second half, then again erased a 10-point deficit in the final 8 minutes to score a 73-70 win in Ann Arbor.

Zak Irvin led the way for Michigan with 23 points, 15 of them in the first half. But, unfortunately, he saved the worst for last, airballing a three late and then, given a chance to put Michigan in the lead with the shot clock off, dribbled and dribbled and dribbled before missing an ill-advised, stepback two just inside the arc.

Michigan, paced by an 8-for-12 start from the field (4-for-6 from three), raced out to a 23-8 lead. Unsurprisingly, Michigan found the rims much kinder at home than it did in Columbia, where they scored 46 points in what was easily one of the poorest, if not the poorest, offensive efforts in the John Beilein era.

With that said, defense has easily been the most notable facet of this Michigan team thus far. It has by no means been perfect, but the errors of the past don't seem to be taking place as frequently thus far this season. A fairly experienced roster certainly helps, but there's no doubt the coaching of Billy Donlon has helped sharpen the defense at every level, from perimeter defense to rotations; an uptick in rim protection has also helped. Michigan forced nine first-half turnovers and allowed just one offensive rebound in the first half.

But just like everything else about this game, Michigan's defense was good to start, then it was bad, then it was good, then it was bad again.

Michigan found itself up 39-30 at the half, a somewhat unsatisfying lead considering its domination of the better part of the opening 20 minutes. Part of that strong effort came from a bounceback performance from Irvin, who tallied 15 first-half points after scoring just 5 points on 2-for-13 shooting against the Gamecocks.

Virginia Tech's surge coincided with a quiet stretch from Irvin early in the second half. Irvin scored just over 6 minutes into the second half to extend Michigan's lead to three, though, a key moment in the game. Then, Duncan Robinson took a charge on the defensive end and buried a three on Michigan's next offensive possession, upping the lead to 50-44 with 13:04 to play.

In the frontcourt, instead of DJ Wilson or Mark Donnal, Mortiz Wagner led the way with 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting. Meanwhile, freshman center Jon Teske made an impact, too, entering the game and immediately altering a VT shot attempt, plus grabbing a pair of rebounds (one of the offensive variety).

By the 8-minute TV timeout in the second half, Michigan led by 10, aided by a banked-in triple from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The worst seemed to be behind them.

However, foul trouble reared its ugly head.

Wilson drew his fourth on a Derrick Walton free throw attempt with 7:44 to play, putting VT in the bonus. He later picked up his fifth foul with 3:03 left. Despite playing at home, the Wolverines trailed in free throw attempts, with VT going 15-for-17 and Michigan just 4-for-7 at the final TV timeout.

The Hokies took their first lead at 68-67 with 1:44 to play, and a triple extended it to 71-67. Robinson canned a three after an airballed Irvin attempt to cut it back to one with 42 seconds left.

Michigan received a bit of luck on the ensuing possession, when VT's Seth Allen was called for an offensive foul, giving Michigan a chance to win it with the shot clock off.

Unfortunately, Irvin put up another clunker, missing a long, stepback 2-point jumper after having the ball stick to his hands for most of the possession. VT then buried two free throws to push the lead back to three. Michigan lucked into a half-court inbound opportunity after the full-court pass was deflected out of bounds, but Robinson's three-point attempt at the buzzer fell off the mark, capping the collapse for the Wolverines.

The wind in Michigan's sails after the blowout wins against Marquette and SMU has faded, drifting elsewhere across the vast ocean of the college basketball seascape. The Wolverines looked listless against South Carolina and collapsed against Virginia Tech -- while the squad is sure to continue to improve, there's no doubt a home nonconference loss of this variety will sting, and could even come back to haunt Michigan come tournament time, if things get that bad.

Michigan hits the court Saturday for a tilt against Kennesaw State before facing major-conference competition again, with Texas and a trip to UCLA next up on the schedule. Especially given the fact that Northwestern recently beat the Longhorns convincingly, the Wolverines cannot afford another nonconference home loss.

Michigan is 5-2, a collapse away from 6-1. But, as Michigan fans have been twice reminded in the past several days, the final score is the only fact that matters. Everything else is just exposition: intriguing, but irrelevant.