Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Michigan 74, Minnesota 69: Just enough

Looking to bounce back once again from a loss against top-notch competition, the Wolverines welcomed a struggling Minnesota squad to Ann Arbor tonight.

For most of the first half, Michigan appeared ready to deliver its third conference win by double digits. Then Carlos Morris went on one-man run, Nate Mason turned it on in the second half, and Michigan's offense struggled when Zak Irvin went quiet after an impressive first half.

Despite it all, the Wolverines did what they needed to do against a, quite frankly, very bad Minnesota team, notching a 74-69 win -- and eighth straight win at home -- to move to 14-5 (4-2) on the season.

Say what you will about the opponent -- a quality win this was not. Richard Pitino's Gophers were 6-12 heading into tonight's contest and No. 203 in the KenPom rankings.

Still, once again without the injured Caris LeVert, the Wolverines would have to take care of business. Given the string of upsets dotting the college basketball landscape of late -- particularly when you look just down the way in East Lansing -- no game is a sure thing.

The Wolverines raced out to a 22-9 lead about halfway though the first half, aided by a strong start downtown from Duncan Robinson and Irvin. The biggest surprise of the half, perhaps, was Robinson going on to miss five straight from beyond the arc after a 2-for-2 start. Yes, he is in fact not a three-point shooting automaton.

Without checking, I'd imagine that's probably that's the first time that's happened this season for Robinson. Even so, he's still shooting 53.5 percent for the season.

As Michigan started to cool down, the Gophers cut it to eight late in the half, but an Irvin triple summarily ended the brief gust of confidence that followed a Bakary Konate putback slam.

But Minnesota surged again, paced by eight straight points from Morris and a strong finish through a trio of Wolverines by big man Jordan Murphy.

Just like that, U-M carried just a 37-30 lead into the break, despite Minnesota shooting just 37 percent from the field.

Luckily for Michigan, Irvin was on like a toaster at 7 a.m. Irvin tallied 15 first-half points, the only U-M player to reach double-digits in the opening 20 minutes. Irvin splashed shots from outside and beat defenders to the rim for easy twos on several occasions, flashing the do-it-all ability we saw late last season. On top of the scoring, he led the Wolverines on the boards and in the assist department.

However, Mason picked up where Morris left off, with nine points early in the second half to keep the visitors hanging around.

Unfortunately for Michigan, its inability to stop penetration from Minnesota's guards -- stop me if you've heard that before this season -- and an inability to do much of anything offensively against a bad defense made this somewhat of a nail-biter when it shouldn't have been. Sans Irvin, Michigan's offense wasn't doing much of anything in the second half. Irvin scored two early second half buckets, then proceeded to disappear from the attack over the next six minutes or so.

And at the halfway mark of the second, Michigan led just 50-47, the wind in Minnesota's sails like a viking ship en route to plunder -- or, more conservatively, a shot at a Big Ten road win, which has to be worth a trinket or two.

Down the stretch, Minnesota proved unable to make the plays it needed, and Michigan got key triples from Aubrey Dawkins and Derrick Walton to give U-M the breathing room to coast to a win concluded by a free-throw shooting contest.

After scoring a combined 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting against Illinois and Penn State, Walton has now scored 10-plus points in four straight games, with a team-high 22 tonight. He wasn't particularly efficient tonight (5-for-13 from the field, 1-for-6 from three), but he hit big shots in the final 10 minutes when Michigan couldn't seem to buy a bucket.

So, this wasn't a particularly aesthetically pleasing 40 minutes of basketball (saying nothing of the foul-fest at the end) but a dynamic first half from Irvin and an ability to win despite a rough night from beyond the arc (29%, 9-for-31) should be enough for even the nitpickiest of fans. (Sadly, Minnesota was even worse from beyond the arc, shooting just 27 percent.)

And I think I speak for everyone when I say that the day we don't have to see shots of sad Caris LeVert on the bench will be a good one, as encouraging as Michigan's play without him has been.

Next up, Michigan heads to Lincoln to face a Nebraska squad that just upset Michigan State. Needless to say, another listless effort and the Wolverines won't be as lucky to pull out a win against Shavon Shields and Co.

Nebraska is just 12-8 on the season, but they'll carry a four-game winning streak into Saturday's contest against the Wolverines in Pinnacle Bank Arena.

That gym promises to be loud. Michigan will have to hope its play is louder.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Michigan 70, Maryland 67: Going downtown

Going downtown can be a good thing. One could be going downtown for a fun time, to see the sights.

Or, going downtown, in hokey police-speak, could mean you're in trouble, set for a night of heavy interrogation in a sterile, fluorescently lit room.

That was much of the story tonight against the visiting No. 3 Maryland Terrapins. In the first half, Michigan shot the lights out from downtown. In the second, not so much, to the point that it squandered a 13-point lead.

But when it came down to it, Derrick Walton (12 points, 10 rebounds), who hasn't had a great season to date, made big shots. And in the final minute, Mark Donnal pulled down a key offensive rebound and knocked down a free throw to help the Wolverines pull out their first win against a top-5 team since January 2014.

We all knew the story: in four games against top-notch competition, Michigan took four losses by double-digit margins.

And once again without Caris LeVert, the Wolverines tried to score their first statement win of the season. Just like the last game, a double-digit loss at Purdue, Michigan would have to overcome yet another major size mismatch in the paint against a Maryland team carrying a 12-game conference winning streak heading into the game (dating back to last season).

Fifth time's the charm, they say.

Michigan jumped out to an 11-6 lead early with triples from Walton, Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson (checked by the 6-9 Jake Layman).

Predictably, Michigan struggled to contain Maryland's frontcourters. Layman and Robert Carter combined for 20 first-half points on 8-of-10 shooting.

Meanwhile, Michigan was paced, of course, by lights-out shooting from beyond the arc, with Duncan Robinson prompting Dick Vitale to start rattling off a list of all-time great three-point shooters.

(This sandwich I made is great. Zingerman's. Maize and Blue Deli. Dimo's. I want to see this sandwich one-on-one in a sandwich contest against these guys.-Dick Vitale)

Michigan finished the half 8-of-15 from three with an eFG% of 64 percent (to Maryland's 52%), and a buzzer-beating tip-in by Donnal off of an Irvin miss sent the Wolverines riding high into the half up 37-29.

Robinson kept the good vibes going with a triple in the first minute of the second-frame, and a gust of chilly Ann Arbor wind pushed Michigan to a 13-point lead a little more than three minutes into the second half.

That evaporated quickly.

Diamond Stone ground the Wolverines down in the paint, scoring eight straight points and cutting the Maryland deficit to four. Meanwhile, Robinson went quiet for Michigan -- actually, the entire Michigan offense went dead silent for a span of about eight minutes.

The threes were splashing in the first half, but the Wolverines would need to find an answer when they inevitably stopped falling (or, rather, stopped getting the looks) -- because just like that, a Layman two just before the under-eight timeout tied it, 54-all.

With 7:23 to play, Michigan needed to find itself, fast, especially with Stone continuing to bully Michigan inside like a Monstar in isolation on Tweety Bird.

A nifty two at the rim from Robinson and a Burke-esque step-back triple from Walton gave Michigan some breathing room, a 64-59 lead with 3:33 to play. Walton has struggled this season on both ends of the floor, but hit the aforementioned triple and another jumper to keep Michigan afloat after the long scoring shortage.

But two Rasheed Sulaimon triples and two Stone free throws made it a two-point game with 40 seconds to play.

Not over yet.

With Maryland getting an opportunity to get the ball back after a stop, Walton drove left but missed off the glass. Luckily for Michigan, Donnal was there to grab the rebound.

Out of the Michigan timeout, Donnal buried 1-of-2 free throws to make it a three-point game. Michigan opted not to foul on Maryland's final possession, with a game-ending attempt by Sulaimon.

This time, Sulaimon missed, and Michigan scored its first resume-building win of the season, even without its leading scorer.

Perhaps lost in Stone's dominance (22 points, 11 rebounds) was Trimble's rough night (1-of-7, 2 points). Michigan clamped down on the standout guard, and shooting guard Sulaimon finished just 3-of-10, even with the two late triples.

Unsurprisingly, Michigan was handled in the frontcourt. Carter, Layman and Stone combined for 50 points on 21-of-34 shooting (62%).

Michigan counteracted that with a blazing first-half from beyond the arc, and a final six minutes in which they made just enough plays to squeak by with the win. Irvin led the Wolverines with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Robinson finished with 17 (6-of-10, 5-of-9 from three).

Donnal pitched in eight points, nine rebounds and two steals.

With the win, Michigan moved to 13-4 (3-1) on the season. The Wolverines' brutal three-game stretch comes to an end Sunday when they pay a visit to No. 16 Iowa.

But for now, on a night of upsets in college basketball, it's okay to celebrate and worry about the rest later.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Michigan 70, Purdue 87: Too Tall

NB: Missed about the first 17 minutes of this one (6 p.m. CT starts, I'm not a fan of you). 

Riding high off of two Big Ten wins by double-digit margins, the Wolverines headed to West Lafayette, where two towers stood.

Despite a career night from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (25 points, 10-of-16), the Wolverines couldn't find that extra gear to make it a one-bucket game in the second half, falling to 12-4 (2-1) on the season.

In addition to facing a tough Purdue team on the road, the Boilermakers roster is one that one that strikes against Michigan's biggest weakness: the interior. Mark Donnal's success in the Illinois and Penn State games was not likely to repeated against Purdue's A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn't, as Donnal scored three points on two attempts in the first half (he finished with 7), and picked up his second foul with just under eight minutes to play in the first half.

And after a somewhat quiet first half, Hammons did Michigan in in the second, finishing with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting and a quartet of no-sir blocks (4 blocks).

Even so, the Wolverines (once again without Caris LeVert) led 23-19 with 5:32 left in the half.

That is, until Purdue put the pedal to the metal and scored 12 straight, eventually heading into the half up 35-28.

Michigan did an okay job containing Hammons on paper in the first half (6 points, 4 rebounds), and the Boilermakers rebounded "just" 26 percent of their misses (which isn't bad for Michigan given the personnel mismatch).

Purdue's defense, however, was stifling, as it often is. Michigan shot just 32.3 percent from the field in the first half, while Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin went a combined 2-of-9 from the floor.

Given the mismatch inside, this was another classic "can Michigan outshoot its opponent from downtown" game. The Wolverines shot 35.7 percent from three in the first 20 minutes (5-of-14) -- they'd have to be even better in the second to have a chance.

In fact, they were, finishing 40.7 percent for the game, which is pretty good. But it wasn't enough, as Hammons and Co. locked Michigan down when they needed to. Rapheal Davis negated everyone he checked and Hammons blocked or altered a number of forays to the basket.

In the first chunk of the second half, Hammons exploited single coverage on the rare occasion he got it, then deftly found the open man on the outside when Michigan double- or triple-teamed him.

The Boilers extended the lead to 11, at which point it seemed things could get out of hand. But with the aid of Abdur-Rahkman's confident playmaking and an array of tough shots tossed off of the glass with geometrical expertise, the Wolverines stayed in it.

About halfway through the second half, the announcers kept remarking how it didn't feel like a 5-point game ... and really, it didn't.

A key moment late -- Donnal bobbles a pass/gets stripped by Davis going toward the basket, Purdue heads the other way with speed, rotates the ball and Davis splashes a corner triple to up the lead to nine with eight minutes left.

That, however, was just one of several similar sequences in the final 10 minutes. Michigan gets an opening, doesn't take advantage and Purdue makes them pay.

Michigan did begin to trouble the Boilermakers with pressure in the final 10 minutes, pressure which flummoxed Purdue against Iowa, too. It worked, as the Wolverines were able to turn some Purdue turnovers into points.

Every time Michigan got it down to six or seven, however, the Boilers had an answer. And when Hammons hit a triple with about three minutes left to up Purdue's lead to 16 -- making another 12-0 run for Purdue -- that was all she wrote.

Michigan was never able to crack through that 5-point deficit marker, in a game that was simultaneously, paradoxically, not as close it looks on paper, yet closer than it looks on paper.

With LeVert out and this being a road game against a pretty good team, I don't think anyone expected a win tonight. But Michigan can't use that as an excuse, particularly with upcoming matchups against Maryland and at Iowa. Michigan needs to rack up some quality wins (especially on the road) -- the next two games will provide that opportunity.

Michigan will hope that LeVert gets better soon, but, more importantly, it'll need players not named Abdur-Rahkman to bring it, too.

Fortunately for John Beilein and Co., they won't have to face that Purdue frontcourt again until Feb. 13.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Michigan 41, Florida 7: Never in doubt

Only until something comes to an end can you take a breath and really understand the things that have happened.

In 2015, Michigan doubled its 2014 win total. It did that with a collection of running backs that cobbled together might make a solid feature back, a low-upside quarterback beaten out in Iowa City, a defense that lost what might have been its best frontline player before the season (next year we'll know for sure).

It did it with a cloud of doubt lingering above, like carbon monoxide, surreptitious and deadly. Maybe Michigan could never be again. Maybe it was all just a feverish mirage, the Michigan we once knew.

But against No. 19 Florida in Orlando on Saturday, Michigan put on its most dominant bowl-game performance we've seen in some time. Forget about all the losses, of course, and even the relatively "recent" bowl wins -- 2008 against Florida, 2003 against Florida, the trio of wins from 1999-2001 against Arkansas, Alabama and Auburn -- were relatively close. Michigan beat Arkansas by 14, but you'd have to go back to the 42-7 Hall of Fame Bowl win against N.C. State on Jan. 1, 1994, for a bowl win as dominant as this one. You'd have to go back to the 1991 thumping of Ole Miss by Desmond Howard and Co. for a bowl win against an SEC team as dominant as this one.

I suppose that a season marked by "it's been a while since" statements should conclude so fittingly.

Sans two runs by Treon Harris and Kelvin Taylor for 22 and 21 yards, respectively, Michigan held the Gators to 75 yards rushing on 25 carries (3 YPC). Harris completed just eight of 21 passes for 146 yards, one interception into the breadbasket of Jarrod Wilson and no touchdown passes.

Coming into this one, it was obvious that UF's offense wouldn't be able to consistently challenge Michigan's injury-affected defense, even after the confidence-shakers that were the Indiana and Ohio State games.

Even so, the Wolverines exceeded even the already lofty expectations many fans had. Florida players compared Michigan's front to Alabama's, which, in this world of Harbaugh, isn't as hyperbolic as one might think. The Wolverines held UF to fewer points than the Crimson Tide, and Harris, while not great by any means, was slightly more effective against Alabama. Sure, UF had issues on the offensive line, to say the least, but to even approach a reasonable juxtaposition with an Alabama defense is an accomplishment in and of itself.

What can you say about this game? Like a movie with a 90-plus percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it's a masterpiece that doesn't need much exposition.

The performances, the script, the cinematography, the score (that's always good): all perfect.

This wasn't about the SEC and the Big Ten -- this was about one team simply being leagues ahead of another. Michigan was better in every facet of the game, and it wasn't even close.

It's one thing to feel that way after a home win against BYU, or a road win at Penn State, or even a what-could've-been loss against eventual Big Ten champion and playoff participant Michigan State. It's another to so seamlessly transition from the regular season to the second season and then thoroughly handle a team that was elite on one side of the ball, at least, in its own state.

Now, comes the hard part.

Before moving on, after Alabama and Clemson have played to conclude the season in earnest, the realization that some players won't be coming back will set in.

When Michigan recruited Sione Houma, for example, I had high hopes for him, just like I do every recruit. I know they all can't be starters, or even contributors, but you root for every one of them to succeed.

And for three years, Houma was a little-noticed piece of the team. It wasn't until this year that he became a serious contributor -- if Michigan had not gotten Harbaugh, perhaps he wouldn't have had this chance at all.

When all was said and done, Houma carried it 43 times this season for 184 yards and five touchdowns, including a majestic 27-yard romp against Michigan State. The fullback dive isn't just some ironic dinosaur -- it is intent, personified. This year, it was Houma and Joe Kerridge.

Going forward, it'll be someone else.

If there's anything to take from this season, it's the revisiting of old things: the fullback dive, the line stacked like a two-story peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a defensive line shuffling incessantly and without mercy.

Of course, Houma's not the only one. If anyone predicted Rudock's revival, they are a clairvoyant, because early returns were not promising.

But take Mark Donnal's recent surge on the hardwood, multiply it by several orders of magnitude and degrees of difficulty, and you have something like what Rudock accomplished this season.

As you probably know, Rudock became just the second quarterback in Michigan history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a single season. Fittingly, the first, John Navarre, was another guy who started somewhat unimpressively but rounded out into one of the best Michigan signal-callers on paper -- a Big Ten title to his name didn't hurt, either.

In fan lore, Rudock is a strange case. A grad transfer, we didn't really have that incubatory "getting to know you" phase, in which recruits become players become favorites. Even so, by his play alone and his demeanor on the field and after the game, assisted by Harbaugh's coaching, it's as if we saw a full career arc, accelerated. Early struggles, a light going on ... then?

Never in doubt.


Every final chapter requires an epilogue. This isn't the final chapter, but the first.

Michigan tallied its first 10-win season since 2011, and its ninth since Bo Schembechler coached his last season in 1989.

Something tells me double-digit win seasons will become the norm rather than something that happens, on average, about once every three years.

And this was in year 1, with somebody else's players, a supposed "stopgap" quarterback and an assemblage of skill players that didn't inspire confidence heading into the season.

But Jehu Chesson pulled his best 2006-Mario-Manningham-oh-wide-open impression against Florida, De'Veon Smith refuses to be tackled by defensive backs and the offensive line has transformed from severe liability to pretty good.

And most of these guys are back. Other than Rudock and Houma, Michigan loses Wilson, Desmond Morgan, Joe Bolden and James Ross, plus Royce-Jenkins Stone and, of course, Mario Ojemudia. Linebacker is a question mark, but Michigan returns a knockout defensive line, a talented secondary, and, you know, Jabrill Peppers, who can play everything from corner to long snapper (I mean, probably). Throw in a dash of talented young players and you're cooking once again, as Harbaugh continues to participate in the world's longest and most intense episode of football Chopped. 

The schedule next year is tough -- there'll be more than enough time to talk about that between now and as mentioned, the roster won't be without holes to start the year.

With that said, 2015 was an exercise in belief. Michigan might not make the playoffs next year -- really, who knows.

But whatever happens, there's no doubt that it'll have a chance. That's an assertion that can only emanate from one source: the very top.

Despite losing a nonconference game and two rivalry games -- both in excruciating fashion -- things are good.

This is only the beginning -- and what is more tantalizing, more captivating, more hopeful, than beginnings?

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Michigan 79, Penn State 56: Donnal doing work

The Michigan basketball team saw what Jim Harbaugh's squad did in Orlando yesterday and took its best shot to top it.

And shoot away they did, burying the visiting Penn State Nittany Lions in a flurry of threes en route to the Wolverines' second-straight double-digit win to kick off Big Ten play.

Michigan finished 14-of-25 from beyond the arc (56%) with sharpshooter Duncan Robinson finishing "just" 3-of-8 from downtown.

The defensively tough Nittany Lions had no answer for Michigan, leaving shooters open throughout the first half, which concluded with Michigan carrying a 49-28 lead.

Of course, the story of the young conference season is Mark Donnal, who has struggled mightily on both ends of the floor in his career to date.

But after a holiday season spent meditating in Dagobah, Donnal has emerged a different player.

Against Illinois on Wednesday in Champaign, Donnal filled it up, scoring 28 points on 11-of-15 shooting, plus 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals. Naturally, against an Illinois team without a strong frontcourt presence, one could have reasonably considered his career performance a fluke.

Today provided additional data to the contrary -- Michigan might have something in Donnal, a something John Beilein must have seen when he recruited him to Ann Arbor.

The redshirt sophomore pitched in 16 points on 7-of-10 from the field (his first miss coming with about three minutes left in the game).

Against PSU, however, he did his work exclusively at the rim, converting deftly at the hoop when dished to on the roll. For Michigan bigs, even simply catching the pass is a step in the right direction, as others, namely Ricky Doyle, have struggled in that department. Even Donnal, when catching near the rim in the past, often seemed overwhelmed, sometimes even unwilling to go up with the shot.

Whatever happened between the end of nonconference play and the Dec. 30 trip to Champaign, it worked for Donnal, and it'll work well for Michigan if he keeps it going.

Penn State is not going dancing this year, but to blow a team out that gave No. 4 Maryland a tough time just a few days ago makes for an encouraging result.

Oh, and the Wolverines did all this without Caris LeVert, who sat out after getting his ankle stepped on late in the Illinois game.

Zak Irvin made up for LeVert's absence by providing the assist-making ability he flashed in the later stages of last season. In addition to 16 points, Irvin tallied a team-high 7 assists. While Beilein said Irvin likely won't be 100 percent this season, he's looking far closer to it than he did previously.

That said, that statement is made true largely by the fact that his outside shot, his bread and butter with which he's struggled early in the season, has started to fall of late. Break out the bread and the Land O'Lakes butter, because Irvin is cooking again. In two Big Ten games, Irvin is 6-of-11 from three (he's 22% for the season). Expect that season figure to rise.

The only Wolverine with a down afternoon was point guard Derrick Walton, who went 2-of-6 from the field and turned it over six times. Hey, it happens.

Elsewhere, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman pitched in 14 points, while Robinson added 6 assists to his 9 points. Aubrey Dawkins scored 13 on 5-of-5 shooting (3-of-3 from beyond the arc).

Aside from Walton's off day and Michigan's brief trouble with Penn State's 2-3 zone in the second half, this was just about as close to perfect of a performance as one could ask for to start the calendar year.

With the win, Michigan moved to 12-3 (2-0) on the season. Next up? Michigan heads to West Lafayette on Thursday to take on a Purdue team featuring a pair of imposing twin towers in Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons.

If Michigan is to avoid the fate it met against Xavier, UConn and SMU, it'll need another team-wide effort to have a shot at a victory.

And I never thought I'd write this, but that effort might start, and end, with one Mark Donnal.