In a game much closer than most anticipated, Michigan eked out a 74-69 victory against hapless Minnesota at Crisler on Wednesday night. Here are my five takeaways:
1. Michigan picked a good night to have a lethargic performance.
In the Big Ten, there are few nights when a team can escape with a win despite a poor performance. Just look at Purdue's 14-point loss to Illinois on January 10th or that Michigan State has dropped three straight conference games, two of which were at home in the Breslin Center, for the first time since 2013. If a Big Ten team doesn't bring its "A" game in January, February, or March, that team usually is staring at a conference defeat.
Michigan had such a performance on Wednesday, bringing its "C" game -- at best -- rather than its "A" game. However, Michigan wasn't facing Wisconsin, Nebraska, or even Penn State. Michigan was facing Minnesota, who had won only one game since the start of December and owned the third-worst Big Ten-only efficiency margin in the KenPom era entering last night. On top of that, Michigan had the benefit of hosting the festivities.
So it was going to take a lot for Michigan to bungle this one.
But Michigan sure made it interesting. With three minutes left in the first half, U-M had a 15-point lead and its foot on Minnesota's throat. However, rather than stomp down and crush any life Minnesota had, the Wolverines stepped back, allowing Minnesota to close out the frame with an 8-0 run and slice the deficit to seven points at the intermission. From there, Michigan led the entire way but couldn't extend its lead past 10 points. Every time Michigan looked prepared to break it open, Minnesota strung together a few scores to keep it dramatic. At one point with less than nine minutes left, the Gophers trailed by only three, and Dupree McBrayer was headed to the line for a one-and-one and the chance to cut Michigan's lead to a single point. However, McBrayer missed the front end, and Michigan's ensuing possession ended with an Aubrey Dawkins three-pointer. That was a critical five-point swing, and one that could have altered the outcome of this game. But, unlike most Big Ten teams, Minnesota couldn't capitalize on Michigan's mistakes.
What stood out, though, was that this wasn't just a consequence of a lack of execution. Michigan appeared lethargic out there, as if it was just going through the motions. There was little energy, little excitement, little sense of urgency. Maybe the Wolverines were just exhausted after their three-game stretch against Purdue, Maryland, and Iowa. Maybe they knew that they could coast at home against Minnesota and still pull out the win. Or maybe they were in desperate need of a pick-me-up from a Crisler Center crowd that stood silent most of the game. Whatever the reason, it wasn't an inspiring performance by Michigan but one that could still lead to a win. Because Minnesota.
But, if Michigan isn't ready for Saturday, it will be in for a rude awakening in Lincoln.
2. Michigan settled for jumpers and really sputtered on offense.
This was Michigan's worst offensive effort of the season. No, it wasn't the fewest points per possession that the Wolverines have tallied, but, accounting for the quality of the defenses, nothing has been as bad as this. Michigan has had three worse offensive outputs, and those were against Xavier, UConn, and SMU, all of which are ranked 71st or better in adjusted defensive efficiency. So where is Minnesota? It's 215th in that category.
So what went wrong? Michigan settled for too many jumpers. Almost half of Michigan's 63 field-goal attempts were threes -- 31 to be exact -- and the Wolverines scored only 24 points in the paint. Now, before you counter that Michigan is a jump-shooting team, which it is, it's important to note that Big Ten opponents had converted over 58 percent of their twos against Minnesota before Wednesday. Simply, the Gophers had the worst two-point defense in the conference. This should have been a defense that Michigan shredded inside the arc. To be fair, it was apparent Minnesota was willing to permit the perimeter shots and gave Michigan lots of open ones, of which U-M uncharacteristically missed plenty. I mean, Duncan Robinson misfired on four or five open threes. However, when the three-point shot isn't falling -- Michigan finished 9-of-31 from deep (29.0 pct.) -- the Wolverines need to be more willing to attack inside. That didn't happen. Instead, the offense broke down into ISO and bad jumpers -- nine assists on 23 made buckets.
3. Zak Irvin carried Michigan most of the way.
Zak Irvin was Michigan's offensive star, pacing the Wolverines ahead of Minnesota as his teammates failed to knock down shots. Irvin finished with 19 points and scored all of his points in the first 23 minutes of the contest. Not only was Irvin deadly from three, draining his first three triples, he was aggressive with his takes to the rim, finishing with both his right and left (!!) hand. At one point, Irvin had converted 8-of-12 field goals (66.7 pct.), while the rest of the Michigan roster was 12-of-38 (31.6 pct.). And, on top of that, Irvin was a force on the defensive boards despite guarding one of the Big Ten's best rebounders in Jordan Murphy. Irvin hauled in 11 rebounds, 10 of which were on the defensive end, to record his first double-double of the season and the fourth of his career. It was a great effort and one that prevented Minnesota from taking a second-half lead.
However, Irvin missed his final five shots, and it was another Wolverine that took over.
4. Derrick Walton took the baton and finished it off.
As Zak Irvin started to sputter down the stretch, Derrick Walton picked up the slack. After scoring only five points in the first half, Walton poured in 17 points in the second frame to finish with a team-high 22 points, tying the second-highest total of his career. There were two shots that really stood out. The first was immediately out of a Michigan timeout with seven minutes left. The Wolverines led by six points and had a chance to increase the cushion between themselves and Minnesota. However, the play designed appeared to be imploding until Walton saw a Gopher go under a screen and pulled up for a three from the left wing. Splash. Then, with just over two minutes remaining, Walton drove to the rim and converted a circus-esque layup to put Michigan up by nine. These were big shots because the Gophers refused to go away in the final minutes of the game.
Walton's second-half performance also represents a recent trend. Walton has not been very efficient against Big Ten opponents as his shot has disappeared at times. Right now, Walton's conference-only offensive rating and eFG% are 97.5 and 43.1, respectively. Not great. However, most of those struggles have occurred in the first half. Maybe Walton is unsure of himself or more hesitant early on, but he hasn't had much of a positive impact in the first 20 minutes. The last 20 minutes, on the other hand, are a different story:
|First Half||11||3-of-6 (50.0%)||1-of-9 (11.1%)||2-of-4 (50.0%)|
|Second Half||39||4-of-10 (40.0%)||6-of-15 (40.0%)||13-of-14 (92.9%)|
5. Michigan put on a free-throw clinic at the end to seal it.
Minnesota wouldn't go away, and Richard Pitino had every intention of ensuring that Michigan would have to win the game at the free-throw line. Michigan accepted the challenge. The Wolverines held a seven-point lead heading into the final minute. In those final 60 seconds, Minnesota fouled Michigan six times, sending the Wolverines to the line for two one-and-ones and four double-bonuses. There are times when the pressure in such situations can mess with a shooter's confidence, but that wasn't the case last night. Michigan made all 12 of its free throws, including the front end of both of its one-and-ones, and never allowed Minnesota to have a shot to steal the win at the buzzer. The credit belongs to Derrick Walton, who made all eight of his last-minute free throws, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who connected on all four of his late freebies. And all 12 of them were important because Minnesota wouldn't stop scoring on the end, racking up enough points to trim Michigan's lead to five as the final second ticked off the clock.