Thursday, June 15, 2017

Are you really a Michigan fan?

File photo
For those from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, for journalists, for Chicago-area journalists, and everything in between, Mike Royko is a name that bounces off the page, rattles and rolls like a one-two punch.

One second, just minding your own business while walking through a gangway, you're blindsided by words -- simple, powerful and cutting. Pow, pow.

For the uninitiated, Royko was a legendary columnist in Chicago, most known for his work for the Chicago Daily News. He died 20 years ago, leaving behind thousands of columns.

Although his work came well before my time, I dove into his writing this week through a collection of his columns, "Slats Grobnik and Some Other Friends."

From penny-lagging competitions to his travels around Europe to skewering of Chicago politicians to his wry depictions of his pal Slats Grobnik, Royko paints a picture of life in Chicago -- the corruption, the characters, the cacophony of it all.

In his column April 11, 1968, titled "Are you really a Cubs fan?", he writes about the North Side club, which at that point in the early season was considered a contender. (In 1968, the Cubs finished 84-78, 13 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals eventually lost to the Detroit Tigers in a seven-game World Series.)



Royko began the column:
The bookies say the Cubs are contenders for the pennant, so it must be true. And now the city is crawling with Cub fans.
But are they really Cubs fans? Were they around, were they loyal, when everything the Cubs did was disgusting? Were they out there cheering when the only thing to cheer about was when the ball came off the screen and hit the batboy in the head?
There is one way to find out: If you are suspicious of someone, make him take the Cub quiz. It is guaranteed to weed out imposters.
Royko then delivered a set of 15 questions: some genuine, others not so much. Every sports personality mentioned in the series of questions was dubbed "immortal."

Q: What did the immortal Wayne K. Otto hit?
A: Nothing. But Hack Wilson once hit him. He was a sportswriter, so he probably deserved it.

Royko jokes that, "Five correct answers qualifies you as a true-blue Cub fan and permits you to paste this column to the front of your face."

The column, written 49 years ago, reminded me of Michigan -- as many things do.

The natural follow-up, then, was simple: Are you really a Michigan fan?

Now that Michigan has reached the pinnacle of human achievement with back-to-back 10-win seasons, including a 78-0 defeat of Rutgers, it's easy to be a Michigan fan these days.

Of course, more trying times still linger in recent memory.

Were you there when Michigan couldn't do anything right, save for beating Notre Dame? When the team fell flat on its face to start the 2007 season, when the Wolverines looked to beat a supposedly inferior team with a then-still-funny offense -- and also Appalachian State?

Well, were you?

What about when Michigan faced the indignity of playing at Minnesota on a Friday night in 2003? (Back then, that was a radical thing to do.) What about the 2002 Citrus Bowl, when Tennessee's Jason Witten and Donte Stallworth embarked on leisurely strolls through Michigan's secondary, like its component parts were trees in the Arb? Did you use the Saturday the week before the Game of the Year of the Decade of the Century to do yardwork, thinking Brady Hoke's Ball State squad wouldn't make too much of a fuss?

To prove your worth as a human being -- and also because it's mid-June and what else is there to do ... watch baseball? -- see how many of these 16 questions you can get right. (Because of yours truly's age, these questions will focus on the last 20 years or so.)

These questions were painstakingly considered and certainly not picked at random or on whims. Good luck.

Answer too many incorrectly and you might have an existential crisis on your hands.

Should that happen, just know you have until the fall to make things right.

QUESTIONS
1. The immortal Jacob Stewart recorded one career interception -- what was the name of the stadium in which he accomplished the momentous feat?

2. In 2002, Michigan defeated Washington to open the season on a last-second field goal by Philip Brabbs. On the final drive, Braylon Edwards fumbled a fourth-down reception (well, Washington fans might say "fumbled" a fourth-down "reception.") Who recovered the fumble?

3. "In the Big House" made its debut in 2011, brought to, naturally, the Big House by the band Pop Evil. From which Michigan town do the band members hail?

4. Yours truly once saw Calvin Magee, Michigan's former offensive coordinator, picking up food at a no-longer-existing Ann Arbor eatery. Which eatery was it?

5. Before John Navarre attained immortality and won a Big Ten championship at Michigan, he was at one point committed to another school. Which school was it?

6. Follow-up to question No. 5: the immortal John Navarre, after decommitting from the answer to question No. 5, attempted to get a scholarship spot at another school that was not Michigan. He didn't get it because the school had already taken two quarterbacks in the class. One of those quarterbacks became a future longtime NFL backup. Who was he?

7. The immortal Drew Dileo came to Ann Arbor by way of Louisiana, a state Michigan historically hasn't had much success recruiting. But Dileo, in fact, carried the torch from a fellow Pelican Stater who was on the roster the year prior to Dileo's arrival. Who was Dileo's Louisianan predecessor?

8. The immortal Chad Henne got the surprise start as a true freshman for the 2004 season opener when Matt Gutierrez was sidelined by an injury sustained in pregame warm-ups. Of course, Michigan won and the rest is history. Michigan's opponent that day started a new quarterback, too -- who was that team's starter the year before?

9. "The last time Brian Griese ran that far, his daddy was chasing him with a stick." Who said it, and when?

10. Rich Rodriguez had a tough time at Michigan, but especially against Ohio State. In his first season as head coach, the Wolverines lost at Ohio State, 42-7. What was the score at halftime?

11. How many times did Wisconsin pass during the second half of the 2010 game in Ann Arbor?

12. Without looking, how do you spell the name of the immortal running back who galloped for 313 yards against Ohio State in 1995?

13. Carl Grapentine's voice has filled the Big House for a long time. He's been the PA man full-time since 2006 (he filled in a few games for Howard King in 2005). But Mr. Grapentine isn't just about football -- in fact, he's hosted a radio show for far longer than he's welcomed the band to the field. On which Chicago radio station does he lend his voice on weekday mornings?

14. Who was the immortal -- wink wink -- Michigan defensive lineman who started 12 games in each of the 2001 and 2002 seasons and whose last name matches that of a Biblical figure?

15. Who were the four "metallic" defenders of the 1990s (think names)?

16. The reverse/end around is a beautiful play. As far as trick plays go for Old Michigan, they were decidedly subversive. You think it's going here, friend, but no! Who was Michigan's unofficial Designated Reverse/End Around Man of the early 2000s?

For the answers to these pointed, important questions, hit the jump. Answer at least five correctly and you have earned the right to print your answers, laminate the page and wear it pinned to your shirt at Michigan's season opener in Texas later this year.

That way, people will know you are true blue.





ANSWERS
1. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome -- a kind place it was.

2. Tyrece Butler, of course. (With today's replay system, there's no doubt a hypothetical review process for that particular play would have taken at least 10 minutes. And, who knows, maybe that hypothetical delay would've changed the flow of the game, its result and, thus, the course of history.

3. Muskegon. I have nothing else to add here.

4. Bell's Pizza (RIP). I don't know what he ordered. Calzone, maybe.

5. Northwestern, before Gary Barnett ultimately left Evanston for the Colorado job.

6. Navarre sought to play for Barry Alvarez, but the Badgers coach had promised his two quarterback commits he would not take any additional quarterbacks in the class. The future NFL backup in that Wisconsin class? Jim Sorgi. (Bonus fact: Alvarez asked Navarre to play defense. Check out this article from the ancient internet.)

7. Why, that would be fellow wide receiver and the eminently-Louisianan-sounding LaTerryal Savoy, of Mamou, Louisiana. He only made one career start (2008 Illinois) but he came up with two big catches during the game-winning drive of the 2009 Notre Dame game.

8. The opponent, Miami (OH) -- coached by the late Terry Hoeppner -- had to replace Ben Roethlisberger. In case you are curious, Josh Betts started that 2004 game for the RedHawks. The more you know.

9. Keith Jackson said it during Michigan's 1997 drubbing of Penn State in Happy Valley.



10. 14-7. I, then a college sophomore, was there. There could not have been more than a couple hundred Michigan fans in Ohio Stadium that day. Brandon Minor scored near the end of the first half. There wasn't much else to cheer about that day; that is, other than the season's merciful end.

11. Once. I was also there for that one. It was my last home game as a student. Montee Ball and future should've-been-Super-Bowl-MVP James White ran for a combined 354 yards (6.8 YPC). Calling it grim doesn't do it justice. Imagine a schoolyard bully holding a younger kid's head away at an arm's length as the youngster flails and shouts. Actually, it was more like the older kid just pummeling the younger kid. As for Wisconsin's lone pass of the second half? It resulted in a fumble, recovered by Michigan.

12. Tshimanga Biakabutuka. Most people around campus, I imagine, just called him Tim.

13. 98.7 WFMT in Chicago -- classical music on weekday mornings for Carl, the Michigan Marching Band on Saturdays.

14. The immortal Shawn Lazarus. The very idea of him is reborn in your mind, now.

15. Sam Sword, Ian Gold, Jarrett Irons and Glen Steele. The 1990s were truly a golden age for many things, but especially Michigan football names.

16. The immortal Calvin Bell. In 2001, Bell carried the ball 14 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns, good for a transcendent 21.4 percent touchdown rate. That, of course, put Bell among the greats of the game. They didn't call him Calvin "A Touchdown Every Five Carries" Bell in 2001 for nothing.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Michigan 68, Oregon 69: End of the line

After 20 minutes, Michigan trailed by two -- but it felt like it should have been much more. 

After 40 minutes, Michigan lost by one -- but it felt like it should have been much less, another outcome, a different narrative track. 

Michigan led 68-65 with 2:04 left in the game when Oregon's Dylan Ennis stepped up to the line for the front end of a one-and-one. He missed, but Jordan Bell (16 points, 13 rebounds), who helped Oregon dominate the interior all game, grabbed the offensive rebound and scored to cut Michigan's lead to one. 

If Michigan grabs the rebound there, maybe the game selects a different path down the Plinko-esque road to the finish. 

Tyler Dorsey (7-for-15, 20 points) scored what proved to be the winning bucket with 1:09 to play. DJ Wilson's three-point attempt fell off the mark on the next possession, and, on the final play, senior Derrick Walton took the last shot of his Michigan career, one he's taken, and made, many times before. 

Between the legs, hesitation, stepback. Start, stop, go go go. The Walton waltz is a familiar dance, one that lulls defenders to sleep with its suddenness and precision, both horizontally and vertically. 

His final shot looked like so many others in his Michigan career, which was four years long but felt like 10. The seconds ticked off, one by one. He made his move and fired, the same way he had so many times before. 

Only this time, it fell just short, hitting the front of the rim and falling toward the floor as the final tenths of a second of his Michigan career ticked away. His hands went up around his temples, up to the source of quickly rushing memories, estuaries feeding into a sea of emotion. 

Michigan's run had come to an end. 

The seniors, Walton and Zak Irvin, came to play in their final game. Walton finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists, a remarkably unsurprising stat line from him during his two-month run through opposing defenses. Irvin scored 19 points, 14 of them in the second half. 

The first 20 minutes were mostly notable for how poorly Michigan played without getting blown out. 

Despite a typically strong do-it-all half from Walton -- who scored eight points and assisted seven of his teammates' nine field goals in the opening 20 minutes -- the Wolverines shot just 39.3 percent from the field. Luckily for them, Oregon wasn't much better (41.4 percent), and struggles from the free-throw line also hurt the Ducks. 

While the seniors stood tall, Michigan's sophomores showed their inexperience. 

Days after notching a career high in points against Louisville, Moritz Wagner (3-for-10, seven points) seemed lost. He struggled on the block defensively, and never found his rhythm on the offensive end in a half that featured several bad misses from beyond the arc. Similarly, although Wilson hit back-to-back treys in the opening three minutes, he scored just six more points the rest of the way. He attempted just two shots inside the arc all game (he missed both, including a crucial one late on a bunny that probably should have been a dunk). 

Add an underwhelming performance from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to the mix (1-for-6, two points, three turnovers), and it's a wonder Michigan was able to keep it so close. 

Despite scoring at a measly rate of 0.89 points per possession in the first half, Michigan trailed by just two at the break, 35-33. On top of that, the Wolverines limited the Ducks' transition game and strong defense from Zak Irvin helped keep Oregon's Dillon Brooks mostly in check (2-for-6, four points in the first half). 

The second half didn't go much better, but given the nature of the game, Oregon's 50-44 lead with 12 minutes left felt insurmountable. Of course, it wasn't. 

Michigan answered with a 7-0 run, but Oregon scored the next five to lead 56-51. A bucket from Irvin cut the deficit to three. Not long after, Walton followed a fadeaway two with a triple to give Michigan a 61-60 lead with 4:15 left in the game. 

Seemingly everything was going wrong for Michigan, but Walton and Irvin kept their team afloat. Even in defeat, the senior from Fishers, Ind., and his teammate from Detroit gave their careers a worthy coda. 

A Michigan free-throw boxout could have been the difference in this one. Or, it could have been Wilson's biffed layup. Or, it could have been any number of other things, big and small. 

In reality, it's not all that complicated. In a close game, Oregon made one more play at the end than did Michigan. End of story. 

The story of this team, however, is so much more than this game. It started with a roar in New York with blowouts against Marquette and SMU, then took a shaky turn at the start of conference play. At one point, making the NCAA Tournament was no certainty. Many fans expressed disappointment in the team's, especially that of Irvin and Walton, whose play was not matching their recruiting rankings or seniority. 

Gradually, Irvin found his level, and Walton picked his up, fast. Michigan went screaming through the home stretch, only bested twice, both in difficult circumstances at Northwestern (miracle buzzer-beater) and at Minnesota (overtime). 

Then, the airplane, the run in Indianapolis, the Sweet 16. You know the story. You'll never forget it. 

While any loss is disappointing, know this: this team took what was becoming a disastrous season and turned into a major success. Four wins in four days gave the Wolverines their first Big Ten Tournament title since 1998. On the petty side, Michigan somewhat avenged its 2013 national title game loss against Rick Pitino's Louisville to advance to tonight's matchup against Oregon. 

All in all, the memories, not to mention the championship banner that will go up in Crisler Center, greatly outweigh the disappointment of tonight's loss. 

Oregon won, by the slimmest of margins, but Michigan had its shot at the very end. For all its struggles throughout the game, Michigan went out on a note of self-determination: its best player with the ball in his hands and a chance to stay on the ride. 

Exactly the way it should be. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Michigan 73, Louisville 69: The rematch

Almost half the time Louisville missed a shot today, a Louisville player grabbed an offensive rebound for a second-chance opportunity. Against most teams, that kind of an overwhelming advantage on the boards would have been enough to win.

But it was not enough today against No. 7 seed Michigan, which marches on after a 73-69 victory Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis.

In almost every respect, Michigan played the quintessential John Beilein game today against No. 2 seed Louisville, all the way from the precision of its tactics to the Super Soaker-wielding coach in the locker room after the game. Say hello to my little friend, he says, waving to opposing defenders who know not whether to help on shooters, double down or posts or, in a fit of frustration, find themselves lost on the vast, floor-spaced plains, covering no one, doing nothing.

Michigan shot "just" 35 percent from three today and was out-attempted from beyond the arc by the Cardinals (17 attempts to Louisville's 20). But, outside of that, Michigan's victory this afternoon in Indianapolis came from a familiar storybook.

The Wolverines out-executed the larger, more physically imposing Cardinals, who trotted out a 7-foot Cairene from its bench when a member of its starting forest of frontcourters was felled by fouls. Also, see if this sounds familiar: Michigan turned it over just six times against an aggressive Louisville defense (see also: VCU, 2013).

Michigan also did something Beilein has done numerous times now in his Ann Arbor tenure (both in games and long term): adjusted.

Long known as a perimeter-oriented roster, Michigan has seen its focus shift subtly in the other direction this season. Yes, Derrick Walton is still the heart and soul of this team, and was every bit of that Friday afternoon against Oklahoma State. But just like Beilein's offenses shifted away from being relatively ball screen-averse, the offense has evolved far beyond what Michigan was doing, even as of January. With two skilled bigs, capable of hitting the outside shot and flummoxing bigs with above-average handles, Michigan can play position-less basketball.

Want to leave them open? They'll bury a three in your eye. Want to play tight man-to-man? They'll cut and find ways to finish at the rim. Want to guard them in the post one-one-one? Well, Moritz Wagner showed what he does to that defense today.

The versatility of Michigan's frontcourt options paid off again, just like it did twice against Purdue. Wagner tallied a career-high 26 points (11-for-14 from the field), many of them coming on easy spins against Deng Adel et al in the post or blow-bys from the perimeter.

Wagner's shot chart is ... good. 

With the win, Michigan moves on to its third Sweet 16 in five seasons. Either Oregon or Rhode Island awaits.

But there were moments when the game appeared ready to escape Michigan in predictable fashion, snowed under by a barrage of Louisville offensive rebounds and a disjointed offense at the other end.

Michigan tied things up late in the first half, but an 8-0 Louisville run in the final minute sent it into the half not feeling great about itself. It was a first-half finish reminiscent of the 2013 title game, in which Luke Hancock erased Spike Albrecht's transcendent performance with several big shots of his own.

Louisville's Mangok Mathiang put his team up nine with 16:10 to play. Not long after, Quentin Snider lined up a triple for a chance to give Louisville a 12-point lead -- it wouldn't have been insurmountable, but there are points in games where things either keep going in one direction, or, they reverse course.

Luckily for Michigan, Snider was off all afternoon, finishing 0-for-9 from the field (0-for-7 from beyond the arc).

The Wolverines slowly chipped away, tying the game at 51-51 after a pair of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman free throws with just over nine minutes remaining. Abdur-Rahkman put Michigan ahead with a layup not long after, and Michigan never trailed again the rest of the way.

D.J. Wilson added a jumper, Wagner buried a triple and Walton, who struggled with his shot all game, buried his second triple of the contest to put Michigan up 61-57 with 5:55 left.

Although Walton struggled from the field, he contributed when it counted, first with the aforementioned three and again with 30 seconds remaining on a layup to put the Wolverines up 69-65. As has typically been the case with the senior point guard, even when his shot isn't falling, he's found ways to leave his mark on a game -- in addition to 11 points, he tallied seven rebounds, six assists and zero turnovers.

Louisville grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, good for a 45 percent offensive rebounding percentage. Despite that, and the fact that the Cardinals out-attempted the Wolverines from three, Michigan punched back with the Wilson-Wagner one-two, for which Pitino had no answer. Seemingly content to afford the skilled Michigan bigs one-on-one opportunities and trade two-point baskets, that strategy burned the Cardinals.

After scoring 28 points in the first half, Michigan dropped 45 in the second. The Wolverines adjusted and proceeded to exploit the mismatches they were provided.

The result? A career day for Wagner, a 17-point day for Wilson and another Beilein team advancing past the opening weekend of the tournament.

At this point, forget about the seeds: Michigan is a good team that picked it up at the right time. Whether you want to credit Maverick Morgan, a pair of sophomores progressing rapidly or a senior igniting a team, the Wolverines have hit their stride over the last two months.

Whichever team Michigan has to face next will have its hands full. It doesn't seem like this Michigan team has any intention of seeing its season end anytime soon.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Michigan 71, Wisconsin 56: From January to champions

No matter what happened today, few would have envisioned this Wolverines run just five weeks ago.

The plane incident and the wearing of the practice jerseys are inseparable parts of this team's lore, and rightly so. Today's Big Ten Tournament championship game, however, was not necessarily about resilience or moxie, but a Michigan team culminating a spree of splendid basketball -- one that began several weeks ago -- with one more top-notch showing.

This team isn't a plucky underdog getting by on grit, some luck and hot shooting. This team is just good.

In case any doubt remained as to the growth and quality of this team, Michigan did well to quash it with a convincing 71-56 win against the Badgers Sunday afternoon in Washington D.C., good for Michigan's fourth win in four days and its first Big Ten Tournament title since 1998, the tournament's inaugural year (a title that was later vacated).

Led by another shining performance from senior Derrick Walton (22 points, six rebounds, seven assists, two steals and just one turnover), Michigan led for 39 minutes, 42 seconds (the Badgers led briefly, 6-5, early in the game).

This won't go down as the best or most talented Michigan basketball team, but they did something even those stacked teams of a few years ago -- rosters with Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Trey Burke, Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan, and so on -- failed to do.

This one won the Big Ten Tournament. Four wins in four days -- a new banner will soon rise.

The shaky Michigan of January, one for which a tournament berth seemed a dubious proposition, was ushered out the door long ago. In that January apparition's stead, a reforged Walton, increasingly confident Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson, and Zak Irvin, once lost but then refound, led the way on the road to March.

Since Michigan's listless Feb. 4 home loss against Ohio State, they've been one of the best teams in the country, winning nine of 11 coming into today (with losses coming in overtime at Minnesota and on a last-second shot for the ages at Northwestern).

After defeating Illinois, top-seeded Purdue and Minnesota, only No. 2 seed Wisconsin -- against whom they split the regular-season series -- stood between the Wolverines and a conference tournament title.

For all of Irvin's well-documented struggles in late January and into February, the senior notched solid regular-season performances against the Badgers, scoring a combined 38 points on 15-for-28 shooting. He tallied a quick six points early today en route to nine first-half points, but fellow senior was the star of the first 20 minutes, putting up his first 12 points by making four of his first five three-point attempts.

Michigan extended its lead to 10 at 30-20 with five minutes left in the half. However, a 12-3 Wisconsin run, capped by a Bronson Koenig triple just before the buzzer, cut it to one at the break. Koenig, who did not play in the matchup at Crisler Center, tallied 13 first-half points on 5-for-7 shooting.

Michigan came out of the second half with a 6-0 run, with Wisconsin tallying its first points 5 minutes, 19 seconds into the half on a pair of Nigel Hayes free throws (the Badgers didn't convert their first field goal until more than eight minutes had elapsed in the half).

Almost two minutes later, Irvin extended Michigan's lead back to 10 with a strong and-1 take at the rim, putting him in double figures for each of Michigan's four tournament games.

With Wisconsin's offense scuffling, struggling with turnovers and, quite frankly, failing to convert some good looks, Michigan looked to keep its foot on the gas and avoid a fate similar to its regular-season collapse against Virginia Tech.

With just over eight minutes to play, a Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman triple hit the rim, bounced up approximately five feet, contemplated the meaning of life before swishing in and giving Michigan an 11-point lead -- it was just that kind of day. The Badgers quickly cut the deficit to six, however, with six minutes to play.

On the ensuing possession, Irvin again answered the call, this time curling around a screen for a catch-and-shoot at the arc over Jordan Hill to beat the shot clock and push the lead back to nine. Not long after, Duncan Robinson buried a triple from essentially the same spot on the same curl. After a stretch featuring several dribble-heavy possessions, Michigan was, as they say, "running its stuff" with precision.

 And just to cement the fact that this was Michigan's day, a frantic loose ball situation after Wisconsin pressured on an inbound pass led to a Wilson outlet pass to Abdur-Rahkman for a breakaway dunk. Then it was Wilson's turn for a breakaway dunk, then Walton's for a breakaway layup.

Up 13 with 1:08 left, chants of "Let's Go Blue" rang out, presaging the celebration of Michigan's tournament title.

It's hard to believe that, after all of this, there's still basketball to be played. Michigan will learn its NCAA Tournament seeding later today (but indications are it might be a 6-seed).

Whatever happens, the last four days gave Michigan fans a ride they won't soon forget.

And with few teams playing better basketball than the Wolverines right now, another ride could be on its way.

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.