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.

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