1. This was the best game Michigan's played all year.
Michigan may have lost, but I've never been prouder of this team this season.
Michigan had no business being in overtime against Wisconsin. None. Not only is Wisconsin more talented than Michigan, having a trio of high-usage big men in Big Ten Player of the Year leader Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes, and Sam Dekker that can shred defenses inside and out, Wisconsin is an awful matchup for Michigan on paper.
Offensively, Wisconsin has the second-most efficient unit the nation, and there is no set defensive style that can stymie the Badgers. A defense's best chance to slow down their offense is to play man and switch every screen. However, this strategy works only if that defense has length and athleticism at every spot on the floor, like Duke, to make those switches without drawing significant mismatches that Wisconsin can exploit. Michigan does not have that luxury, starting diminutive guards Derrick Walton and Spike Albrecht while playing big men that are not quick and, in Max Bielfeldt's case, are undersized. And zone defense isn't effective because Wisconsin can shoot over the top of a 2-3 zone and, as a team with the fewest turnovers in the nation, pick apart a 1-3-1 zone with ease. It seemed Wisconsin would be able to score at will against Michigan's defense.
Defensively, Wisconsin deploys a pack-line defense that is Michigan's kryptonite. The purpose of the pack-line defense is to press up against the three-point line and force offenses to step inside for less valuable midrange jumpers. This strategy can backfire if the offense is proficient at dribbling inside and attacking the rim, but Michigan is not that team. The Wolverines have been one of the worst high-major teams not only at finishing at the rim but also just getting looks up close. It was expected that Michigan would settle for long-range two-pointers all night, which are shots Michigan has really struggled to knock down unless from the left baseline. And, because Wisconsin was the best defensive rebounding team in the nation and Michigan did not crash the offensive glass, the thought was Michigan would have numerous one-and-done possessions after missing multiple midrange jumpers. This isn't how a team keeps pace with Wisconsin.
Yet, despite all of this evidence that Michigan had little chance to be competitive with Wisconsin, and that Caris LeVert, the player who had been dragging along Michigan's offense this season, was out with a fractured foot, the Wolverines did just that. They went back and forth with Wisconsin much of the first half, owning a two-point lead with a few minutes left before the break. Then, when the Badgers proceeded to reel off a 17-4 run to take a double-digit lead in the second half, Michigan didn't throw in the towel or quit. Instead, Michigan hunkered down and threw a counter punch at Wisconsin, coming back with an 11-0 run of its own to even the score with about 10 minutes remaining in the half. And then, when it seemed Michigan would fall just short in regulation, trailing by four points with 32 seconds left and needing to foul, the Wolverines rallied late after some missed Wisconsin free throws and a monumental game-tying three from Walton just before the buzzer sounded. Boom! Michigan had taken Wisconsin to overtime.
In overtime, Kaminsky reminded folks why he's the best player in the Big Ten and arguably the best in the entire nation. He opened the five-minute session with an and-one and, after Josh Gasser buried a three-pointer on the ensuing possession to give Wisconsin a six-point lead, converted five free throws down the stretch to ensure that Michigan couldn't make another last-minute rally. Kaminsky finished with 22 points and nine rebounds, and the Badgers staved off the Wolverines' upset bid with a 69-64 win.
Given all of the circumstances, this was hands down Michigan's best performance of the season. This was not a loss that Michigan should be ashamed of in any way, shape, or form. This was an indication that this team, even without LeVert, can compete with any team in the Big Ten. The question now is whether the Wolverines can put their heads together and play like this on a game-to-game basis. I'll get to that a bit later in this post.
2. That's the Derrick Walton Michigan needs to lead.
All eyes turned to Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin when it was announced that Caris LeVert would miss the remainder of the season. These were the two players that Michigan needed to pick up the slack if Michigan had any shot to salvage its season. What Michigan needed from Walton is to run and lead this offense. With LeVert out, Walton was the only available Wolverine that could generate offense for himself and others. However, the concern was that the sprained toe that has hindered Walton would prevent him from being effective in that regard. We knew Saturday would be a big test.
Though Walton wasn't efficient, making only four of his 12 shots, he still passed the test. Walton finished with a team-high 17 points, and, similar to what he did last week against Rutgers, he carried the team late. Walton did this by doing something he had done very little of in prior weeks: attacking the rim with unrestrained aggression. When Michigan needed a bucket down by four points in the final 30 seconds of regulation, Walton sped down the left side of the lane, steamrolled into a moving Josh Gasser, and finished a left-handed finger roll off the backboard. Then, on the following trip down the court, Walton dribbled to the left baseline before willing his way to the left block, where, before he could go up for a layup, he was fouled by Duje Dukan. Michigan was in the one-and-one bonus, and Walton drilled both free throws to cut Wisconsin's lead to just one point. And then, after two Wisconsin free throws pushed the Badgers' lead back to three with 10 ticks remaining, Walton popped open off a handoff to Aubrey Dawkins and did this:
Walton still needs to be more consistent all 40 minutes. Michigan cannot afford Walton to start games slow, which is what he's done in both games since LeVert fractured his foot. And Walton still needs to be better setting up his teammates for better looks. But, nonetheless, this is the confidence and swagger Michigan needs from its new leader.
3. Second-chance points kept Michigan alive.
One reason why I didn't expect Michigan to keep pace with Wisconsin is that I thought second-chance points would be nonexistent for Michigan. Before Saturday, the Badgers were the nation's best defensive rebounding team, and the Wolverines were one of the worst offensive rebounding teams. This isn't surprising given that Wisconsin is one of the tallest teams in the country while Michigan exclusively uses four-guard lineups with centers that are sometimes undersized. Thus, I believed that Wisconsin would absolutely dominate on the glass and limit Michigan to one-and-done possessions the entire night.
However, in a shocking twist, Michigan neutralized Wisconsin's presumed advantage on the glass. Michigan corralled 11 offensive boards and posted an offensive rebounding rate of 34.4 percent. Not only was that rate the second-highest Wisconsin's allowed an opponent to record this season, it was actually higher than Wisconsin's rate on Saturday (29.0 pct.). This was critical because it gave extra possessions to a Michigan team that clearly needed them. The Wolverines turned their 11 offensive boards into 16 second-chance points, which were the most Wisconsin's surrendered in a game. In the first half, Max Bielfeldt and Mark Donnal combined for five offensive boards and four immediate putbacks, which kept Michigan neck and neck with Wisconsin. In the second half, four offensive rebounds fueled Michigan's 11-0 run that prevented Wisconsin from pulling away. Whether this uptick in offensive rebounds was due to more concentration, more effort, or just luckier bounces off the rim, it was a key reason why Michigan kept it close.
4. There wasn't an answer for Wisconsin's offense.
Michigan tried to slow down Wisconsin's offense by switching its defenses throughout the game. On some possessions, Michigan would defend Wisconsin in man, and, on others, Michigan would get set in its 2-3 zone. Only twice did Michigan run the 1-3-1. The idea was this would confuse Wisconsin's offense or, at the very least, delay Wisconsin from calling an offensive play until it could diagnose which defense Michigan was in.
In the immediate aftermath of the game, I believed that Michigan's 2-3 zone was much more effective. When Michigan went to the 2-3 zone, Wisconsin seemed to launch a bunch of threes rather than attack Michigan's lack of size down low. And this was never more evident than during Michigan's 11-0 run in the second half, during which Michigan was purely in its 2-3 zone and the Badgers went 0-for-6 and missed all four triples.
However, after rewatching the game tape, I realized that neither Michigan's man defense nor its 2-3 zone was more effective than the other against Wisconsin's offense:
|Type of Defense||Possessions||Points Allowed||PPP||2PM-2PA||3PM-3PA||FTM-FTA||Turnovers|
|Man to Man||20||22||1.10||7-13||2-6||2-2||4|
I would write that maybe Michigan should have run more 2-3 zone and taken its chances that Wisconsin would miss more threes, but Michigan ran the 2-3 zone for the first two possessions of overtime, during which Wisconsin sliced and diced the zone for six points.
Either way, here's the ultimate conclusion: Wisconsin's offense is really, really good.
5. Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes? Not dead?
Maybe I was too quick on the trigger to order a casket for Michigan's 2014-15 season.
Michigan still has a shot to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. Right now, Michigan is way out of the picture. Not even near the frame. But Michigan has an opportunity this next month to insert itself into the picture. Six of Michigan's next eight games are against teams in the KenPom Top 50, and all eight are against teams in the KenPom Top 100. This is the stretch that will determine whether Michigan can realistically make the postseason. If Michigan can win at least four of these games, Michigan just may have an outside chance at an at-large bid when Selection Sunday comes around in March.
However, Michigan will win four of these next eight games only if it plays how it played against Wisconsin on a consistent basis. Game in and game out, Michigan needs to attack the rim as often as it did. Michigan needs to hit its open outside jumpers and not suffer from anymore field-goal droughts that last seven minutes. Michigan needs to continue to pound the offensive glass and generate second-chance points. And Michigan needs to be able to do all of this whether it is playing in front of friendly or hostile spectators.
Will this happen? It seems unlikely given that Michigan has yet to play good basketball for an extended stretch in quite some time. But it's important to note that, after Michigan beat Rutgers in its first game without Caris LeVert, John Beilein said that, before the game, he didn't "know if anyone on this team, looking forward, thought [they] had a chance." Yet Michigan won that game on the road and just took Wisconsin, which is one of the nation's best teams, to overtime. Michigan now may have that confidence that it can in fact compete with anyone in the country even without LeVert. And, with that confidence, Michigan just may believe it can play its best basketball down the stretch.