On Tuesday night in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Michigan staved off North Carolina State's comeback bid for a 66-59 win in Raleigh despite losing Derrick Walton to a left ankle sprain in the first half. My five takeaways:
1. That Was Resilient
What we saw last night wasn't something that we always have seen from Michigan on the road. Quality road wins have not been easy to come by in recent seasons. Some of that is because it took time for John Beilein to build Michigan into a respectable program. Some of that also is because few programs beat top-25 opponents on the road on a regular basis, and Michigan has opposed more than its fair share of elite teams in hostile conditions. However, even when the Wolverines took on comparable competition on the road, things often didn't go well. I think back to the overtime losses to Illinois and Northwestern last season, the Penn State collapse in 2013, and the Arkansas upset in 2012 among others. When "momentum" would turn against the Wolverines, they would fold.
The only exception to this was the 2013-14 team, who were Big Ten road warriors.
Last night was Michigan's first true road game of the season, and we learned how the Wolverines will respond when the pressure mounts, the adversity piles up, and almost every spectator in the building roots for their demise. NC State is not an elite team, but the Wolfpack are solid, No. 65 on KenPom. This essentially was a 50-50 game in the eyes of KenPom and Vegas oddsmakers. So, when Derrick Walton exited in the first half with a left ankle injury and the Wolfpack cut Michigan's lead from 15 to four with lots of time to spare in the second half, all I could think to myself was "Oh, boy, here we go again."
But you know what helps in these situations? Having a potential All-American senior who's endured most pressure-packed scenarios imaginable. With less than seven minutes left, Michigan clung to a 50-46 lead. But then Caris LeVert took over. He dished the ball to Duncan Robinson on the right wing, and Robinson buried a three with a hand in his face. 53-46. On the next trip down, Michigan pushed the tempo after an NC State miss. LeVert penetrated inside before he kicked it out to a wide-open Zak Irvin in the left corner, and Irvin rattled home the three. 56-46. Then, as the Wolfpack tried to make a final push, LeVert threw a bullet pass to a rolling Moritz Wagner underneath for an and-one layup -- Wagner missed the freebie -- and knocked down all six of his free throws in the last minute to ensure that NC State wouldn't draw any closer than seven points.
If you weren't counting, that was six points and three assists by LeVert that accounted for 14 of Michigan's 16 points in the final seven minutes of a seven-point road win.
That's resiliency. That's staring adversity in the face and telling it to kick rocks. And it's something that I wouldn't be surprised we see more of with LeVert leading this team.
2. Surprisingly, Michigan's Two-Point Shooting Was the Difference
Going against an NC State defense that was stout inside but tended to cede open looks on the perimeter, Michigan would need to light it up from three to win, most thought. Before Tuesday, NC State's opponents had made only 40.9 percent of their twos due to the Wolfpack's length at spots 2 through 5. NC State starts four players that are at least 6-foot-7, and that allows them to block and contest most shots inside. Though Michigan can score from all over the floor, the Wolverines had been bothered by their opponent's length against Xavier, UConn, and even Texas to an extent. It was expected that this would repeat itself when Michigan tried to get in the paint for easier looks vs. NC State.
However, that wasn't the case at all. Michigan converted 17-of-28 twos (60.7 pct.), which kept the Wolverines afloat on offense as shooters not named Duncan Robinson missed 11 of their 13 threes. Michigan did this by attacking the rim. Eighteen of its 28 twos were dunks or layups, and Michigan finished 12 of them. Though some were thanks to strong dribble drives -- Zak Irvin had two, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had a spinning layup on the left block -- many were wide open because the Wolverines ran the pick and roll very well. The Wolfpack preferred to double the ball-handler on the perimeter, but their secondary rotations were slow, which left the screener open as he rolled to the hoop. Caris LeVert and Irvin, who combined for 11 of Michigan's 15 assists, would wait a few beats after the screen for the lane to clear before firing a rocket pass to Moritz Wagner, who scored six of his eight points this way, and Ricky Doyle for easy finishes. This is why Michigan had 10 more points in the paint (28) than an NC State team (18) that relies on interior scoring. Michigan wasn't supposed to win in this area, but it did.
3. Michigan's Rebounding Kept NC State at Bay in the First Half
Similar to Texas, NC State is a team that doesn't shoot the ball well but pounds the offensive glass hard for second-chance points. It's no secret that Michigan has struggled to haul in defensive rebounds. But, in the first half, Michigan fended off the Wolfpack about as well as it could. NC State mustered only three offensive boards in the first 20 minutes, while Michigan grabbed 17 defensive rebounds. That was an offensive rebounding rate of 15 percent for the Wolfpack, which was well below their season average of 34.1 percent. NC State improved in the second half, snagging 10 of their 23 misses, but the lack of second-chance points in the opening frame did them in. The Wolfpack couldn't keep pace with Michigan and fell behind by eight points at halftime and by 15 early in the second half. Michigan's big men did an adequate job boxing NC State's centers, Lennard Freeman and Beejay Anya, but it was the wings and guards that stepped up as Caris LeVert had nine boards, Zak Irvin had five, and MAAR had four. Michigan won't be a great rebounding team, but it must be able to hold its own at times.
4. Duncan Robinson and Moritz Wagner Are the Sparks Off the Bench
Duncan Robinson and Moritz Wagner -- two Wolverines that weren't eligible to play last season -- continued to be scoring threats off the bench. In Michigan's last two games of the Battle 4 Atlantis against Charlotte and Texas, the pair averaged 24.5 PPG with a 95.8 eFG% (!!). That sort of production didn't stop against NC State when Robinson (17) and Wagner (8) combined for 25 points with an 83.4 eFG%. Robinson was key from the perimeter as he always is, connecting on 5-of-7 threes that included three in quick succession in the first half and a huge one to stop the bleeding in the second. He's now shooting 60.6 percent from downtown, which should be an impossible rate to sustain but is it? (Don't be an idiot, Drew. Of course it is). Plus, Robinson even flashed a nice pull-up jumper from the free-throw line. And then there's Wagner, who looks more comfortable on offense game by game. Not only does he have soft hands and a nice touch around the rim, he has the muscle to finish through contact and the quickness to do stuff like this:
OK, MORITZ WAGNER pic.twitter.com/W3cfKeXha0— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) December 2, 2015
Robinson and Wagner have become quite the dynamic duo off the bench for Michigan.
5. Derrick Walton's Injury Couldn't Come at a Better Time
Derrick Walton sprained his left ankle last night and didn't play in the second half. After the game, John Beilein said that it didn't look like a long-term injury and that therapy on it would begin right away. However, Michigan fans can't help but think back to just last season when Walton's left toe injury early in the fifth game was thought to be only a short-term thing but cost him his season. That Walton hurt the same foot that he injured last season is a major concern, but, if it had to happen, this is the best time for it. Though Michigan has a difficult road matchup with SMU next Tuesday, five of its next six games are home contests against opponents that are outside the KenPom top 250. Michigan can afford to be without Walton until Big Ten play starts on December 30th. Therefore, while Michigan would like to have a healthy Walton against the Mustangs, there is no reason to push Walton for the next month. Allow him to rest, rehab, and get back to 100 percent.