1. MICHIGAN WON! DON'T CANCEL THE SEASON!
Before tip-off last night, I tweeted that, if Michigan lost to Coppin State, who very likely is one of the worst 15 teams in D-I basketball, we might as well cancel the season:
@danfeldman31 If that happens, you're gonna need a new sport to cover because we're shutting down the season.— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) December 23, 2014
... whew! We are in the clear ... for now.
Last night, for the first time since December 2nd, Michigan walked off a basketball court with a win in hand. The Wolverines snapped their four-game skid -- their longest in almost four years -- with a 72-56 victory against Coppin State.
The young Wolverines surely entered that contest with their confidence lacking and the pressure to stop this downward spiral weighing heavily on their shoulders, so it was imperative that they not only start fast but also maintain a sizable lead throughout both halves. Or else the seed of doubt would once again be planted in their minds, reminding them of how they faltered down the stretch against NJIT and Eastern Michigan.
Thankfully, there was never a doubt. Michigan sprinted out to leads of 11-0 and 21-3 in the opening six minutes as Zak Irvin drained two early threes while the team converted its first six shots at the rim. From there, with any doubts of a third upset loss washed away, the Wolverines were able to coast. They never led by fewer than 12 points and extended their lead to 27 points with a couple minutes remaining before Coppin State made a meaningless run in garbage time once the result was secured. It was a much-needed win to remind them that they're not too bad at this sport called "basketball."
2. But this result does not carry much weight.
However, there was not much to take away from this game. If Michigan hadn't been riding a four-game losing streak that included losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan, this would have been considered a "body bag" game and nothing more. And that's because Coppin State is an awful, awful team -- the perfect opponent for a team that needs to bust out of its serious slump. Before last night, the Eagles were 1-9 with their only win against a D-II program with a 3-8 record and the name Goldey-Beacom, which sounds more like, as Ace Anbender of MGoBlog coined, "an off-brand cable company" than a college. So this was a game that Michigan was expected to win and win convincingly.
What this wasn't going to be was a game that informed us whether Michigan is planning a huge turnaround for the Big Ten season to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. This was Michigan's final cupcake game -- Coppin State is No. 334 out of 351 D-I teams on KenPom -- and Michigan will not face another team that is even close to comparable to the Eagles. For context, Rutgers, the worst team in the Big Ten, is No. 176 on KenPom. So there are no more gimme games from here on out. Every single remaining game will be a test that will reveal a little bit -- and, in some cases, a lot -- about Michigan and its character. But last night wasn't that game, and Michigan still has a deep hole out of which it must climb.
Last night's game was a confidence-booster for Michigan. That's it.
3. The Doyle-Donnal duo dazzled down low.
If there was one promising development last night, it was Michigan's persistence to feed the ball to centers Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal. Doyle and Donnal combined for 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting and seven rebounds in 34 minutes, with Doyle tallying a career-high 16 points in just his second collegiate start. And Doyle should have set an even higher new personal mark because he made only 4-of-9 free throws. By continuing to get the ball down low to their two freshmen bigs, the Wolverines scored 30 points in the paint after averaging just 14 points in the paint during their losing streak. This helped mitigate Michigan's shooting woes from the outside, which were not remedied as U-M knocked down only 8-of-26 threes (30.8 pct.). Doyle and Donnal kept Michigan afloat.
However, there were two benefits Doyle and Donnal received that they won't see much in the Big Ten. First, Coppin State played some horrendous defense, which is no shock given the Eagles are 317th in adjusted defensive efficiency and dead last in defensive eFG%. They were slow and often out of position, whether in man-to-man or a 2-3 zone, which allowed Derrick Walton, Jr., who finished with a career-high nine assists, to pick apart the defense and find Doyle and Donnal underneath for open dunks and layups. Second, for the first time in four games, Doyle and Donnal weren't overmatched by the opponent's size. According to KenPom's effective height stat, Eastern Michigan, Arizona, and SMU are three of the 50 tallest teams in the nation. Coppin State? 282nd. Thus, Doyle and Donnal were not worried about their shots being blocked and often went up strong to the rim. But only Michigan State and Indiana are considered smaller Big Ten teams than Michigan, so Doyle and Donnal better be ready to be physical in the near future.
4. Michigan needs to rest and get healthy this week.
This was one of my five takeaways from Michigan's loss to SMU, and I'm going to repeat myself. Michigan is a team that relies heavily on its star players because it is one of the youngest teams in nation and has little proven depth. So the Wolverines cannot afford injuries, or even just nagging ailments, as much as others, which is unfortunate because all of Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht, Irvin, and Walton seem to be nicked up. LeVert's shooting hand was once again bandaged last night, which probably has played a role in why he's scored only 30 points with a 33.3 eFG% in his last four games. Albrecht still hasn't looked right since his outburst against Syracuse. He was scoreless last night and has made only one of his last 11 threes. Irvin was tackled and rolled his ankle one game after he was undercut on a hard take to the rim but was able to return. And Walton's had a noticeable limp, but he actually looked quite healthy last night.
Michigan needs all four of them to be as close to 100-percent healthy as they can possibly be for the Big Ten season, which doesn't begin until a week from today. That is seven full days between games, and Michigan needs to use all of them to rest and regain their health. John Beilein agrees, which is why he's told the team not to do anything basketball-related for the next three days during the holiday. And the Wolverines need to take advantage of this break because they won't have their first bye in conference play until mid-February after they have already played 13 Big Ten games.
5. Austin Hatch scores his first career point.
Let's put basketball aside for minute because there was an amazing moment last night that involved basketball but has nothing to do with basketball. Chances are that, if you're reading this column, then you know Austin Hatch's story. You know that Hatch, a survivor of two separate plane crashes eight years apart that claimed the lives of all of his immediate family members, was not supposed to play basketball again.
You know that this was not supposed to happen:
(via UM Hoops)
But it did: Hatch scored the first regular-season point of his Michigan career.
I can't even begin to describe how that moment must have felt for Hatch, who has lost so much and endured so much pain. For him to overcome all of the obstacles that have been placed in front him in his young life and score that first collegiate point like he always dreamed as a kid growing up in Indiana ... man I don't have the words to justify how Hatch felt as that second free throw fell through the rim. It wouldn't be fair to him for me to try to measure that feeling, so I will let Hatch do the talking with this picture:
Congrats, Austin. What you've done is incredible, and I look forward to the day in the near future when you scoring in a college basketball game is just the typical norm.