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.