For the first time since December 6, 2008, Michigan upended a top-five team at home, edging #3 Maryland, 70-67, at the Crisler Center. Here are my five takeaways:
1. That was the signature win Michigan desperately needed.
No longer will Michigan's double-digit losses to Xavier, UConn, SMU, and Purdue need to be brought up on a regular basis (after this column, of course!). No longer will people declare that Michigan isn't capable of competing with top-25 teams. No longer will Michigan fans fret that the Wolverines won't be worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid.
That all changed after Tuesday night, when Michigan upset the third-ranked Terrapins.
However, it wasn't as much of an upset as one might believe. Many were surprised that Maryland was only a two-point favorite or KenPom projected that Michigan would win. How can a game between an unranked Wolverines team and #3 Maryland be a toss-up? That's because the computers liked Michigan more than the humans do, Maryland less than the humans do, and Michigan's chances at home. And that's why this was the best opportunity to earn that signature win. Michigan's next game is on the road at Iowa, who's #12 on KenPom and feeling pretty good with wins over Michigan State and Purdue under its belt. The odds of a Michigan win in Iowa City aren't high. Thus, if U-M was to lose to Maryland and Iowa, it'd have to wait until February for another legitimate crack at a signature win, and that's a long time for outsiders to be questioning the team, wondering if it's able to take down top-notch opponents. Michigan didn't want that.
And Michigan won't have to worry about it.
Further, this win will be the shining star on Michigan's resume. Before last night, Maryland was #12 in RPI, meaning Michigan should have a surefire RPI top-25 win -- the Terrapins may not be the third-best team, but they're still really good and will rack up lots of victories -- and a second top-50 win (Texas). As long as Michigan wins the games that it's supposed to and grabs one or two more coin flips, U-M will be great come March.
2. Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson's shooting carried the Wolverines.
Michigan couldn't get easy looks around the rim. Maryland's defense isn't in the same league as Purdue's (3rd), but it's still quite suffocating in its own right (26th) because it has tremendous length in its frontcourt. That made it difficult for the Wolverines to penetrate into the paint or discover open passing lanes inside. In the first half, there were a few moments when a Wolverine had slashed into an open area around the basket, but the pass was errant or fumbled on the catch. As a result, Michigan had only two shots at the rim by halftime, and it didn't get much better in the second half either.
However, Michigan's offense chugged along to the tune of 1.13 PPP -- Maryland's second-worst defensive output of the season -- due to the jump-shooting of Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson. Irvin recorded a season-high 22 points and drilled 5-of-7 twos and 3-of-7 threes, while Robinson tallied 17 points mostly thanks to his 5-of-9 shooting from behind the arc. Irvin's jumpers didn't come easily. Only two of his eight made field goals were assisted because he often found himself stuck with the ball as others around him stood and watched, but he was able to rise off the bounce and connect. And many of Robinson's threes were contested -- he even fired one from Ypsi -- but his shot was pure.
Though, it should be noted that each had a highlight-worthy finish around the rim at critical junctures in the second half. Irvin's occurred with 15:24 left when Maryland tried to make a furious run after the Wolverines increased their lead to 13 points. Irvin had the ball on the left wing and drove baseline but was cut off. However, rather than giving up, he hesitated for a second before he turned back baseline to get underneath the hoop, where he threw a head fake and took contact from Jake Layman as he converted his layup. This momentarily stopped the bleeding and re-energized the crowd. But U-M would become stagnant for the next eight minutes, and Maryland rallied to take the lead.
Then, with 5:05 left and clinging to a 59-57 lead, Robinson found himself with the rock on the right wing. The Terrapins defended him tightly on the perimeter, so he drove to the rim instantly. Layman seemingly had cut Robinson off, but Robinson slithered by with the ball in his right hand, leapt, switched the ball to his left hand in mid-air, and threw in a reverse layup off the glass to give the Wolverines some cushion before the final stretch.
These were two excellent plays. But, ultimately, their jump-shooting did the job.
3. Donnal and Walton made their mark at the end of each half.
Neither Mark Donnal nor Derrick Walton played great games. Donnal (8 points, 3-of-7 FG) was bullied on the block defensively as Diamond Stone registered 22 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes, and Walton struggled with his shooting (12 points, 4-of-13 FG) and decision-making for much of the contest. However, both left their signature on this game at the end of the halves. Heading into halftime, Donnal capped a 13-4 Michigan run with two emphatic blocks and buzzer-beating tip-in in the final 40 seconds to give U-M a 37-29 advantage. Then, in the second half, it was Walton who lifted the Wolverines with two huge step-back jumpers, one of which was a three, to extend Michigan's lead to 69-62 with 2:11 left, while soaring for defensive boards (10 total rebounds) on the other end. Plus, it was Donnal that drained the front end of his one-and-one with 14 ticks remaining to guarantee that Maryland couldn't beat Michigan with a three-pointer at the buzzer.
4. Maryland's backcourt missed the flight to Detroit.
Michigan couldn't defend Maryland's frontcourt. Jake Layman, Robert Carter, and Diamond Stone, all of whom are at least 6-foot-9, combined to score 55 points on 21-of-34 shooting (67.6 eFG%) for the Terrapins. If they had received a little bit of help from the backcourt, Maryland would have won this game. However, that help was nowhere to be found because starting guards Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon totaled only 10 points on 4-of-17 shooting (29.4 eFG%) and seven turnovers. And these numbers would have been worse if Sulaimon hadn't drilled two late threes to keep Maryland alive as Michigan tried to put the screws in the coffin. Derrick Walton, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Michigan's defense deserve some credit for this because they stymied Trimble and Sulaimon's playmaking abilities as Maryland assisted on only eight of its 26 made field goals. However, some of this should be attributed to that the Terps bricked lots of open perimeter shots (6-of-24 3P). Nonetheless, Michigan will take the victory.
5. Caris LeVert's absence raises more concern.
Let's play a game of "Good news, bad news, good news."
Good News: Michigan just beat #3 Maryland without the services of Caris LeVert.
Bad News: LeVert wasn't able to play in what was Michigan's most important game to date for reasons explained in the first takeaway above. That's concerning given that it's been two weeks since LeVert injured his "lower left leg" against Illinois and John Beilein hasn't revealed any specifics about the injury or a timeline. What Beilein has said is that LeVert still feels lingering pain when he practices and Michigan wants to wait until he is 100 percent for him to return to the hardwood. The Wolverines don't want to rush LeVert back too soon and risk further injury, like what happened to Derrick Walton last season. The question, though, is how much longer will that be if he couldn't go tonight?
Good News: Michigan doesn't need to rush LeVert back right now, particularly after this signature win. Michigan will play with house money at Iowa on Sunday -- a loss is expected -- and follows that with games against Minnesota, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Penn State. Beilein could sit LeVert for this stretch, if needed, and the Wolverines should be able to manage just fine. However, the contest against the Huskers is in Lincoln and could be tricky. That game is on Saturday, January 23rd, which gives LeVert 10 days to heal and be back in time for it. That should be what LeVert and Michigan are shooting for.