Michigan sunk Northern Kentucky, 77-62, with some hot shooting at the Crisler Center on Tuesday night to improve to 8-3. Here are my five takeaways from Michigan's win:
1. Caris LeVert Had a Night for the Record Books
This was going to be a memorable night for Caris LeVert. The former three-star recruit, who neither was in the top 200 in his respective class nor wanted by John Groce as he left Ohio to coach at Illinois, entered Tuesday night's game against Northern Kentucky with 997 career points, needing just three more to become the 49th player in Michigan history to reach 1,000. It would be a significant milestone and one that deserved to be applauded. And, thankfully, LeVert didn't make us all wait too long to clap our hands:
Sweet Eurostep for an and-one for LeVert. pic.twitter.com/26KdL05M9E— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) December 16, 2015
LeVert would hit the ensuing free throw to earn his 1,000th career point at Michigan.
However, what we didn't know was that LeVert wasn't done making his mark in Michigan's record book. He wouldn't make another field goal in the opening 20 minutes, but he put on his distributor cap. He found his big men underneath for easy layups and Duncan Robinson for three triples to tally six assists in the first half. Add in that LeVert was doing his part on the defensive glass, and he had a 4-4-6 heading into the break.
The Triple-Double Alert had been sounded.
LeVert satisfied the points requirement in the opening sequence of the second half, scoring six points in the first four minutes to reach 10 total. Now he just needed to get to 10 rebounds and 10 assists. LeVert had recorded double-digit rebounds just once before in his career (11 vs. Purdue on Jan. 30, 2014). Double-digit assists? Never. However, as the second half progressed, LeVert inched closer and closer to the needed totals, and, with just under three minutes left, he had a 13-9-9. It still was possible, but, with Michigan owning a 17-point lead, it seemed that John Beilein would pull LeVert soon.
However, in a quick 20-second span, LeVert made history. With 2:25 left, he soared up and snatched a defensive rebound from Drew McDonald's miss, and, with 2:05 left, he hit Mark Donnal underneath for a layup. Check and check. Just like that, LeVert had 13 points, 10 boards, and 10 assists, registering the fourth triple-double in Michigan history.
The funniest part is, when the Crisler Center crowd roared as Donnal's layup dropped through the net, Beilein had no idea what the Michigan spectators were celebrating:
John Beilein on being blissfully unaware Caris LeVert was nearing the fourth triple-double in program history: pic.twitter.com/kbxTzeaSed— Lev Facher (@levfacher) December 16, 2015
It was an incredible moment for an incredible player in a night full of milestones.
2. Derrick Walton Looked Healthy in His Return
Though Caris LeVert became the main storyline after the game, Derrick Walton was the main storyline going into it. On Monday, John Beilein announced that Walton would be available to play against Northern Kentucky after missing the prior three games with a sprained left ankle. Beilein also added that he wasn't sure if Walton would start or not.
Not only did Walton start against the Norse, Beilein played him for 34 minutes. If I had been told that this would happen before the game, I would have been concerned because Michigan made the mistake of rushing Walton back from his toe injury too soon and causing further damage last season. However, that doesn't appear to be the case this season. If anything, Beilein and Michigan may have been extra cautious in sitting Walton out three games because Walton looked like his usual self on Tuesday, scoring 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting and grabbing three rebounds. Walton may not have hit full speed, but he was making quick cuts and stopping on a dime if needed. He even had a transition layup during which he had to use some nifty footwork to move across the lane from left to right before tossing the ball off the glass and into the bucket. The only brief scare came in the second half when Walton went up for a layup, took a body shot in midair, and fell awkwardly to the floor. Every Michigan fan held his or her breath as it happened, but Walton hopped up, albeit a bit gingerly, and finished the game with no glaring problems.
In addition to not suffering an embarrassing loss, the most important key of this final non-conference stretch is to get healthy. That Walton looked how he did is a great sign.
3. Duncan Robinson Continued to Dazzle from Deep
How did everyone overlook Duncan Robinson, except John Beilein of course?
The D-III transfer continued to light it up for Michigan from the outside and put on a show in the first half on Tuesday night. Robinson drilled 6-of-7 threes for 18 points in the first 20 minutes against Northern Kentucky. And all of his makes came from one spot:
Does he have a favorite spot? pic.twitter.com/LXPZC8duXb— Dylan Burkhardt (@umhoops) December 16, 2015
Robinson's three-point shooting was critical because it kept a nice cushion between the Wolverines and the Norse as NKU continued to score frequently on the other end.
Northern Kentucky made a concerted effort to shut Robinson down in the second half, and it worked. The Norse had a defender face-guard and follow him everywhere on the court. This prohibited Robinson from having any open looks. The only shot he took after halftime was a 25-foot bomb from the left wing as the shot clock wound down. Though Michigan was content to allow NKU to deploy this defensive strategy because it opened driving lanes for Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, I still would like to see Michigan try a bit harder to get open shots for Robinson in these situations. Big Ten teams will watch this film and search for methods to take Robinson out of games. Michigan must be ready.
Nonetheless, it's remarkable what Robinson has done so far on offense as a D-III transfer. He's the second-leading scorer on the team (12.4 PPG). In his last six games, two of which he's started, he's averaged 15.7 PPG, which is just a tad below what LeVert has done in that same span (15.8 PPG). Nationally, he's first in eFG% (86.0), second in offensive rating (157.2), and sixth in three-point shooting (60.9 pct.). With Walton hurt and Zak Irvin struggling with his shot, Robinson has become a needed secondary scorer.
He's also shown flashes of being quite the passer, too:
Sweet pass, Duncan. pic.twitter.com/B1FYWGqUKQ— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) December 16, 2015
4. Ricky Doyle and Michigan's Defense Had Another Tough Night
Alright, let's get to the negatives.
This was yet another poor game for Ricky Doyle and Michigan's defense. I'll start with Doyle's offense before getting to the defense as a whole. Doyle had nine points and five rebounds. However, he should have had at least 13 points, and two of his three offensive rebounds were off his own misses around the basket. That's the problem. Doyle was 3-of-7 from the field and slammed home both of his dunks. But, when he needed to put in a short jumper -- no further than three or four feet -- he missed four of his five tries. And some of those misses were uncontested and bad. Though Doyle has made 61 percent of his twos this season like last season, he doesn't have the same touch around the bucket.
Defensively, Michigan was a mess in the first half. Though the Wolverines were scorching from the field on offense, they couldn't pull away from Northern Kentucky because the Norse received too many easy looks. NKU, who actually shoots quite well inside the arc, took full advantage and made 11-of-17 twos (64.7 pct.) before halftime. Some of these twos were on contested jumpers, about which Michigan could do little, but too many came as a result of bad pick and roll defense, slow rotations, and 6-foot-6 center Jalen Billups (16 points on 7-11 FG in the game) bullying Doyle in the post. This propelled Northern Kentucky to 34 points in 31 first-half possessions (1.10 PPP). Yeesh.
Michigan cleaned up its mistakes in the second half, allowing just 28 points in 33 possessions (0.85 PPP) as NKU's two-point shooting dropped and its carelessness set in with eight turnovers, but this still is a cause for concern. Better offenses will capitalize on Michigan's defensive weaknesses, especially inside, if the Wolverines don't fix them.
5. Did We Just See John Beilein's Rotation for the Big Ten Season?
With Derrick Walton back in action, we may have seen the rotation that John Beilein will use once Big Ten play begins. Beilein started Walton, Caris LeVert, Duncan Robinson, Zak Irvin, and Ricky Doyle, and all but Doyle played at least 34 minutes, while only two reserves saw serious time: Mark Donnal (14) and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (11).
There were two surprises. The first was how much Beilein went to Donnal given Moritz Wagner had been the first big off the bench in recent games. Beilein said afterwards that Donnal earned his time with a strong practice on Monday, which translated to a strong game on Tuesday (11 points, 5-6 FG). I'm sure Wagner will have his chances to earn some minutes back. The second and bigger surprise, though, was that Aubrey Dawkins played only four minutes just two games after he was the starter. Robinson has played very well recently, but I find it hard to believe that Dawkins would fall out of the rotation that quickly. I wonder how much he plays on Saturday vs. Youngstown State.