1. A rivalry loss always will be disappointing, but there's a bigger picture here: Michigan is ... good.
That's what I thought to myself as it became clear in the final minute of overtime that Michigan would fall to in-state rival Michigan State at the Breslin Center. Regardless of the spread, odds, or circumstances, it's damn near impossible to stomach a loss to a rival, whether it be Ohio State or Michigan State, particularly when that loss is the result of a back-and-forth affair that has your hopes elevated for the entirety of the contest.
As the hope leaked out and the disappointment crept in upon my realization that Michigan would not be the victor, Michigan State's student section, The Izzone, began chanting in unison, "Little Sister!" -- the Spartans' "clever" response to when Mike Hart referred to Michigan State as Michigan's "little brother" after the Wolverines beat the Spartans on the football field in 2007. In addition to that the chant is misogynistic, the chant lit a fire in me because these Spartan students were attempting to taunt Michigan about eking past Michigan -- a team missing its two best players and playing two walk-ons for extended minutes -- in overtime on their home court. So I fired off this tweet:
MSU students chant "Little Sister" after a U-M team without its two best players and playing walk-ons just took them to OT. Good burn.— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) February 1, 2015
While The Izzone is certainly allowed to celebrate a win, I thought it was a sad display by Michigan State's students to yell that chant because, not only does it demean women, it demonstrated how much pride they were taking in a win that their team was expected to earn by double digits in regulation rather than by the skin of its teeth in overtime.
However, as I reflected on the game afterwards while watching the Super Bowl, I realized that the motivation for this chant was not as misplaced as it initially seemed -- though The Izzone needs to retire this chant unless it wants to continue to promote its questionable views on gender. The Izzone wasn't taking pride in Michigan State beating a team that has been ravaged by injuries and floundering ever since. The Izzone was taking pride in Michigan State beating a team that has been playing some of its best basketball all season despite having two of its star players on the bench with injuries.
It's hard to believe, but, since it was announced that Caris LeVert would miss the rest of the season with a fractured foot, Michigan has been ... good. In the four games since that announcement, the Wolverines used a barrage of threes in the final six minutes to earn a road win at Rutgers, took Wisconsin -- the class of the Big Ten -- to overtime, rolled over Nebraska in the second half for a double-digit win, and played Michigan State even through the first 40 minutes in East Lansing. The effort at Rutgers may have been a bit shaky, but there's little doubt Michigan's last three games have been three of its best performances of the season. And Michigan completed the last two without Derrick Walton, too. Yet, somehow, Michigan is hitting its stride at the perfect moment.
It's important to remember this, even if Michigan's loss to Michigan State still stings. Notwithstanding all of the injuries, illnesses, obstacles, and road blocks, the Wolverines are performing well enough that a magical run to the NCAA Tournament is still very much possible. And they will need to maintain this level of play on Thursday when they host a quality Iowa outfit that is riding a three-game losing streak. If the Wolverines do so, it will be further reminder that this depleted Michigan team is actually good now.
And you likely won't find yourself thinking, "Dammit!" in immediate aftermath either.
For the second time in three games, an undermanned Michigan team forced overtime against a heavy favorite. And, each time, an undermanned Michigan team ran out of gas. Against Wisconsin, Michigan surrendered the first six points to the Badgers and never could recover. Against Michigan State, it was much, much worse for the Wolverines.
Michigan's offense was humming in regulation against Michigan State, particularly in the second half when the Wolverines scored 42 points. After the first 40 minutes, Michigan had tallied 66 points in 61 possessions for an offensive rate of 108.2 points per 100 possessions. This is a great rate against the Spartans' defense, which has been the Big Ten's best in conference play. And Michigan was able to put points on the scoreboard because it was shooting the ball very well, recording an eFG% of 52.6 percent. Given the offensive rhythm Michigan had discovered in the second half, it was assumed that Michigan's offensive production would carry over into the critical overtime session.
But that's not what happened. Instead, Michigan was scoreless in overtime, missing all five of its shots, drawing iron on the front end of a one-and-one free throw, and committing two turnovers. So what happened? The extra session spiraled out of control for the Wolverines early when, trailing by two points, Spike Albrecht did not connect on an open three from the top of the key. It was a shot that would have given Michigan a one-point lead and lots of energy. But it rimmed out, and, on Michigan State's ensuing possession, the Spartans knocked down two free throws to extend their lead to four points. From there, Michigan panicked. Rather than attack the rim and claw back into the contest, Michigan's offense stagnated and went for home run three-pointers, none of which fell. And, as the clock bled, the Spartans built their lead with layups and free throws to the point where Michigan had no chance to come back in the final minute.
These overtime losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State could come back to haunt the Wolverines come Selection Sunday if they find themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble. These were opportunities to land signature wins to enhance a resume that has too many blemishes on it. Hopefully, if the Wolverines are forced to head to overtime against a quality opponent again, they will open the overtime session much faster.
Unheralded freshmen that weren't even expected to play this season aren't supposed to strut into the Breslin Center and torch Michigan State, but that's what Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkamn did. Abdur-Rahkman doubled his career high by scoring 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting and once again demonstrated that he is the only healthy Wolverine that can penetrate into the paint and convert looks at the rim. Nine of his 14 field-goal attempts were within 10 feet of the rim, of which he made five, including one where he bullied Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year leader Branden Dawson on the block. And Abdur-Rahkman also proved he has a very nice shooting touch from the outside, too.
This was not a fluky performance either. In four of his last five games, Abdur-Rahkman received at least 20 minutes of playing time. And, in all four of those games, he scored at least nine points, tallying them in a very similar fashion to how he produced against the Spartans. With Derrick Walton out for the foreseeable future, expect much of the same.
4. Benching the auto-bench.
I before have discussed my ill will for the auto-bench strategy -- when a coach benches a player with two fouls for the rest of the first half even when that player is not likely to foul out in the second half -- and it's time to discuss it again. With 10:31 left in the first half and Michigan holding a seven-point lead, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who had been Michigan's offensive catalyst, picked up his second foul. John Beilein took him out, inserting walk-on Andrew Dakich, to prevent Abdur-Rahkman from committing a quick third foul. However, rather than reinsert Abdur-Rahkman a few minutes later, Beilein kept him on the bench for the rest of the half, and it may have cost U-M a win.
With 5:22 left in the first half and Michigan clinging to only a one-point lead, Spike Albrecht committed his second foul. Beilein needed to send Abdur-Rahkman back in, so Abdur-Rahkman could stabilize the offense and prevent Michigan State from going on a run to end the half. However, Beilein kept Abdur-Rahkman on the bench, instead inserting walk-on Sean Lonergan to replace Albrecht. So, rather than put a player with two fouls back in the game that was unlikely to foul out and had been Michigan's best player, Beilein decided to have two walk-on guards on the court at the same time in a one-point game on the road against a rival. This was not necessary whatsoever.
Result: with Dakich and Lonergan on the court, Michigan State went on a 13-5 run.
If Abdur-Rahkman had been in for that stretch, his presence likely is worth a few points for Michigan, and those points would have been crucial in a game that went to overtime. I'm not guaranteeing Michigan would have won in regulation because those points can't be transferred to the final score linearly, but we could have had a different winner.
5. Zak Irvin's shooting stroke, where art thou?
Zak Irvin scored 11 points against Michigan State, but he didn't do it efficiently and looked flustered throughout the contest. Irvin made only 5-of-14 shots and only 1-of-6 threes, and a remarkable five of those misses were blocked whether he was taking it to the rim or firing from behind the three-point line. He looked completely out of sync.
The problem is Irvin has looked out of sync for much of the Big Ten season. In conference play, Irvin has posted a poor offensive rating of 91.7 because he's made only 35.2 percent of his twos and 33.3 percent of his threes. This may be a confidence issue, but it also could stem from his shooting motion looking funky and out of sorts. And, given that Irvin usually doesn't contribute much in other departments, like crashing the glass or setting up his teammates, he has not had a positive impact much on the conference season for Michigan. We keep wondering when Irvin will step up, but, with Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton not available to set him up on the perimeter, it doesn't seem likely.