1. The Big Three is back! Well, it was for one game.
After Michigan collapsed against Purdue in West Lafayette, I sent out a distress signal, wondering where in the world Michigan's purported "Big Three" of Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, Jr., and Zak Irvin had drifted off to. All three were in significant scoring slumps, with neither LeVert nor Walton averaging more than 10 points per game in their previous six games and Irvin's scoring average dipping from 17.7 in his first seven games to 11.4 in his next seven games. Thus, it was a dark time for Michigan's offense, which hovered around 0.8 points per possession in each of its four losses in its past six games. It was painstakingly clear: if the Big Three didn't reappear, Michigan was toast.
But, last night, there was a glimmer of hope. Not one, not two, but all three of the Big Three reemerged from the dark abyss, combining for 47 of Michigan's 73 points, including all 22 scored in the final 10 minutes. LeVert scored a team-high 18 points, making 6-of-8 shots, including three straight in the paint, each with an increasing degree of difficulty, to maintain a small cushion between Michigan and Penn State during the home stretch. Irvin rediscovered his shooting stroke, pouring in 17 points thanks to two triples and two midrange jumpers, including a pivotal one from the right elbow off the dribble that gave Michigan a four-point lead with 1:14 remaining. And Walton, though he struggled around the rim due to a nagging sprained toe that has limited his ability to elevate, finished with 12 points, his best scoring output since he dropped 16 against NJIT in early December, after he made some cool plays under pressure as the game wound down. Accordingly, Michigan's offensive effort against Penn State, an average of 1.163 points per possession, was its best since it fell to NJIT in a stunning shootout.
While it was pleasing to see the Big Three resemble their normal selves for a change last night, this cannot be a once-in-awhile event. This must be an every-game occurrence. Michigan needs LeVert, Walton, and Irvin to carry the scoring burden all the time because the Wolverines don't have anyone else that can create shots for themselves, except for Spike Albrecht on the occasional evening. So Michigan needs what happened last night to be the night that all of the Big Three broke their slumps and returned to their scoring ways. Michigan cannot afford for LeVert, Walton, and Irvin to be put up stinkers against Minnesota this Saturday. Otherwise, U-M will be back to square one.
2. Michigan spit fire from downtown and the FT line.
All offensive success is predicated on shotmaking, but very few offenses rely on outside shooting as much as Michigan. And, before last night, Michigan had a serious problem: in its prior six games, three-pointers accounted for nearly half of its shots, but the Wolverines made only 28.7 percent of them. You want a recipe for losing basketball games? That's one of them. The issue wasn't so much that Michigan was attempting an abundant number of threes, though that certainly wasn't ideal, but that Michigan simply wasn't knocking down these shots. However, given that Michigan has players that have proven to be lethal from downtown, this slide in three-point shooting wasn't sustainable. Sooner or later, the Wolverines were going to heat up, and their offense would soar.
Last night was that night. Michigan opened on fire from behind the arc against Penn State, and there was little the Lions could do to prevent it. The Wolverines connected on their first four threes and seven of their first eight. And, while the Big Three played a pivotal role in this uptick in perimeter shooting, making five threes, it was a team-wide turnaround. Reserves Aubrey Dawkins, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Kameron Chatman drained all four triples they took, and the back-to-back threes Dawkins hit gave U-M a 10-point lead, its largest of the game, near the midway point of the second half. Michigan finished 9-of-15 (60.0 pct.) from downtown -- its best percentage of the season.
But behind the arc wasn't the only place where Michigan shined. The Wolverines also took care of business at the free-throw line. They made 16 of their 19 attempts (84.2 pct.), which was their second-best figure of the season. While every free throw is critical, what was more important was that Michigan made them when they really mattered. In the last 10 minutes, during which the Wolverines' lead fluctuated between two and five points, they converted 10 of their 12 free throws. Walton was the one that keyed this effort. He broke a second-half tie by making all of his freebies after he was fouled on a three-point shot and drained all four in the final minute, while Michigan was in the pressure-packed one-and-one bonus, when Penn State had no choice but to foul if it wanted to mount a comeback. Though Bryce Jordan Center didn't have the hostile atmosphere Michigan will experience when it travels to the Breslin Center or Assembly Hall, Michigan making clutch free throws on the road is never a bad sign for its development or confidence.
3. Michigan was really careless ... until it wasn't.
The one area where Michigan was supposed to excel was in the turnover department. Entering last night's meeting, the Wolverines were 16th in offensive turnover percentage, and the Lions were 286th in defensive turnover percentage. In other words, Michigan was one of the best teams in the country at taking care of the basketball, while Penn State had trouble forcing its opponents to cough up the basketball without a shot. Accordingly, this was supposed to be a game where Michigan had six or seven turnovers maximum.
But this is why games are not played on paper. Instead, Michigan committed 15 turnovers, which is the most by the Wolverines this season. What stands out is that these errors were mostly unforced. Of U-M's 15 turnovers, only five were steals for Penn State. Therefore, Michigan had 10 that were due to erratic passes that went out of bounds, travels, or offensive fouls. Though there's a preference for dead-ball turnovers rather than live-ball ones because it allows a team to get set in its half-court defense and limit fast-break chances -- PSU had only six fast-break points -- these careless turnovers wasted multiple possessions that a hot-shooting Michigan team could have used to pull away from Penn State much earlier. Instead, Michigan went to the wire with Penn State in a game that could have ended on a sour note for U-M with a few different bounces.
However, I must give Michigan some credit here. The Wolverines committed their 15th and final turnover with 8:30 left when Walton floated a pass over LeVert's outstretched arm and out of bounds. When this happened, Michigan led Penn State by only two points, and, shortly thereafter, the Nittany Lions tied things up at 53 points apiece after a 12-2 run. Whatever energy the minuscule Bryce Jordan Center crowd could muster was being mustered, and it would have been a perfect opportunity for the young Wolverines to implode. But Michigan kept its composure, tightened up its offense, and refused to give the ball away again to Penn State for the rest of the contest. That's how you win games.
4. Michigan capitalized when D.J. Newbill sat.
Penn State's offense is D.J. Newbill and more D.J. Newbill. He has an astronomical usage rate, being asked to carry much of the Penn State offense by himself, and, yet, this season, he has been able to do it in an efficient manner by working his way to the rim and knocking down numerous pull-up jumpers around the top of the key. As a result, Newbill is the Big Ten's leading scorer, the only one with a scoring average above 20 points per game, and has proven that he's one of the best players in the Big Ten. It was no different last night when he recorded a game-high 20 points on 17 shot equivalents and repeatedly blew past LeVert and Michigan's perimeter defenders for easy buckets.
However, Penn State has little else offensively outside Newbill, and that was evident last night. No, I'm not dismissing reserve John Johnson's absurd shooting night, during which he made 4-of-8 threes and finished with 16 points to more than double his season average of 6.8 points per game. But let's look at Brandon Taylor, who has launched the second-most shots for Penn State despite owning one of the worst offensive ratings in the Big Ten. Last night, Taylor scored only two points on 1-of-10 shooting, missing countless bunnies within five feet of the rim. Or, better yet, let's look at the fact that, in the six minutes that Newbill sat on the bench, Michigan outscored Penn State, 13-1.
5. This was one of many must-wins for Michigan.
With the win last night, Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes remain alive. It's not that they would have been completely extinguished with a loss, but this was another one of those semi-tossup games that Michigan couldn't afford to lose if it wants to dance come March. Yes, it was a road game against a team with a 12-3 record, but Penn State's record is inflated as I've written repeatedly in my Big Ten Power Rankings. Thus, this was a very winnable game, and, because the Wolverines were able to walk away with the victory, they are now 2-1 in the Big Ten and one step closer to the nine or 10 conference wins they will very likely need to earn an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan has another must-win game when Minnesota rolls into town this Saturday. The Gophers are No. 40 on KenPom, so KenPom gives Michigan only 51-percent odds to win even though the Wolverines will be within the comfortable confines of their own arena. However, Minnesota is on a three-game tailspin after opening the Big Ten season with road losses to Purdue and Maryland and an overtime loss to Ohio State at home. The Gophers will be desperate for that first Big Ten win and looking to impose their frenetic style of play on Michigan. However, if Michigan can slow down the tempo and, unlike last night, take care of the ball, U-M may add another much-needed win to its resume.