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.

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