Michigan went into Lincoln and snapped Nebraska's four-game winning streak with a very important 81-68 victory on Saturday afternoon. Here are my five takeaways:
1. Michigan won this game in the first five minutes of each half.
I didn't include it in my game preview, but, before tip-off, I tweeted that Michigan tended to start slow offensively in road games. In the first 10 minutes of their games at NC State, SMU, Illinois, Purdue, and Iowa, the Wolverines averaged only 11.4 points:
|December 1, 2015||North Carolina State||10||1-5||2-5||40.0|
|December 8, 2015||SMU||11||4-8||1-7||36.7|
|December 30, 2015||Illinois||14||5-11||1-5||40.6|
|January 7, 2016||Purdue||10||2-8||2-4||41.7|
|January 17, 2016||Iowa||12||4-9||1-6||36.7|
On Saturday, Michigan broke that pattern, scoring 24 points in the first 10 minutes, and much of that damage was done in the first five minutes. Before the first media timeout, the Wolverines tallied 18 points thanks to a stretch when they knocked down threes on four straight possessions. They were on fire (100.0 eFG% in that five-minute span) and raced out to an immediate 18-6 lead, which silenced the packed Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The same thing happened to begin the second half, too. In the first five minutes of the frame, Michigan made all seven of its field goals (114.3 eFG%) -- U-M would makes its next two shots as well -- as Nebraska's players and fans watched in disbelief. Again, the Wolverines were unstoppable and outscored Nebraska, 16-3, to open the second half.
So, in the first five minutes of the halves, Michigan was a plus-25 against Nebraska!
These were the hot starts that Michigan badly needed in this game.
2. Turnovers let the Huskers get back into it each time.
However, halves are 20 minutes long, not five.
In the last 15 minutes of both halves, Nebraska outscored Michigan by 12 points. In the first half, the Huskers were able to whittle Michigan's early 12-point lead down to three, and, in the second half, the Huskers cut Michigan's 18-point lead down to four with a chance to make it a one-possession game with less than three minutes left. However, Shavon Shields missed the front end of his one-and-one, and they couldn't get closer.
How did this happen? It's easy to blame Michigan's defense because, despite their cold starts, the Huskers still converted 22-of-36 twos (61.1 pct.) and owned a 40-24 advantage in the paint. Some could even say Michigan got lucky because Nebraska, a team that has drained 35.7 percent of their threes this season, sunk just 6-of-22 (27.3 pct.) at home.
But the real answer is the turnovers. The Wolverines turned over the ball seven times in each half for a total of 14. That was a turnover rate of 21.8 percent -- their worst of the season. If they coughed it up at their season rate (14.9 TO%), they would have had five fewer turnovers in this 64-possession game, and, for how well they were shooting (64.9 eFG%), this game may never have been competitive in the second half. Instead, not only did the turnovers rob Michigan of shots, it provided chances for Nebraska to score easy points and make the game interesting. Though they weren't all off live-ball turnovers, Nebraska had 20 points off turnovers to Michigan's seven. That's why it was close.
Usually, this would be considered out of character for Michigan and dismissed as an outlier. However, this is now the second straight road game that Michigan has had trouble holding onto the basketball. In the road loss to Iowa, the Wolverines turned it over 13 times for a rate of 20.5 percent. There isn't just one reason why they are turning it over so much either. In the Nebraska game, what stood out was Michigan's errant or telegraphed passes as it tried to break the Huskers' three-quarter-court and half-court trapping presses, but that's not what happened in the Iowa game. It's a mix of mistakes.
3. Michigan's juniors stepped up in a hostile environment.
The star of the game was Derrick Walton, who recorded his third double-double of the season if we include his triple-double against Youngstown State. Michigan's junior point guard registered 19 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, two steals, and four turnovers. Yes, Walton had some head-scratching passes, but this was the most complete game he has had in the Big Ten season. He drained his threes (4-of-6), converted a tough layup down the lane, pushed the ball in transition to draw fouls around the rim or connect with open teammates, and soared for rebounds on the defensive end (10). This was a pleasant sight for Michigan fans after Walton had some uneven effort in recent weeks, during which he'd falter in the first frame before turning it on in the second half. Walton is one of the best players on this team, and, with Caris LeVert still out, Walton needs to play like it.
Other Wolverines had better stat lines, but Zak Irvin had a tremendous game. Offensively, he wasn't as assertive as normal, scoring just eight points on 3-of-7 shooting and owning a usage rate of 11 percent, but he took over during the opening five minutes of the second half. Coming out of the intermission, he scored or assisted on six of Michigan's first eight buckets and looked liked an All-Big Ten first-teamer while doing it. Irvin faded into the background again afterwards, but that was only on offense.
It was on defense where Irvin shined. He was tasked with guarding Shavon Shields, who had scored 28 points in Nebraska's upset win over Michigan State earlier in the week. Shields would not do that against Michigan. Rather, he struggled, scoring just 11 points on 14 shot equivalents and turning the ball over five times. Shields isn't the best outside shooter, so he tried to get it to the hoop most of the time. Though he often would get the first step on Irvin, Irvin would recover quick enough to block off Shields' path to bucket. This forced Shields to toss up tougher mid-range looks or lower his shoulder and try to push through Irvin. Shields wasn't called for charging a few times when he should have, but the contact Shields created threw off his rhythm -- as did Irvin's presence alone.
4. Mark Donnal's defense deserves a shoutout.
Mark Donnal continues to stand out as Michigan's best center. He posted 14 points on 4-of-8 shooting and four rebounds -- all offensive -- against Nebraska, and he probably should have added a few more points because he missed a bunny or two. While his offensive improvement continues to draw the attention of and praise from fans (12.0 PPG in Big Ten play), his defense has improved as well. Last season, Donnal really struggled to defend in the post and often resorted to fouling to stop an opponent from scoring a bucket. As a result, he committed 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes. This season, that stat has dropped down to 4.6 fouls per 40 minutes, while his block rate has increased. Why? Donnal has learned how to defend vertically. When opponents try to score over him down low, he won't bring his arms down to contest. He'll leave them straight in the air, and, if an opponent chooses to jump into him, no whistle. This happened quite a bit against Nebraska, and, though the Huskers made over 60 percent of their twos, they had trouble finishing when attacking Donnal. And Donnal punctuated that when he had back-to-back blocks with a minute left that ended any hope of a Nebraska miracle.
5. This win was very important for Michigan's tournament hopes.
To continue to slowly inch up the seed ladder, Michigan needed to beat Nebraska. Though the Huskers had beaten their previous four opponents, including a road win against Michigan State, their RPI still was only 150th. Therefore, a win in what would be a tough road contest in Lincoln would do little to improve Michigan's resume, while a loss could drop Michigan -- a projected #8 seed right now -- back onto the bubble. That Michigan walked into a raucous environment without Caris LeVert and took down the surging Huskers in what many considered to a coin-flip contest was significant. Now, KenPom projects Michigan will finish with a 22-9 (12-6 B1G) record. If that happens, Michigan safely will be in the NCAA Tournament and could be looking at a #5 or #6 seed. There are lots of time before then, but Michigan's place in the bracket looks comfier.