Sunday, February 28, 2016

Michigan 57, Wisconsin 68: Good 20, not quite 40

Unlike Wednesday night against Northwestern, Michigan came out firing in Madison.

Zak Irvin, in particular, led the charge with seven early points as Michigan jumped out to a 9-2 lead and the offense organically generated open looks.

Also unlike the last game, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman didn't get on the board until four minutes had elapsed in the second half.

The most obvious point of divergence from the last game: the final score. Michigan played a strong first 20, but couldn't follow up on that first-half effort, as the Wolverines (20-10, 10-7) fell 68-57 in Madison.

Irvin led the way with 14 points. Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson and Ricky Doyle each added 10 apiece.

Bronson Koenig led UW with 19, while Nigel Hayes (16), Ethan Happ (12), and Vitto Brown (14) also made big contributions.

Michigan attempted just 13 3-pointers in the game (making 5 of them), while the Badgers shot 21 -- I'm not sure how many times Michigan has been out-attempted from beyond the arc this season, but it played a role in the result tonight, as Michigan just doesn't have enough juice inside the paint to win against solid competition (which UW most definitely has been since we flipped over to 2016).

With the win, the Badgers have now won 10 of 11 and move into the top four in the conference standings, an improbable sentence given their early-season struggles.

The Wolverines and Badgers raced to the half after a competitive 20 minutes, with the former up just one -- Michigan was 20 minutes away from just about locking up an NCAA Tournament berth.

But nothing comes that easy with this team.

Mark Donnal picked up his third foul in the first minute of the second half. Michigan played a relatively solid first half of defense -- Wisconsin was saved on a few scrambled possessions with fortuitous openings and late shot-clock shots -- but the Wolverines would need to get it going, as they were fortunate the Badgers missed good looks in the first.

It was all a matter of when the inevitable Badgers run would come. And with Michigan leading 40-39, the home team turned it on, going on an 8-0 run and energizing the Kohl Center crowd.

But as the half went on, Michigan began to miss open looks of its own, killing its comeback effort. Derrick Walton missed an uncontested layup in transition and a possession later Irvin missed a somewhat contested layup after a Walton steal.

That's about all there was to say about this one. Michigan missed its opportunities to inch closer down the stretch -- and with Irvin pressing to make plays, turnovers followed -- while the Badgers made key shots to keep the Wolverines at bay.

The silver linings? Irvin had a strong first half, hunting his shots and making them, before fading in the second. In addition, Doyle made an impact on the game with 10 points (5-for-5), including a thunderous alley-oop dunk and a strong finish at the rim through contact, not to mention a nice catch and finish on a tricky arcing feed from Abdur-Rahkman. It isn't much, but Doyle's performance is a nice little footnote on what was otherwise not a great night for the visiting Wolverines.

Now, Michigan turns to its regular-season finale against an ailing Iowa team, which lost tonight against Ohio State in Columbus. The loss, Iowa's fourth in their last five games, pushes the Hawkeyes out of the top four, for the moment, due to a tiebreaker with the Badgers.

Fortunately for Michigan, a win against Iowa would be a win against a ranked team, ailing one or not.

A loss at home and Michigan will head to the conference tournament with a far greater mental weight than it would otherwise have.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Michigan 72, Northwestern 63: The bucketmaker

Zak Irvin drove to the basket for Michigan's first bucket, almost six minutes into the game -- fitting on a cold night across the country, as snow sprinkled softly across the land.

By then, visiting Northwestern already built a 10-0 lead before Irvin's two in front of a far-from-capacity Crisler Center crowd. Atmosphere and execution formed one homogeneous arena-shaped blob of listless discontent.

Despite its cold start, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman's 19 points, 16 points from Derrick Walton and a big second half from Aubrey Dawkins led Michigan (20-9, 10-6) to a much-needed 72-63 win against the Wildcats on Wednesday night in Ann Arbor.

Michigan overcame a brutal night from beyond the arc (4-for-15) to score its sixth in a row against Northwestern in Ann Arbor.

Coming into tonight, Michigan's tournament ticket balanced precariously in the air -- a gust of wind, good fortune, would send the ticket flying nearly into its grasp. Or, gravity would do its work, sending said ticket hurtling just inches above a metaphorical paper shredder below.

Jerry Palm placed Michigan in the "last four in" category heading into tonight. A loss would necessitate the tall task of a win at Wisconsin or at home against Iowa, not to mention likely at least one win in the Big Ten tournament.

It wasn't pretty, but conference play often isn't. Northwestern big man Alex Olah once again had his way with the Wolverines, scoring 14 first-half points, while the home team started 0-for-8 from beyond the arc -- a familiar story, to be sure.

Slowly but surely, however, Michigan clawed back into it, led by Abdur-Rahkman's nine first-half points. And just in time, Duncan Robinson buried Michigan's first triple of the game as time expired on the first half, sending Michigan into the break down by just one.

In the second, however, Michigan would have to find a way to check Olah, who made hay in the paint and flashed the ability to stretch the defense with mid-range jumpers (and even one three).

But just like the first, Michigan creaked out of the gates.

Multiple Michigan turnovers paired with an 8-0 NU run once again put the Wolverines in catch-up mode. Early in the half, the Wolverines had already tallied nine turnovers, and continued their cold first-half shooting from three, missing their first two attempts of the second half.

While Irvin and Robinson's shots were off, Abdur-Rahkman continued to make it happen, including a nifty spin into a left-handed layup. A couple minutes later, he maneuvered around the elbow to drop a slick bounce pass to Ricky Doyle on the right block for two.

After a strong effort at Maryland (16 points, 9 assists) and two weeks ago at Minnesota (16 points), the sophomore Abdur-Rahkman has increasingly flashed his value to the team, as an individual playmaker and as a sometimes capable distributor (the latter of which was notoriously not in his arsenal, even earlier this season and certainly not as a freshman).

For a guy who was seemingly lost in the shuffle of preseason ruminations on the minutes hierarchy, he's done quite well to take advantage of his opportunities of late.

A Dawkins triple tied it at 44 with just over 11 minutes to play. A Northwestern turnover on the next possession gave the Crisler crowd new life.

And, speaking of guys lost in the shuffle, Kam Chatman gave Michigan its first lead of the game with a pair of free throws after tough work on the offensive glass.

NU briefly retook the lead, but yet another strong drive for two by Abdur-Rahkman and Dawkins's third triple of the game gave Michigan a 57-54 advantage with 4:15 to play. With the shot clock winding down on a later possession, Abdur-Rahkman rebounded his own miss and added two more points at the rim, padding Michigan's points-in-the-paint advantage (frame that clause for posterity).

Then, on a loose ball situation with a minute and change left, Dawkins took it coast-to-coast, expertly shielding a trailing Olah to score at the rim and open up a seven-point lead from which NU could not return.

Olah led the Wildcats with 19 points (8-for-16). NU's second-leading scorer, Bryant McIntosh, scored just four points on 2-for-7 shooting from the field.

The Wolverines head to Madison on Sunday, where they'll face a Badgers team that has bounced back from a brutal 2015 portion of the season and is also fighting for a tournament spot.

As it always is at the Kohl Center, a win will be tough to come by.

With that said, if the Wolverines can carry over tonight's effort from inside the arc, a win isn't out of the question. More importantly, it can't be looked at as a luxury -- Michigan should be somewhat safely in the tournament field, but you just never know. The margin for error is still too thin to take anything for granted.

Now, though, let's celebrate the bucketmaker, a player who shoots the three well (38%), just like a Beilein player should, but isn't defined by it.

And if the idea of bucking an established convention -- in this case, in the form of explosive drives to the hoop, crossovers and spin moves -- isn't the most quixotic idea in all of sports, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Michigan 66, Ohio State 76: Oh no

What is a basketball, but an orange orb, darting through the heavens, like a dimpled comet, on its way to cutting the cord

As ESPN embarked on the avant-garde cinematographic journey dubbed "Floor Seats," a basketball game was played. 


That game featured the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes, second-tier Big Ten squads sitting at 9-4 and 8-5, respectively, in league play -- both, to some degree, fighting for an NCAA tournament spot. 

Unfortunately, watching this game on TV was like sitting behind a stanchion at Wrigley Field. But perhaps it was fortunate, as save for a brief spurt early when Michigan led 12-10, the rest of the game essentially filled the mold of the standard 2015-16 Michigan basketball loss. 

The Buckeyes shot 54 percent from the field (59 percent in the second half) while Michigan shot just 20.8 percent from three. Michigan showed transient glimmers of life late in the second, cutting the deficit down to as few as seven points as late as just under the five-minute mark. 

But they didn't have enough to make it any closer, falling 76-66 in Columbus and moving to 19-8 (9-5) on the season. 

Mark Donnal led Michigan with 17 points. Meanwhile, five Buckeyes scored in the double digits, including Marc Loving and Jae'Sean Tate, who led the home team with 13 apiece. Duncan Robinson was held to three points on 1-for-6 shooting. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin combined for a 10-for-28 night from the field. 

Save for a few very isolated mini-bursts, Michigan's offense struggled from start to finish. 

Michigan started slow, picked it up, then was handled by OSU's bench players A.J. Harris and Kam Williams in the first half. 

Meanwhile, Michigan, back to a Caris LeVert-less state, started 5-for-16 (2-for-7 from three), with nothing coming easy, as is usually the case when the shots don't immediately start falling on the road. 

Tate and JaQuan Lyle complemented the bench squad with a combined 15 first-half points of their own, and the Buckeyes took a 36-28 lead into the break. 

Michigan kicked off the second, surprisingly, with activity in the paint, including a bucket by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, a finish by Mark Donnal and a drawn foul by Donnal at the rim (which, like Dakich said, should have been an and-1, but resulted in a split pair of free throws). 

But, just like that, Ohio State had its way with the Michigan defense, extending the lead to 10 with a thunderous dunk by Trevor Thompson off of a lob pass. 

Michigan proceeded to pick up its sixth foul of the second half -- just over five minutes in. When it's not your day, it's not your day. 

A Zak Irvin three cut it to seven late, but Michigan didn't have the juice to get any closer, with a lifeless offense and an interior defense that might as well have not been there. 

With the loss, Michigan still needs at least one more win to feel somewhat comfortable about a tournament berth. Lose out, and it's dire straits. 

At Maryland, Northwestern, at Wisconsin and Iowa: that's how the Wolverines close the regular season. 

If tonight didn't inspire confidence vis-a-vis the prospect of pulling off an upset, you wouldn't be alone, particularly with how the Wolverines have played on the road. Even Northwestern, which had tournament hopes at the beginning of the season that have since fizzled out, won't be an easy out by any means. 

Michigan fans will simply have to hold on -- it's going to be a bumpy ride.

And if you're feeling more confident than that, you'll probably still need to hold on, to something, after tonight's dizzying exercise in how to not broadcast a live sporting event. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Michigan 82, Minnesota 74: Deja vu in the old barn

Williams Arena has been kind to John Beilein -- and with the Wolverines looking for a palate cleanser after back-to-back home blowouts, what could be better than a trip to the friendly confines of The Barn?

Looking to move to 6-1 in Minneapolis as Michigan's head coach, Beilein's squad, simply for the sake of hope, optimism and confidence, needed a decisive performance tonight.

Behind a flurry of first-half threes and Minnesota's typical cold shooting, the Wolverines reprised their performance in the first meeting against the Gophers, building a large lead only to see it disintegrate like a snowball made out of the wrong kind of snow. But, behind Derrick Walton's career-high 26 points, Michigan (18-8, 8-4) defeated the Gophers (6-18, 0-12), 82-74, Wednesday night in Minneapolis.

Walton concluded a firecracker of a first half by schooling Joey King off the dribble and burying a buzzer-beating trey, his fifth of the half on six attempts, to take Michigan into the break up 42-28.

Walton finished the opening half with 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting, plus 3 rebounds and 3 assists. Needless to say, it was the best half of basketball he's played this season.

Another positive sign for Michigan? Aubrey Dawkins, who has seemingly struggled to expand his arsenal of basketball attributes, had a nice half, too (8 points, 3-for-5 shooting). Speaking of Dawkins, he was the beneficiary of a nifty no-look pass from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman in transition, setting him up for a two on the block. For Abdur-Rahkman, who has been known to have the ball stick to his hands, the playmaking touch there is a nice, albeit small, thing to see.

Unlike the first meeting between these two teams, when Michigan struggled from the field, they went 9-for-16 from beyond the arc in the first half (56.3%). Meanwhile, Michigan held the Gophers to a sub-1.0 points per possession mark in the first half -- unfortunately for Michigan, that says more about Minnesota than it does Michigan's defense.

To start the second half, two buckets at the rim by Mark Donnal, a Walton steal and score, and an Abdur-Rahkman corner three extended the lead to 19.

Looking back to that first game, Michigan built a big lead then, too, only to see that margin deteriorate, making for a closer-than-necessary finish.

And once again, Minnesota didn't crack.

Michigan's once-sizable lead shrank to just seven with five minutes remaining after a 11-0 Gophers run. The stretch was bleaker than a Minnesota winter for Michigan:

Then, putting a stop to Minnesota's then 13-1 run, Duncan Robinson work around a screen to bury his fourth three of the game. But, as is often the case, when Michigan didn't make threes, it often didn't do much of anything. And defensively, Michigan continued to allow free rides to the basket.

The Gophers cut it to two with 90 seconds remaining. Luckily, Abdur-Rahkman had an answer, putting his shoulder down like De'Veon Smith on a safety to convert an and-1.

Abdur-Rahkman didn't stop there. After a Walton turnover, he recovered with startling speed to disrupt the Minnesota transition and give the ball back to Michigan.

And that was essentially all she wrote.

Once again, Michigan saw its big lead against a poor Gophers team evaporate. In both situations, Michigan did what it needed to do late in the game to eek out the win. Still, the slides are concerning, due to the level of the opponent and the fatal flaws that are only further exposed.

Michigan is what it is: a team reliant on the three and unable to consistently defend dribble penetration, challenge shooters at the rim or check bigs of any consequence.

Flawed, vulnerable, dynamic, simultaneously captivating and frustrating: this is Michigan basketball.

And on paper, Michigan is fine, at 18-7 and 8-4 in the league. Just a couple more wins and Michigan should be comfortably in the tournament picture (or somewhat comfortably).

Michigan welcomes Purdue to Ann Arbor this Saturday -- at this point, asking for an upset might be setting the bar high. After the Indiana and Michigan State games, simply keeping their collective head above water has to be the starting point.

Complementing Walton's career night, Abdur-Rahkman scored 16 on a perfect night from the field (5-for-5) and Robinson added 14 on 5-for-9 shooting.

As for Minnesota, the struggling Gophers fell to 0-12 in the conference. Minnesota is scheduled to face Rutgers (currently 0-11 in the Big Ten) on Feb. 23. Assuming the Gophers and Scarlet Knights lose their games before then, it'll set up a matchup between teams that are a combined 0-28 in league play.

Hello, must-not-see TV.