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. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Michigan 86, Michigan State 57: When it all comes together

Michigan has had two chances to avenge earlier conference road losses so far this season. First, they did it against Illinois in the motion picture "Back in Blue," the biting, redemptive sequel to "The White Collar Boys." 

They also did it tonight against Michigan State, handing the Spartans their worst loss against Michigan in 21 years. 

If you needed any indication which iteration of Michigan had showed up, the Wolverines forced four MSU shot-clock violations by the game's second TV timeout. 

Michigan's outside shooting soon followed its defensive energy, reprising the lights-out performance against Indiana. That 30-point win against the Hoosiers was Michigan's most lopsided victory against Indiana since 1998. With a 86-57 victory tonight, Michigan notched its most lopsided win against the Spartans since Feb. 27, 1996 (also a 29-point victory, 75-46) and broke a five-game skid in the rivalry series. 

The Wolverines shot 75 percent from the first half (8-for-11 from three), staking claim to a 55-29 lead, Michigan's most prolific first half of the season. On top of that, they forced 12 first-half turnovers, many directly yielding points.

The in-state rivals last met not long ago, Jan. 29 in East Lansing, a 70-62 loss for the Wolverines in which Derrick Walton seemed to be the only guy ready to play. Making matters worse, a flu-ridden Zak Irvin scored as many points as the Atlanta Falcons made smart offensive playcalls late in the Super Bowl on the doorstep of the New England red zone (that would be zero). 

This time, Irvin made his mark on the scoresheet early with a triple (although he was again quiet in this game overall, not scoring again after that triple). The three was the first of many for Michigan, which raced out to a 32-19 lead on 6-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc. 

The Wolverines rode a balanced attack in the half, getting contributions from just about everyone, including Xavier Simpson, who put in some of his best minutes of the season spelling Walton. In the first half, Walton had 12, Moritz Wagner had 13, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had 10, and Simpson and Duncan Robinson chipped in five apiece (including a Robinson buzzer-beating three to close the half).  

Naturally, the game got chippy. DJ Wilson picked up a technical foul after dunking on Kenny Goins. Not long after, Nick Ward picked up a tech of his own by tripping Wagner while the teams headed to their respective benches for a timeout. 

But, when you're up by 26 at the half, an unnecessary technical will probably be allowed to slide. 

As for Michigan State, things were going so poorly that Tom Izzo was forced to call a timeout 1:09 into the second half after a Wilson dunk (assisted by Wagner). 

Speaking of Wagner (19 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals), he continued to do work in the second half. Unlike the first matchup, in which Wagner was hamstrung by foul trouble, he had no such trouble tonight, using his athleticism to get easy buckets on smart cuts and simply by taking the ball to the rim with strength. 

Aside from Miles Bridges (15 points, five rebounds) and his spectacular dunk, MSU had no answers on either end of the floor, and never cut the deficit to fewer than 22 points. 

Michigan's home loss to the Buckeyes could come back to haunt it later. But if there's a palate cleanser better than a 29-point victory against Michigan State, I don't know what that is. 

Bullets
  • You might roll your eyes when players talk about negative chatter and how they'll be motivated to prove the doubters wrong -- Derrick Walton has been saying such things of late. In this case, though, he's followed through on his words. Walton is in the midst of his most inspired stretch of basketball in a while. He finished with 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds. 
  • Xavier Simpson had his best game to date. Defense will always be an issue for him, based on his size (or lack thereof) alone, but he flashed some playmaking ability and simply looked more comfortable with the ball in his hands. Simpson tallied seven points on 3-for-4 shooting with two assists to one turnover. 
  • Michigan lost to a bad Ohio State team at home and followed that up with a blowout of Michigan State. Attempting to find any reason or use any kind of predictive model to assess this team is futile. 
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman put up a season-high with 16 points. He started conference play scoring zero points in eight minutes at Iowa. He's quietly put together very strong games in three of his last four outings. If Michigan can get peak MAAR down the stretch, that would be a huge boost. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Michigan 62, Michigan State 70: A tale of two seniors

Michigan's offense hummed Thursday night against Indiana, zooming like a brand-new sports car.

On Sunday in East Lansing, the car hit pothole after pothole and broke down, a helpless wreck sending tendrils of smoke snaking to the rafters.

After a stretch during which Michigan defeated Michigan State in six of eight tries, the Wolverines came into today's matchup having lost the last four meetings. That losing streak became five straight on Sunday afternoon, as the Wolverines fell, 70-62, despite a motivated effort from senior Derrick Walton (24 points, nine rebounds, five assists).

Zak Irvin, however, finished 0-for-8 from the field, with zero points and three turnovers, his worst outing of the season and worst since a 1-for-8 performance against Texas on Dec. 6.

Meanwhile, Walton did his usual work on the glass, while also attacking the rim -- he didn't always finish, but went to the line more often than not.

Despite some rough first-half offense from the Wolverines -- seniors Irvin and Walton combined to shoot 2-for-13 for five points, all from Walton -- they found themselves down just 32-28 at the half.

The Wolverines shot 32.4 percent from the field, while the Spartans managed to shoot 50 percent. On top of that, Michigan was well off its torrid points-per-possession pace from the Indiana game, putting up just 0.88 points per possession in the first half today.

A team can survive that for a half, but two? The Wolverines would need to find the offensive rhythm they had Thursday against the Hoosiers in Ann Arbor if they were going to come away with a key conference road win.

Things started auspiciously enough in the second half when Walton buried Irvin-assisted triples on consecutive possessions. The good vibes didn't last long, though, as the Spartans were able to enter the bonus with more than 11 minutes remaining in the half and build a 51-42 lead.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman stemmed the tide with a triple for a scuffling Michigan, but MSU's Matt McQuaid buried his third trey in three tries to put the home team's lead back at nine with 10 minutes to play.

Unfortunately for Michigan, that second-half offensive renaissance never came. With around seven minutes to play, Michigan had more second-half turnovers than second-half made field goals.

Michigan was within striking distance late, but in the sort of way that a football game is a two-score game when a team is down 16. Walton didn't have a great day from the field himself (4-for-12), but he was the only one who proved determined enough to make something happen.

While Irvin will get most of the flak, DJ Wilson was also just 4-for-12 from the field (0-for-3 from beyond the arc), Moritz Wagner scored 10 but was limited at times by the usual foul trouble and Michigan's bench was mostly irrelevant.

A win against a Michigan State team that had lost three straight would not have been an upset or a huge surprise, like it might have been in the past. The Wolverines, however, just didn't have the answers for Michigan State's defense, the latest chapter in a season's worth of shapeshifting. Unstoppable one moment, eminently stoppable the next.

Which Michigan will turn up down the stretch? Your guess is as good as mine.

UPDATE: Per Beilein, Irvin has been battling the flu, which would certainly explain today's performance.



Bullets

  • Xavier Simpson had a nice dish in the first half, wheeling around the right side before dropping a nifty pass to Mark Donnal in the paint. 
  • Moritz Wagner continues to be plagued by foul issues, picking up an early one that saw him yanked for Mark Donnal. This goes without saying, but Michigan's best lineup includes both Wagner and DJ Wilson on the floor. 
  • Speaking of Wilson, his first-half block from behind was a thing of beauty. 
  • Zak Irvin finished scoreless for the first time all season. While Wagner and Wilson are/should be the heart of this offense, Michigan can't beat anyone when Irvin is playing like that. 
  • MSU's Miles Bridges is quite good (15 points, 13 rebounds). Sometimes, there's just not much you can do when a future NBA player is feeling it, as he was in the second half. 
  • Cassius Winston flashed creativity and speed toward the basket, scoring a Spartans team-high 16 points, mostly from the line, where he went 10-for-11. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Michigan 32, Florida State 33: The (third) one that got away

Some games are close, others "close," others somewhere in between.

Michigan's Orange Bowl matchup against Florida State Friday night fell somewhere in that in-between No Man's Land. After all, Michigan lost by one on a last-minute Seminoles field goal. They made some big plays in the second half, namely Mike McCray's pick six and, later, Chris Evans juked a Florida defender out of this dimension to put Michigan ahead with 1:57 to play.

That juke was the future in motion, an example of what can't be taught and what Michigan desperately needs more of: raw, unmitigated explosion. The ability to make people not just miss, but miss so badly that they fall to the ground, questioning what is up and what is down. It's the type of play elite talents make in big moments. Grinding opponents into dust on 10-play drives is fun, but Michigan has usually done that because it had no other option. But when you have the ability to take a shortcut, you take it, and that's what a player like Evans brings to the table.

In Evans, and some other promising players on offense (and, hopefully, some on defense, to be unleashed next season), Michigan has a game-changing talent. Unfortunately for Michigan, it didn't quite have enough of it this season when it counted, especially on offense. A close loss at an offensively challenged Iowa team, a brutal loss at Ohio State featuring five fourth-quarter yards and a bowl game with just 252 yards of offense, 4.3 yards per attempt through the air and this on the ground ...


... and it's safe to say Michigan's fall from possible eliteness to a degree or two below that starts here.

Even so, Michigan had a chance to pull out a 2012 Sugar Bowl-esque victory (I was at that game in New Orleans, and it was the kind of game that almost left you feeling compelled to apologize to the opposing fans for winning). Alas, 65 yards of Keith Gavin kick return yardage later and the Noles were in position to comfortably drive for a score, which they got ... by throwing at Jourdan Lewis in the corner of the end zone.

Go figure. Sometimes there's not much to say. Things happen. When Dalvin Cook runs around and past your defense a few times like they're painfully limited pawns on a chess board, that's one thing. When a team gets your All-American corner for a touchdown in a key situation?

Well, that's football.

---

When a season concludes, especially one like this one, there's always an urge to categorize it, to tag it, to fit it into a neat, little box.

Was it a "successful" season or was it a "disappointment"?

In truth, it's a little bit of both.

Michigan's three losses came by a total of five points. It's disappointing that with this collection of talent, Michigan wasn't able to find the one or two plays it needed to join the playoff field.

But, only four teams go, and only one team wins. If we're categorizing all seasons that don't end in a playoff berth or a national title as failures, just about every fan should be disappointed. That's no way to live.

What is disappointing is the still lingering conference title drought. As a high school sophomore in 2004, I never thought that would be Michigan's last conference crown for a long, long time.

Here we are, though. Next year, Michigan probably won't be a playoff-caliber squad, simply by virtue of what they need to replace on defense -- I do think, however, that competing for the division crown and a trip to Indianapolis are within reach, once the early-season growing pains are sorted out.

While the 2016 season ended with a thud, it can't be said enough: Michigan has won 10-games in consecutive seasons, just two years after going 5-7 and getting a coach fired. Yes, Hoke recruited fine in parts, but a failure to identify offensive talent, namely on the line, hamstrung Michigan this year.

Right now, for all of Michigan's defensive talent, that's the difference between them and the cream of the crop: Michigan's line just couldn't stand up. For further example of what that looks like, watch the tape of the Ohio State-Clemson game.

Until Michigan upgrades its line and fields upper-echelon skill position talent, its defense can never be good enough to carry it to a title, where it is at this point a pretty solid bet they'd have to beat Alabama.

One day. It didn't come together this year, and likely won't in 2017 by virtue of roster turnover.

After that? Anything is possible.

---
Of course, no season finale is complete without fond reminiscences over the players taking their abilities elsewhere, whether into the real world or the NFL.

This year is especially heavy on the heart, as Michigan loses a cast of likeable, not to mention very good, football players. Jourdan Lewis, Jabrill Peppers, Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Ben Gedeon, Taco Charlton, Channing Stribling, Delano Hill, Dymonte Thomas -- and that's just defense.

The odds are good Michigan will never have another Taco -- both in name and in his particular combination of size, speed and agility. While Michigan lacked game-changing ability on offense, there was no shortage of it on defense, thanks to players like Charlton. He was a bringer of doom, a destroyer of poor, unprepared tackles.

Lewis? Despite his size, he blanketed receivers, with such grace and ease -- even when a receiver seemed open, that was never the case.



As far as interceptions go, that play falls in the same category as Charles Woodson's in the 1997 Michigan State game. That's something. No one will remember the particulars of this year's defensive slugfest against Wisconsin, but they'll remember that play -- it's hard to forget something like that.

As for the defensive linemen, it will be some time before a Michigan defensive line is so unflinchingly dominant again. Wormley is a guy who has seemingly been around for eight years -- like Mike Martin, he's an example of a human being who is impossibly agile for his size. Watching him play, it's still hard to believe that Wormley weighs more than 300 pounds. Losing an agile, versatile planetoid on the defensive line will be a major loss, to say the least.

As for Glasgow, his journey -- and his brother's before him -- is all you need to know when considering why some think Jordan Glasgow could be something far more than a special teamer. Whatever it is, that family has it. Michigan missed Ryan Glasgow's presence late last season when he was knocked out with an injury -- they'll certainly miss it next year when he's beginning what should be a long and productive NFL career.

Peppers hasn't officially announced his departure, but it's safe to assume he's probably gone (rather, it would be a surprise if he returned, simply based on his draft projections). All in all, it feels like only yesterday when he committed to Brady Hoke's Michigan: a different time, a different world. Fans were robbed of a full 2014 season when he went down with an injury, but he entered the fray in 2015 and truly began to shine brightly this season. Few Michigan players, if any at all, have ever brought his overall speed, instincts and playmaking ability on defense and special teams. I only wonder if Michigan couldn't have done more with him; but that's over and done now.

For our purposes now, I'll say this: it might cause some whiplash when opposing teams run successful screens next season, or Michigan's punt returner, whoever it is, doesn't make the first few would-be tackles miss like they're not even there.

All of the above is not to discredit the offense, of course. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, for example, had some big moments in their career. While Darboh had some unfortunate drops and lacked big-play speed, he was a mostly reliable option and a guy who could usually churn out some tough yards after contact. With Chesson, we'll always have the Florida game.

Then, of course, there's Jake Butt, whose Michigan career unfortunately ended on a sour note. (An aside, but for what it's worth, my personal opinion is that if the player wants to sit out a non-playoff bowl game to get ready for the draft, I have no problem with it. Would it be disappointing, from a selfish fan's point of view? Sure. But, the truth hurts: any bowl game not involving Alabama, Washington, Ohio State and Clemson this bowl season meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.) Like Wormley, Butt offered a unique combination of size, speed and technical ability. When Butt dropped an easy pass in a game this season, I was shocked, because it happened so infrequently.  When Jake Rudock to Wilton Speight needed a play, they could throw it up to him and count on him coming down with the ball more often than not. Michigan has some promising tight ends waiting to step up, but none will be Butt right away, if ever -- after all, most would probably agree he's the best tight end in program history.

The worst part is that none of these guys will play for Michigan again. They were all fun to watch, in good times and bad. It's a shame their times as Wolverines has to come to an end, but all things do.

And while 2016 ended on a down note, the season brought far more good than bad. And, eventually, Michigan will find itself on the winning side of the sort of games it lost this season, when a play or two flipped things.

It'll all come together, in due time. For now, fans will just have to be patient, and remember how things were not too long ago.

Until then, enjoy the ride.