For a late November matchup, both Villanova and Michigan buzzed early, playing evenly in the early going; it had the feeling of a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 game, just maybe with a little dust or a little rust.
Not to be outdone by fellow freshman Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal pitched in a nice sequence early, in which he drew a charge and scored at the rim -- a nice pair of plays for Donnal as he looks to find himself early on in the season.
Even while the game remained relatively even, the Wolverines weren't quite in sync, offensively. But, Caris LeVert was clearly in an Empire State of Mind, scoring 8 points on 3-of-4 shooting (2-of-2 from beyond the arc) in about three minutes. After LeVert's burst, the Wolverines went on to miss nine in a row, including a Dylan Ennis rejection of D.J. Wilson that was a "welcome to college basketball" moment for the freshman.
Villanova took advantage's of Michigan's dysfunction on offense with a 9-0 run, capped by a rare sight: Spike Albrecht turning it over against the press, resulting in a Josh Hart dunk to put 'Nova up 27-20.
A total of 11 players saw the floor for the Wolverines, one in which Michigan went scoreless in the last 7:13 of the half. The Wolverines scored at an abysmal 0.67 points per possession; that's not something you'll see very often, even in the sloggiest of Big Ten slogs.
Luckily for Michigan, the defense held tough. Michigan was 8-of-27 from the field in the first half (29.6 percent), while 'Nova went 12-of-27 (3-for-10 from three). Both teams turned it over seven times to just four assists.
It was not a half of basketball to be remembered.
The second didn't start much better. After that nice sequence mentioned earlier, Donnal canceled that out with a rough one early in the second, first getting swatted at the rim then picking up a cheap foul at the other end, forcing him to exit with his third foul just 29 seconds into the half.
'Nova extended their lead to 13 early after back-to-back turnovers, something almost unheard of for this Michigan team. Kameron Chatman got stripped to start the break for 'Nova on the first one, and LeVert lost the second one.
Needless to say, it's been some time since the Wolverines have looked so...off. Save for a brief stretch about midway through the first half, Michigan's offense bore no semblance of continuity or purpose. At one point, Michigan couldn't even get the ball in, forced to call back-to-back timeouts. Clearly, all that talking from John Beilein had an effect.
Irvin rattled in a tough two, LeVert added two, and Walton buried a corner trey in 63 seconds, cutting the lead back down to six. Just like that, Michigan had life again after could could only be deemed a moribund past 10 minutes or so of game time. Amazingly, Michigan attempted its first free throw of the game with 14:48 left.
Well, when Michigan finally turned it on, it was frightening and beautiful at the same time. In that 14-3 run, Michigan outright shredded Villanova, whipping passes to open cutters in the paint for uncontested dunks like Chad Henne firing to Mario Manningham at the end of the 2005 Penn State game.
Michigan led by 6, but it had a problem: with Donnal and Doyle both saddled with four fouls, Max Bielfeldt took the floor in crunch time. Unfortunately, things did not go well this time, as he was unable to convert after receiving a good look in the paint (instead opting to fade away and attempt a wild, no-chance hook). He also couldn't match up down low on the other end (no surprise, as he's not and never will be a 5), committing three fouls in a three and a half minutes.
Doyle checked back in at 3:24, but it seemed like either Donnal or Doyle should have come back in a little earlier. Either way, Michigan's lead evaporated when 'Nova went 8-0, tying it at 51 with a little over two minutes to go. Okay, reset, let's play ball.
'Nova added a free throw to take the lea,d but LeVert answered with a spectacular fadeaway two. 'Nova answered back, then LeVert again, this time off the glass.
With the game winding down, Walton made what might have been its biggest play, taking a charge from JayVaugn Pinkston with 37 seconds remaining, up 55-54.
With Michigan in the 1-and-1, Donnal stepped to the line and clanked the front end. Villanova retrieved the rebound and gathered for one final shot clock-less possession. Pinkston converted down low, putting Michigan down one.
With 7.8 seconds left, Beilein drew up the perfect play, one that find a diving Irvin wide open in the front of the rim. Unfortunately for Irvin, Pinkston had other ideas, swatting his shot with authority.
Villanova hit its free throws, and that all she wrote.
You know, for a loss, this game was a lot of fun to watch. In 40 minutes, I felt more than I've felt throughout an entire season of watching Michigan football. Losing is never fun, and quite honestly, the Michigan looked as bad it has in a long, long time throughout stretches of this one.
With that said, Villanova is a good team, and this was a good experience for a lot of guys on this team. Mark Donnal, Kameron Chatman, Ricky Doyle, they all did some very good things and some very bad things. Going forward, it'll be about finding that middle ground, smoothing out the peaks and valleys so they're ready for when it's time to play in the flatlands of the Midwest, when it really counts.
This team is a good one, but a work in progress. Say what you will, but I haven't had this much fun watching a Michigan sporting event since...last basketball season? When Michigan went on that big run, it was a thing of beauty, like they picked up the invincibility star in Mario Kart.
Michigan still has a couple big name tests during nonconference play in Syracuse and a trip to Arizona. How the Wolverines perform against those foes will say something about this team's development, but it's a long season. It's a marathon, not a sprint.