The 6-4 Michigan Wolverines trotted out onto the Barclays Center floor Saturday night, looking to avoid a fifth loss before the new year. Stanford's size, like Arizona's, would present a serious problem for the Wolverines, who have had trouble defending the paint this season.
Unfortunately for Michigan, Mitch McGary hit the floor for pregame warmups in a suit and tie; without McGary, Michigan would have to lean heavily on Jon Horford and the thus far infrequently deployed Jordan Morgan and Max Bielfeldt.
Horford committed his first foul 24 seconds into the game, upon which he immediately went to the bench. This was a harbinger, as foul troubles haunted Michigan's frontcourt all night.
Stanford jumped out to an early 5-0 lead, while the Wolverines started 0-for-4 from beyond the arc. Michigan scored its first bucket four minutes into the game, and a Nik Stauskas triple shortly thereafter tied the game at 5-all.
In front of a heavily pro-Michigan crowd (I was at the game and can attest to that, in case you couldn't tell on TV), the Wolverines took the lead and never gave it back.
Michigan built up a lead as large as seven points in the first half but went into the break up by just three, 30-27. For the second game in a row, Glenn Robinson III came out firing, scoring 11 first half points. More important than the number itself is the manner in which he got them; that is, aggressively.
Watching Robinson play in person is a treat, simply for the fact that there were a few moments when I thought he was going to jump and never come down again. Robinson flashed those tremendous hops early in the game, soaring above two or three Stanford bigs to snag an offensive rebound and give Michigan another shot.
The pace picked up intermittently, but for most of the game the action was bogged down by a cacophony of whistles, justified or otherwise. From where I sat, quite a few were head-scratchers, fouls that you wouldn't ordinarily see in Big Ten play. In 2013-13, choppy, foul-laden basketball is more the rule than the exception, unfortunately.
Horford played just six minutes on the night, mostly because he seemed to pick one up immediately each time he entered the game. As a result, Jordan Morgan, once a far bigger piece of the puzzle for the Wolverines than he has been this season, logged 24 minutes, scoring eight points and reeling in five boards.
Whether the result of disuse or nerves, Morgan airballed an open layup about halfway through the second half. However, Morgan, ever the fighter, quickly grabbed his miss and finished, putting Michigan up 53-44 with 9:53 to go.
Fouls caught up with the Wolverines, as Stanford entered the bonus with 9:35 remaining in the game. Slowly but surely, the Cardinal chipped away at Michigan's lead from the charity stripe and on points in the paint.
Although Michigan did end up pulling out the win, Michigan couldn't get a whole lot going on offense down the stretch. Spike Albrecht and Derrick Walton ended up with a much less divergent minute distribution (Albrecht--21, Walton--17) than they did in the Arizona game, but neither made a huge impact on this game.
Albrecht finished with five points on 1-for-3 shooting (all from beyond the arc) and two assists to one turnover. Meanwhile, Walton tallied four points on 2-for-5 shooting, one assist and one turnover. Without Mitch McGary to facilitate the action, Michigan struggled to get anything going against Stanford's zone. In half court sets, Walton still looks either tentative or recklessly aggressive with the ball (i.e. driving right into bigger defenders).
More worrisome than the lack of offensive punch from the freshman point guard is that both he and Albrecht continue to get beat off the dribble fairly regularly, resulting in points in the paint galore for Michigan's opponents. While it is more or less accepted that Albrecht is a defensive liability, Walton's defensive play against teams of note has not been exceptional, especially for a guy with the quicks and desire (seemingly) to be be a good defender.
Somehow, despite shooting just 29.6 percent from downtown (8-for-27), Michigan did just enough against the zone-heavy Cardinal to eke out the win. Key dunks at the 5- and 3- minute marks by Robinson and Horford helped seal the deal, even as Michigan's outside shots failed to find their mark.
With the victory, the Wolverines moved to 7-4 on the season, avoiding what would have been a disastrous fifth loss loss before Big Ten play; at this point, Michigan is fighting to get into the tournament. But, beating a Stanford team that just knocked off UConn at UConn is nothing to scoff at, especially sans the services of McGary and his zone-busting wizardry.
Saturday night's win wasn't consistently pretty, but aesthetics won't matter at season's end, when this will probably fall under the quality win category. Anyway, time to wrap this up with some bullets:
- While Michigan struggled from three as a team, Zak Irvin went 4-for-8 from downtown. Like Walton, Irvin is an exciting player who should be a better version of his current self in March. John Beilein calling Irvin a shot "hunter" in the preseason was about as accurate of a descriptor of his game as you can conjure.
- Once again, the Michigan fan turnout at an East Coast venue was impressive. Barclays was far from full, but other than a small patch of Stanford fans in the lower bowl, it was a decidedly maize and blue crowd. I'm not sure how it sounded on television, but it actually got a little loud when Stanford stepped to the free throw line in the final minute.
- Sure, Robinson had a quieter second half after a strong first for the second game in a row, but his play of late has been very encouraging. Quite honestly, when Robinson has executed a post movie or slashed to the basket, it has looked remarkably effortless, which, I think, is a testament to his sheer athleticism. Now, whether he can do that on a regular basis against Big Ten competition is a different story entirely.
- Michigan might not be getting a whole lot from Walton, but Caris LeVert has done a nice job in facilitating, which could continue to feed into the idea of him playing the point in something greater than a situational capacity. LeVert dropped five dimes in this one, albeit while also committing three of Michigan's eight turnovers.
- Stanford's press has practically zero effect on Michigan's ability to bring the ball up the court, thanks to LeVert, Albrecht and Walton's poise. I guess seeing (i.e. eviscerating) VCU's press in the tournament does wonders for a team's ability to execute against full-court pressure.
- Jordan Morgan. Although he eventually fouled out, you have to feel good for Morgan after a game like this one. Morgan has never been one to fill up the stat sheet, but his line from Saturday night can likely be found on the box score of several other big Michigan wins in recent seasons. Morgan played tough post defense against taller Stanford bigs. Along with Horford and Bielfeldt, Michigan's front court limited a big Stanford squad to just five offensive rebounds, good for an offensive rebounding percentage of just 19 percent. Once McGary returns to full health (or however close he can get to that this season), Morgan will likely return to his previous role. But, on Saturday night in Brooklyn, things were as they've always been for the fifth-year senior from Detroit.