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Five Takeaways: Michigan vs. Penn State

Zak Irvin had his best game of the season and five other takeaways (including a bonus one!) from Michigan's 79-56 home win over PSU.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Caris LeVert sat on the bench in street clothes with a lower left leg injury, but Michigan still dominated Penn State, 79-56, at Crisler on Saturday. Here are my five takeaways:

1. That first-half offensive explosion was eye-opening.

In my game preview, I predicted that Penn State's respectable defense (then-84th in adjusted efficiency) would cause Michigan's offense to sputter in the first half. I believed the Lions' interior defense (then-23rd in 2P%) and shot-blocking (then-31st in blk%) would bother U-M's offensive flow even with Caris LeVert orchestrating the attack. Then, when we learned before tip-off that LeVert, who's really the only Wolverine that can dribble past defenders in ISO, would miss the game, I took that as an ominous sign that an upset was on our hands. And, initially, that appeared to be coming to fruition as Michigan missed its first four shots and didn't score in the opening three minutes.

Not too long later, I looked like a total fool.

Michigan's offense exploded, and everything clicked on all cylinders. At first, the Wolverines lit up the twine from deep, scoring their first 18 points on six threes. Then, Aubrey Dawkins' layup was goaltended with 11:05 left the first half, sparking a stretch of 5:34 during which Michigan made nine straight field goals, four of which were threes, and scored 23 points. The next time that U-M missed a shot, there was 4:46 remaining in the opening period, and the Wolverines had transformed an early deficit into an 18-point lead. The scoring didn't stop there, though, as Michigan closed out the first half strong. By halftime, Michigan had amassed 49 points and a whopping 1.58 points per possession.

What opened my eyes was how balanced and crisp the offense still looked in LeVert's absence. There wasn't just one Wolverine that shined. Four of them scored at least eight points in the first half (Dawkins, Zak Irvin, Duncan Robinson, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and a fifth had six points (Mark Donnal). They were scoring inside and out, making nine of their last 10 twos and 10 of their 15 threes overall. And, once they realized that pump fakes against a defense that lunges at everything would create space, the offense became surgical as Irvin and Robinson combined for nine first-half assists.

It was a stunning stretch that demonstrated just how potent Michigan's offense can be.

2. Zak Irvin had his best game of the season.

With Caris LeVert out, Michigan needed someone to step up and lead the offense. That someone was Zak Irvin, who fell right back into the role he had at the end of last season when LeVert and Derrick Walton were sidelined with injuries. Irvin tallied seven assists against Penn State, which was the second-most for him this season below only the nine he had against SMU. His first three assists were to his teammates on the perimeter for threes, but his final four assists all were to Mark Donnal down low for layups, similar to how LeVert set up Donnal repeatedly against Illinois earlier in the week on Wednesday.

But what separated this from the SMU game and others was his shooting. Irvin actually wasn't as proficient inside the arc (1-of-5 2P) as he had been this year (then-62.7 2P%), but that was OK because he looked like the Irvin of yesteryear behind it. He dropped in 4-of-6 threes, which not only was the most made threes he's had this season but also his highest single-game three-point percentage (66.7 pct.). Now, Irvin has drained 8-of-15 threes (53.3 pct.) in his last three games after making only 7-of-41 threes (17.1 pct.) in his first 11 games. He's beginning to look like the perimeter threat that worried defenses his first two seasons. As a result, Irvin matched his season-best with 16 points on Saturday.

I saw a question on Twitter during the game that I found to be interesting:

There's little question Irvin has put up better numbers when LeVert hasn't been in the game. His stats from the end of last season and in this game against Penn State suggest as much. However, I don't think that means Irvin plays better with LeVert out. Irvin has been doling out assists at an increased rate all season (18.5 pct.). It's just not as noticeable when LeVert is in because LeVert usually dominates in usage rate while Irvin plays a secondary role. With LeVert out, Irvin has to be one of the main creators and ball-handlers (29 usg% vs. PSU), which is why his assists rose. The main difference yesterday was Irvin hit his threes. He shouldn't need LeVert to be absent to do that in the future.

3. Derrick Walton had his worst game of the season.

What's also remarkable about Michigan's rout without LeVert is that it happened despite Derrick Walton's worst offensive performance of the year. Walton scored just six points on 2-of-6 shooting, had three of his four misses blocked, and recorded six turnovers to three assists. There were two reasons for this. First, with LeVert out, PSU put its best defender, the 6-foot-4 Josh Reaves, on the 6-foot-1 Walton, and Reaves' length and defensive instincts -- he's in the top 200 nationally in block and steal rates -- bothered him. Second, Walton tried to do too much, which is what John Beilein said after the game as well. Walton forced things rather than let the offense come naturally. Once he was replaced by Andrew Dakich in the first half, the offense found its rhythm -- something I never thought I'd type. Dakich basically stood aside and didn't interfere, firing no shots and earning one assist. But, in those eight first-half minutes he played, Michigan outscored the Lions by 19. In Walton's 14 first-half minutes, U-M had only a five-point edge. What Walton should learn from this game is that, even with LeVert absent, he shouldn't feel the need to carry that entire burden himself. His teammates can help him pick up the slack, particularly when the opponent's best defender isn't on them.

4. Post defense against teams with two bigs will be a problem.

I mention this now because Michigan's next two games are against Purdue and Maryland, both of which use two-big starting lineups. This means that the 6-foot-6 Zak Irvin will be forced to defend the the 6-foot-9 Caleb Swanigan and the 6-foot-9 Robert Carter, and, after seeing how Irvin defended Penn State's 6-foot-6 Brandon Taylor on the block on Saturday, that's bad. Now, Taylor didn't have the most efficient performance en route to his game-high 18 points, converting only 6-of-14 twos. However, what was concerning was how Taylor was able to back Irvin down on the block. He had open looks close to the rim. He just didn't finish them. Taylor isn't as skilled (47.0 2P%) or as big as Swanigan (48.3 2P%) or Carter (64.0 2P%), so it wouldn't be a shock to see Swanigan or Carter make the short-range buckets that Taylor couldn't. Irvin is in for a tough week.

5. Mark Donnal for Big Ten Player of the Week?
Big Ten Player of the Week Candidates (Dec. 28th - Jan. 3rd)
Player PPG eFG% RPG APG SPG BPG Team Record
Diamond Stone (Maryland) 24.5 73.7 7.5 0.0 0.5 2.0 2-0
Marc Loving (Ohio State) 23.5 73.7 6.5 1.0 0.0 0.5 2-0
Yogi Ferrell (Indiana) 22.0 61.1 3.0 7.0 1.5 0.0 2-0
Mark Donnal (Michigan) 21.0 74.0 8.5 0.5 1.0 2.0 2-0
Dererk Pardon (Northwestern) 18.0 78.9 9.0 0.5 1.0 1.0 1-1
Jarrod Uthoff (Iowa) 17.5 44.4 4.5 1.5 1.0 5.5 2-0

It'll likely be awarded to Diamond Stone, but Mark Donnal is right there. And, if anyone had made that prediction before this past week, they'd be locked up in the insane asylum.

Even if Donnal just misses out on the award, he went out there for the second straight game and impressed, posting 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and eight rebounds in 23 minutes against a much better defense than Illinois'. He started this time but quickly found himself on the bench after an over-the-back foul in the first minute. Would this rattle his confidence and affect his performance? No, because, when he reentered, he again looked lighter on his feet, seemed more active, and believed in himself. He was finishing difficult layups while moving underneath the basket. He was going up strong around the rim, whether it was shooting or batting for rebounds. And he clearly is the best option on the pick and roll because he's caught passes thrown at him from Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin, and Duncan Robinson. The same can't be said about Ricky Doyle.

I'm still not 100-percent sold that this is the Donnal we'll see for the rest of the season. This next stretch of games, during which he'll face seven-footers in Isaac Haas, A.J. Hammons, Diamond Stone, Damonte Dodd, and Adam Woodbury, will shed more light as to how significant his transformation has been. Nonetheless, what a week for Donnal.

Bonus: How severe is Caris LeVert's injury?

It was a surprise to most that Caris LeVert was unable to go against Penn State on Saturday with a lower left leg injury, even if we had seen how he had hurt himself:

It looked like he tweaked his ankle at most, but that is the foot he fractured last season.

Uh oh.

And that John Beilein revealed very little about the injury afterwards wasn't comforting:

Beilein added LeVert didn't play because he hadn't practiced since the Illinois game:

However, I fear that the first two comments are more telling than the third.

I hope sitting LeVert for Penn State was precautionary because it'd be devastating if he's suffered another severe injury even if Michigan just blew out PSU. Not only has LeVert been the best player on Michigan, leading the team in MPG, PPG, RPG, APG, and SPG, he's been one of the best players in the country. His offensive rating of 130.3 is the 38th-best among all D-I players and third among D-I players with a usage rate of at least 24 percent. Michigan simply can't afford to lose LeVert for a significant period of time, and, with Purdue, Maryland, and Iowa on deck, all of which are teams ranked in the KenPom top 20, U-M needs LeVert back now. Otherwise, U-M is staring at three straight losses.