In 2014, the New York Times conducted a national study mapping American zip codes by college athletic allegiance. It shouldn’t surprise those watching today that the product shows Michigan is the preeminent program throughout many Manhattan districts, and the Wolverines (17-5, 7-2 Big Ten) discarded Penn State (11-11, 2-7 Big Ten) like an unwanted guest at their home away from home, 79-72, in Madison Square Garden.
U-M opened up a 7-0 lead from the tip and never looked back in a game that Michigan controlled throughout. Zak Irvin’s buzzer-beater corner three at the end of the first half was one of many highlights for the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. Today was another testament to his striking development under John Beilein, finishing with a team-high 20 points. But while we’ve praised Irvin’s transformation from #JustAShooter to a complete player, it was Derrick Walton who filled the stat sheet, recording a double-double with 13 points -- three of which game on a nasty step-back jumper -- 10 rebounds, and seven assists.
Penn State’s Shep Garner and Brandon Taylor impressed, scoring 46 of PSU’s 72 points, but that was far from enough. The Lions cut a 60-43 deficit down to five with 4:48 left, but Michigan slammed the door when Duncan Robinson (9 points) and Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman (15 points) converted back-to-back driving layups and the team hit nine of its final ten free throw attempts.
We said before that going 4-0 in Michigan’s previous four games would be critical if they were to be considered a legitimate conference title contender. Despite sleepwalking past Rutgers and a shooting effort that left much to be desired against Minnesota, John Beilein’s team did what they had to and even picked up an impressive road win over an emerging Nebraska squad in the process.
The elephant in the room hasn’t departed: we don’t know when Caris LeVert will return or how the team will gel together once he does. His absence didn’t matter much over the prior two weeks, but it may next week when the Hoosiers and Spartans both visit Ann Arbor. A far from insurmountable challenge for an increasingly confident young team, but a challenge to be sure.
In the meantime, Michigan will celebrate this win in its distant home: New York.