1. Should Michigan celebrate or be wary of its recent home comebacks vs. Big Ten teams?
The answer: both.
In the Big Ten opener, things were bleak for a Michigan team that needed a strong start to the conference season after a dismal December. Michigan's opponent, Illinois, cobbled together an 11-3 run to take a 48-35 advantage with 11:23 remaining in the second half, and the Wolverines' had only a 6.5-percent chance to storm back and win. It seemed Michigan's slide would continue, but Aubrey Dawkins had other ideas. The little-used reserve popped off the bench, poured in 17 points after the halftime intermission thanks to five makes and zero misses from three, and propelled U-M to a 73-65 overtime win.
Then, in their second Big Ten home game against Minnesota this past weekend, the Wolverines found themselves following a similar script. After a Spike Albrecht turnover with 8:31 remaining, Minnesota had control of the basketball and a 49-40 lead, dropping Michigan's win probability to 8.6 percent. This time, rather than heat up from behind the three-point line, Michigan dialed up its defense. Though I'll get into more specifics below, Michigan held Minnesota without a field goal for almost seven minutes, which allowed the Wolverines to rattle off a 17-3 run and take a lead in the final minutes that Minnesota would never reclaim. Final score: 62-57, Michigan. Another comeback win.
But this isn't a pattern Michigan wants to follow. It's troubling Michigan continues to find itself down by sizable margins in the second half at home. Yes, Illinois and Minnesota are quality teams notwithstanding their combined 1-8 Big Ten record, but these deficits are signs Michigan can't put together complete games. And, if the Wolverines continue to dig themselves these holes, there's no chance that they will be able to dig themselves out of each and every time. That Michigan completed the comeback in one of these home games is lucky. That Michigan did it in both is just short of a miracle. So Michigan must be much better about getting in front earlier in the game.
Of course, comeback wins are better than the alternative, so celebrate them for now.
John Beilein is digging into his old bag of tricks.
After his stint at West Virginia, Beilein will forever be associated with his "gimmicky" 1-3-1 zone defense. However, the dirty, little secret is that he rarely deployed it in recent seasons. Now that he had access to a certain caliber of athlete at Michigan that he wasn't privy to at West Virginia, he had the athletes to strictly run man-to-man defense and sprinkled in some 1-3-1 zone only in special situations. He no longer needed his 1-3-1 zone to slow down the opposition, even if his man defenses were still less than stellar.
But that's not the case this season.
Beilein has resorted not only to his 1-3-1 zone but also a 2-3 zone often in Michigan's past two games. The Wolverines' zone defenses effectively limited Penn State's dribble penetration, which was shredding Michigan's man defense, and sparked the late run Michigan needed to beat Minnesota. In the final nine minutes against Minnesota, during which Michigan turned a nine-point deficit into a five-point win, the Wolverines ran their zone defenses almost exclusively. The result: in Minnesota's final 16 possessions, the Gophers scored only eight points and committed seven turnovers. That's a turnover rate near 50 percent. Absurd. The zone took Minnesota right out of its offensive rhythm.
So here's the question: how often does Beilein dig into his old bag of tricks? Michigan's man defense has too many kinks. The perimeter defenders allow too much dribble penetration, and the big men don't challenge enough shots at the rim, though Ricky Doyle was much better against Minnesota. However, Beilein won't abandon man defense altogether because his zones are high risk, high reward. They may force more turnovers, but, if patient, offenses can dice them for easy layups. So, while Beilein may run more zone in the near future, he needs to find the right balance and push the right buttons.
This'll be tricky when Michigan faces a sharpshooting Ohio State squad tomorrow.
3. Ricky Doyle is a man, and he's 18.
Ricky Doyle may be an 18-year-old true freshman, but he certainly doesn't play like one.
Doyle was presented with a very difficult challenge against Minnesota. Not only did Michigan need him to do the dirty work down low offensively, but, more importantly, Michigan needed him to contain the monster that is Maurice Walker. Walker, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound senior, had undoubtedly been Minnesota's best player for the past month. In his prior eight games, Walker had been a terror around the rim, averaging 15.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. And, now, Michigan, which had struggled against bigger opponents like Arizona, Eastern Michigan, and SMU, needed Doyle to come up large.
And, boy, did he ever.
Doyle pestered Walker all game. Though Walker still was able to corral 10 boards, he couldn't find easy looks because Doyle played big and was consistently in his jersey. Accordingly, Walker, a player that converts about two-thirds of his shots within five feet of the rim, finished only two of his six bunnies and scored a season-low five points.
And, on the other end of the floor, Doyle once again proved he's the only Michigan big man that can finish around the rim -- this season, he's made 71 percent of his shots within five feet, while Mark Donnal has made only 53 percent. Doyle tallied 12 points against Minnesota, making four of his six shots at the rim. One was a Hakeem Olajuwon-esque and-one layup that featured multiple pivots and pump fakes until he found an opening on the far side of the rim during Michigan's critical second-half run. Another was this:
Game. Set. Match.
Doyle's only 18 years old, but, as Beilein gives him more minutes (he's played more in his last two games than in any other), Michigan will need him to play like he's much older.
4. Derrick Walton: The Other Player of the Game
Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin didn't have poor performances, scoring 15 and 12 points against Minnesota, respectively, but it was Derrick Walton that was the star alongside Ricky Doyle. While LeVert, Irvin, and the rest of the Wolverines struggled with their outside shooting, making only 1-of-13 three-pointers, Walton buried three of his four triples en route to an efficient 15 points -- the most he had scored in over a month.
But what stood out was how in control Walton was during the final stretch, igniting Michigan's pivotal run. He drained a three from the right wing. Two trips later, he scored two points at the free-throw line. On the ensuing possession, after Spike Albrecht deflected a Minnesota pass, Walton raced up the floor in a flash, used a quick crossover to avoid a defender in the open court, and threw up a lob to Irvin for an easy layup on the break. Next possession, though he wasn't credited for the assist, Walton came off Doyle's screen, drew an extra defender in the paint, and threw a wraparound pass to a rolling Doyle that led to his Olajuwon-esque and-one finish. A few minutes later with 3:26 left, trailing by one point, Walton took a pass from LeVert in the right corner and knocked down an open three to give Michigan the lead. And, finally, out of a John Beilein timeout with 39 ticks left and a two-point lead, Walton had the confidence to toss an alley-oop to Doyle off a pick and roll that Doyle flushed on Maurice Walker's head for the dagger.
This is the point-guard play Michigan expected from Walton this season. No, Walton hasn't been healthy, having suffered a sprained toe that will bother him all season, and, no, he isn't the only Wolverine with ball-handling duties. But he's one of two primary playmakers on this Michigan team -- LeVert being the other. If Walton can play with this level of control and confidence, Michigan can be dangerous moving forward.
5. Michigan is in first place in the Big Ten ... for now.
After Rutgers earned the best win in the history of its program with an upset over Wisconsin yesterday, Michigan's now in a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten with Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Maryland. This is because Michigan won both of its games last week to improve to 3-1. But last week was huge for a different reason.
Both games last week were tossups: at Penn State and versus Minnesota. KenPom's algorithm gave Michigan a 34.9-percent chance to beat the Nittany Lions on the road and a 51.1-percent chance to bury the Gophers at home. This meant Michigan was expected to win only one game and had only a 17.8-percent chance to sweep the week.
But, if Michigan wanted to continue its quest for an NCAA Tournament invite, two wins were almost a must. I've mentioned over and over that, for Michigan to be an at-large team after earning a 7-5 record in non-conference play, the Wolverines most likely need to be 10-8 in the Big Ten and add another win in the Big Ten Tournament. Yet, after Michigan's loss to Purdue, KenPom projected the Wolverines would win only seven Big Ten games. Thus, it is imperative that Michigan wins its tossups. While upsets over the Big Ten's heavy hitters are icing on a team's resume, it is the tossups that will determine whether Michigan is on the right side of the bubble. So going 2-for-2 was critical.
KenPom now projects that Michigan will be 9-9 and gives the Wolverines about a 40-percent chance to have a winning Big Ten record when it's all said and done:
Spring an upset on Ohio State tomorrow and that projection will jump to 10-8.