Conference title seasons are about the big wins. Going into the Kohl and Breslin Center to steal wins on the road. Beating a high flying Iowa team at home. These are the wins that make people take notice. The ones that end up on TV graphics when ESPN starts talking tournament seeding.
However, those wins aren't enough. Over the course of 18 conference games not everything is going to go right. Off nights will happen. Your best player will roll his ankle or smack his wrist on the floor and be limited through the rest of the game. The things you do best will inexplicably go wrong — often spectacularly so — while the other team plays out of its mind.
Michigan has had a couple of the latter, but no game more aptly fits that description than last night's game in West Lafayette. Eight minutes in and Michigan was already down nearly 20 points while Purdue hit just about everything during a hotter than hot start. Five minutes into the game, Michigan's FG% was 0 while Purdue's was 100. Things looked bleak.
Of course, anyone who looked at the stats before the game knew two things about this game: 1. Michigan is an elite offensive team capable of piling up points in a hurry and 2. Purdue is not that in any way shape or form.
The 19 point lead wilted slowly. Michigan pushed back and made it a 13 point game at halftime. Ten minutes into the second half it was a one point game. Michigan had found itself.
There is plenty of luck to be found on the basketball court, and last night was no exception. However, Michigan's win against Purdue was much more a factor of Michigan being a very good basketball team — one that might not play that way for 40 minutes, but still has the talent and capability. UMHoops sums that up:
Michigan's offense still managed 1.11 points per possession despite the dreadful start. The Wolverines scored .80 points per possession in the first half before exploding for 1.36 points per trip in the second half and overtime.
First half winners don't matter. Hot starts fade. It takes 40 minutes of basketball and a few breaks to pull out a road win on an otherwise off night. Sometimes, 40 minutes isn't even enough. What we saw from Michigan last night was the ultimate affirmation of of the overall importance of playing for all 40 minutes. Because wilting in the first half doesn't make FG%s even out like this:
Someone mentioned in the game thread last night that this is the reason Michigan won't do well in the tournament, slow starts have been a regular occurrence, and on more than one occasion have buried Michigan.
I get that. First half deficits can set the tone for a game. But when the final buzzer sounds its about who is on top after 40 minutes. Michigan has issues both offensively (slow starts, off nights from outside) and defensively (let's not list them all here). But one thing Michigan has shown the ability to do is play through first half deficits. It happened in both games against Michigan State and on the road against Ohio State. And it happened last night.
Michigan may not have the same success in March that it did last year. There is far more that goes into that kind of postseason run than just being really good. Even Michigan needed an improbable comeback against Kansas and a all-time tournament run from Mitch McGary (who isn't walking through that door). But if you want to sit here and bet against John Beilein with a week (or two days) to prepare for an opponent he is unfamiliar with, or the multi-faceted offensive monster that is Stauskas/LeVert/Robinson/Walton/Morgan/Irvin/Albrecht that is currently the third best tempo free offense in the nation — better than last year, in fact — then go right ahead. I'll take your money.
- I have been (understandably) hard on Glenn Robinson III this season. Expectations were high for the probable lottery pick, and to say he hasn't met those would be an understatement. Michigan has survived mostly because Stauskas and LeVert were able to become the facilitators that Michigan needed, leaving GRIII to the secondary role he filled a year ago. He is what he is: a wing with no first step and a unreliable outside shot. He also has a streaky 18 foot pull up jumper (good when he is on) and hops that turn just about anything near the basket into an alley oop.
If there was ever a game for him to take over and assert himself, it would be on the road at his dad's alma mater. Michigan got a lot from Robinson, especially down the stretch when he hit crucial free throws, not to mention this:
(Courtesy of UMHoops)
Glenn Robinson III's play is an important x-factor for this team as the tournament looms. If he is dialed in and providing offense in the ways he is best able (transition baskets, baseline cuts, and offensive rebounds), then Michigan's offense goes from dangerous to nigh unstoppable. Hope for more of this from him.
- Nik Stauskas had some issues in this one, both with finding his outside shot and dealing with contact inside (some of which wasn't being called). Even still, he ended up getting MIchigan 15 points and helping lead the charge after halftime.
- Thankfully, Caris LeVert was once again his do-it-all self. He hit a couple big three point shots, dished out four assists, hit all four of his free throws, and had the steal at halfcourt that he turned into yet another nice eurostep layup on the other end. If he isn't the most improved player in the Big Ten, then I just don't know what to say.
- Jordan Morgan and Spike Albrecht had quite a connection in overtime, and Morgan in particular was very good late. Part of that had to do with AJ Hammonds fouling out, but those pick and roll plays with Morgan and Albrecht had a high degree of difficulty, and the pair made them look easy.
Michihgan gets a few days to prepare for a visit from Minnesota, a team that all the sudden has its back against the wall and needs a big win to push it off the bubble.