Despite a slowish start on Wednesday, Michigan took care of business and obtained a 78-68 road win over a shorthanded Illinois squad. Here are my five takeaways:
1. Where the heck did that come from, Mark Donnal?
There were signs that Mark Donnal had started to piece things together in the weeks before Wednesday. On December 15th against Northern Kentucky, Donnal scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in just 14 minutes. Eight days later against Bryant, he tallied seven points on 3-of-4 shooting and six rebounds in only 12 minutes. However, those weren't opponents that you'd confuse with Big Ten programs not named Rutgers, and Donnal -- or any Michigan big man, for that matter -- hasn't been able to produce on a consistent basis. Therefore, it wasn't expected that Donnal, whose previous career highs were 13 points and seven rebounds, would be in line for a career-best performance.
But Donnal shocked everyone when he shattered those career highs with 26 points (!!) on 11-of-15 shooting and nine rebounds in the win against Illinois. Donnal, who's had a reputation for being weak around the rim, demonstrated a physical toughness and aggression that simply hadn't been seen before. While most of his layups were open, he went strong to the basket, even fighting through contact on this finish for an and-one:
Mark Donnal is averaging 20 points per Big Ten game this season. https://t.co/gggMA9nUDQ— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) December 30, 2015
He battled hard for offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive, grabbing six of them against an Illinois team that was 52nd in defensive rebounding rate before the game:
I'm sorry for the number of Mark Donnal highlights but I'm just so surprised any of this is happening https://t.co/XLdQUCER4R— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) December 30, 2015
And he made his presence known on the defensive end, blocking three shots:
Mark Donnal with the emphatic rejection: https://t.co/luLdVAS13p— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) December 30, 2015
What was noticeable was that Donnal got stronger as the game continued, scoring 18 points and grabbing six rebounds after the intermission. It was as if Donnal, a sophomore who had averaged only 3.9 PPG and 2.1 RPG in 9.8 MPG in his first 11 games this year and been replaced in the starting lineup in back-to-back seasons, was shedding the self-doubt that he had placed upon himself. He admitted that in the mental sense afterwards:
"It's something I knew I was capable of doing, but it definitely felt good to have done it now," Donnal said. "There's burden off my back."
But even that shedding of self-doubt seemed to manifest physically because Donnal appeared lighter on his feet. He was jumping higher around the rim when shooting or going for rebounds. He rose off the ground faster when he was trying for those blocks. He moved faster when running pick-and-rolls and contesting Illinois' perimeter shots.
Donnal was extremely active, which led to his incredible performance.
So does this mean Michigan has a brand-new Donnal for the Big Ten season? Well...
2. Let's not overreact, though. The Illinois caveat must apply.
While Mark Donnal looked excellent, I'm hesitant to declare this was his breakthrough game and he'll perform like this for the rest of the season. Michigan's big men have had big games before in the past two seasons, but they were aberrations. I've learned not to overreact to one positive data point. Otherwise, you'll be set up for disappointment.
And I don't want to overreact to a performance against Illinois, which has personnel that Michigan could exploit down low. Offensively, the Illini start four guards and a center that prefer to hang around the perimeter and shoot jumpers. It wasn't often that they tried to post up Donnal on the block, which is something he hasn't handled well against skilled big men. Defensively, the Illini have the second-worst unit in the Big Ten (173rd in adjusted efficiency) because opponents easily penetrate into the paint where they're able to attack the rim freely (249th in 2P%) or kick out to open teammates for threes (317th in 3P%). Think about how Donnal earned most of his points. Yes, he stepped back and drilled a three and finished a nice turnaround hook after his own offensive rebound. However, the other nine field goals he made were eight layups and a tip-in, and all eight of those layups were assisted by Michigan guards that got inside when they ran ISO or pick-and-rolls, drew an extra defender, and found an open Donnal around the bucket.
Credit should be (and has been) given to Donnal for finishing strong, but how many of those points did Donnal earn on his own? What happens when Michigan faces much better defenses that can contain ISO and the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls? How will Donnal score his points then? Can Donnal suddenly start defending burlier men on the block? There's no question that Donnal looked the part against Illinois and deserves to be the starter for at least the next few games given how much Ricky Doyle has struggled, but there just are too many questions that must be answered before I comfortably claim that Michigan has a legitimate center that opposing Big Ten programs will fear. Time will tell.
3. Caris LeVert was Michigan's MVP in this win.
Mark Donnal grabbed the headlines, including the top takeaway in this column, and deservedly so, but I would argue that Caris LeVert truly was Michigan's MVP in the win over Illinois. LeVert posted 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting, 10 assists, and five rebounds, notching the third double-double of his career. In the opening minutes as Michigan's offense struggled to find a rhythm against Illinois' pressure on the perimeter, it was LeVert who prevented the Illini from sprinting out to a large lead. He scored the Wolverines' first nine points, knocking down a tough mid-range jumper and a three before taking two authoritative drives to the hole for layups, to tie the game. Then, later on, it was LeVert that really got Donnal humming in this contest. Of LeVert's 10 assists, seven were to Donnal, who mostly had open layups because Illinois' defense had to help over on LeVert's constant drives. And, if those defenders didn't help, LeVert did this:
Illinois can't defend Caris LeVert https://t.co/ZdMqz0PnMg— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) December 30, 2015
The key was LeVert's ability to drive past Illinois' perimeter defenders. He was the only Wolverine that could do it in ISO -- others needed screens to create the space -- and Illinois simply couldn't stay in front of him. That's what made LeVert so effective as a scorer and a passer, which is why he accounted for 47 of Michigan's 78 points (60.3 pct.).
That sounds like the Game MVP to me.
4. Michigan messed with Malcolm Hill again.
Malcolm Hill is a great player for Illinois and one of the Big Ten's leading scorers (18.1 PPG and 50.0 eFG%). However, when he faces Michigan, things tend not to go well for him. In his five prior starts against the Wolverines, Hill averaged 10.8 PPG with a 42.9 eFG% and 4.4 RPG in 31.0 MPG. So what was Hill's stat line against Michigan on Wednesday? 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting (31.8 eFG%), three rebounds, three assists, and three turnovers. The performance led to an offensive rating of 80, which was his worst mark of the season. I don't know what it is exactly, but there is something about Michigan's defense and his matchup with Zak Irvin that gives Hill problems on offense.
5. These are the games that NCAA Tournament teams win.
A common theme entering the Big Ten season was the uncertainty as to how good Michigan is. The non-conference portion of the schedule didn't shed much light onto it because Michigan overpowered the dregs of D-I basketball but couldn't hang with the top-25 teams it faced. Therefore, to build an NCAA Tournament-caliber resume, Michigan must pile up wins in the Big Ten and hope that there'll be some signature ones in the mix. Though a win over Illinois, who's now 8-6, is not a signature win by any means, it was a win that Michigan couldn't afford to let slip away. Why? A loss would be a blemish on the resume because Illinois likely won't be an RPI top-100 team when it's all said and done. Plus, it was a game in which the matchups greatly favored the Wolverines. Michigan may have had a sloppy first half with lots of turnovers -- 10, to be exact -- but U-M regained its focus and did what it needed to do to win comfortably down the stretch. That's what NCAA Tournament teams do, and this was a step in that direction.