In its final warm-up before it likely faces five straight high-major opponents, No. 24 Michigan (2-0) rolled in an 88-68 win against Elon (1-1). The Phoenix kept it tight for much of the first half, trailing only by a score of 31-30 with 3:40 left in the opening frame. However, in the next 6:32, which spanned into the second half, the Wolverines went on a 22-3 spurt to remove any doubt as to whom the victor would be.
Here are my five takeaways from Michigan's second win of the season:
1. Zak Irvin Was Stiff in His Return from Back Surgery
The most important development on Monday night was the return of Zak Irvin after he underwent surgery on his back in September. From the get-go, the timetable for Irvin's recovery was slotted to end somewhere near the start of the season. That he missed the exhibition vs. Le Moyne and the opener vs. Northern Michigan was fine because there was no need to rush him back to face Division II competition. However, this was Michigan's last chance to give him some minutes to work up a sweat in game conditions before the Wolverines host Xavier, fly to the Bahamas, and travel to NC State in a 12-day stretch. That Irvin was able to dress and play for 15 minutes was a great sign.
However, Irvin still isn't all the way "back." He didn't score against Elon and bricked all five of his shots, three of which were from behind the arc. Usually, I'd attribute such a shooting effort to first-game jitters, but Irvin didn't look comfortable when he rose in the air to launch his shot. He seemed stiff, and it appeared that his back still is bothering him a bit, which shouldn't be unexpected. My guess is that he'll work through this in time.
But will Irvin work through it before the end of these next two weeks?
Nonetheless, that doesn't mean Irvin didn't have a positive impact last night. The old Irvin -- the one from the first 1.5 seasons of his career -- would have added little else to Michigan's win if he didn't make his shots. The new Irvin -- the one transformed into an all-around player down the stretch as a sophomore -- found other ways to contribute. He tallied three assists, two of which occurred when he dribbled into the interior, sucking in the defense, before he found an open Duncan Robinson in the corner for threes. And Irvin's presence on the perimeter opened space for Michigan's offense to run its sets. So Irvin may not be the artillery weapon that he usually is, but it's great to see him back.
2. That Was as Good as I've Seen Derrick Walton Play
Monday night made it clear what a difference a healthy Derrick Walton is for Michigan.
It can be argued Walton has had other performances that were more important because of the caliber of the opponent -- like his 19-point, six-rebound, four-assist effort in Michigan's 80-75 win over Michigan State in East Lansing when he was a freshman -- but last night was as good as I've seen Walton play. He made 8-of-10 shots, including 6-of-7 threes, to score a career-high 24 points and added seven assists, six rebounds, and a steal.
Walton was in total control. Knock down an open three-pointer? No problem. Hit a pull-up jumper from the left wing as the shot clock expires? He did it. Corral up a loose ball and use a euro-step to finish a layup in transition? Easy. Drop a no-look pass to an open Wolverine for a simple shot? Done deal. It was the first time that we saw Walton be aggressive and effectively take over the offense since he sprained his toe against Villanova last year. He hadn't done it yet this season, preferring to hang in the periphery and pick his spots, and his toe hampered his ability to do it for most of last season.
And it's a good thing that Walton went into overdrive because he ignited Michigan's offense when the Wolverines needed to separate themselves from Elon. In the first 10:07 of the game, Michigan scored just 12 points in 17 possessions (0.71 PPP) and trailed the Phoenix. That's when Walton checked back into the game after taking a two-minute breather. He played for the next 14:59, and, in that span, the Wolverines scored 45 points, of which Walton accounted for 21, in 28 possessions (1.61 PPP). His presence was monumental, and it's difficult to remember the last time he's had that much of a positive impact as he did vs. Elon. And that's because there may not be such a circumstance.
3. Michigan Doesn't Need One Player to Carry the Offensive Burden
Due to Derrick Walton's sprained toe and Zak Irvin's early-season sophomore slump, Caris LeVert was tasked with carry Michigan's offense by himself last season until he fractured his foot. The burden was too much for LeVert to handle, and Michigan's offense, which had been the nation's best for two years running, suffered greatly.
That's not a problem Michigan will have this season.
There's no doubt that LeVert is Michigan's top player, but Michigan now has the firepower to pick up the slack if he's not having his best scoring night. For example, in the opener vs. Northern Michigan, it was LeVert and Aubrey Dawkins that led the way, posting 18 and 15 points, respectively, while no other Wolverine poured in more than seven points. Last night, it was Walton and Duncan Robinson that shined. Walton scored 24 points on just 10 field-goal attempts and pitched in seven assists, while Robinson torched the nets to the tune of 19 points on a perfect 6-of-6 (5-of-5 3FG) shooting. LeVert still had a fine game, recording 11 points (3-of-8 FG), seven assists, four rebounds, and four steals, but he doesn't need to be the star every game. And that's a relief for Michigan.
4. Mark Donnal Will Fall Out of the Rotation If He Doesn't Pick It Up
Mark Donnal started as Michigan's center in the exhibition and its first two official games, but I would be surprised if that streak stretched to Friday. Donnal didn't stand out in the first two contests, and he really stumbled vs. Elon. He had six points and an offensive rating of 142 against the Phoenix, but, as it always has been with Donnal, his numbers don't convey the true narrative. He always has good numbers because he always has good looks, yet he still misses far too many of them. Last night, both of his misses were bunnies where he failed to go up strong at the rim. And one of those was right after he was slow to close out on an Elon shooter on the baseline, which wasn't even his worst defensive possession. That occurred when an Elon post player backed Donnal into the paint and easily maneuvered around him for a wide-open layup. If big men from CAA programs are bullying Donnal, what's going to happen when Big Ten big men do it?
Ricky Doyle, who had a much stronger eight points and three boards, should start at center against Xavier. Donnal can back him up, but, if Donnal doesn't raise his game soon, he may lose those minutes to D.J. Wilson, who's played more 4 than 5 but whose length, athleticism, and foot speed could be a major asset around the rim on both ends.
And, speaking of falling out of the rotation, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman seems to be the first one losing minutes. He played only eight minutes vs. Elon -- a game in which Spike Albrecht, who's still recovering from two hip surgeries, was on the floor for only 10 minutes. So what's going to happen when Albrecht is 100 percent and John Beilein starts to cut down on the rotation so he can lock Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert in for 32 to 34 minutes each game? It doesn't look promising for Michigan's sophomore guard.
5. Refs Really Adhered to Stricter Defensive Contact Rules Last Night
One of the rule changes that the NCAA implemented in the offseason is to more strictly enforce defensive contact and allow for greater freedom of movement. Essentially, its purpose is to prevent defenders from bear-hugging players that are slashing through the paint or cutting to the rim. However, the rule itself is vague, which means that officials will enforce it differently. And we saw the effect of that last night, when the slightest touching was grounds for a whistle. It felt like one of the tighter called Michigan games in recent memory, and the stats support that. Michigan committed 22 fouls vs. Elon, which tied the most by Michigan since it had 24 of them vs. Oakland in December 2011.
It was a drag watching a basketball game officiated in this manner, but, ultimately, if referees continue to enforce this new rule as strictly as they did last night, it will benefit Michigan. Under John Beilein, the Wolverines are notorious for not fouling, and the odds are that Michigan won't be penalized like this very often. However, what this rule will do is impact defensive teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin that thrive on tackling slashers and cutters. They won't get away with their physical defenses anymore, and Michigan's offense will have more space with which to work during the Big Ten slate.
That's, of course, if the officials don't revert to their old ways after the first few weeks.