Michigan took well to its home away from home and powered through Penn State, 79-72, in the inaugural B1G Super Saturday at Madison Square Garden. My five takeaways:
1. Somehow, Michigan lost the three-point battle to Penn State.
This was the biggest upset of the game. Michigan is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation. Not only are the Wolverines seventh in three-point percentage (41.3 pct.), they are 12th in three-point rate (46.4 pct.). As a result, they are on pace to break the Big Ten record for most made threes in a season. On the other hand, Penn State is one of the country's worst three-point shooting teams, ranking 331st in three-point percentage (29.9 pct.). Yet it was Penn State that knocked down more triples (9 to Michigan's 6) and shot a higher percentage (31.0 to Michigan's 30.0). If you had told me this beforehand, I probably would have laughed at you. I also probably would have thought Michigan was ripe to be upset because U-M is so reliant on three-point bombs.
2. But Michigan countered by attacking PSU's switching defense.
This wasn't the first time that Michigan has had a cold spell from beyond the arc in recent weeks. The Wolverines made only 9-of-31 threes (29.0 pct.) against Minnesota and only six of their first 18 (33.3 pct.) against Rutgers. What stood out, though, was that they continued to fire threes despite them not dropping. Almost half of Michigan's shots against the Gophers were threes, and 57.1 percent of them were threes against the Scarlet Knights. As a result, Michigan barely mustered over a point per possession against both teams (1.03 vs. Minnesota and 1.05 vs. Rutgers). And neither is known for its defense.
Michigan didn't fall into that pattern again versus Penn State. In the first half, Michigan's shots were about split between twos and threes like usual (13 2PA to 14 3PA). However, in the second half, Michigan realized that its outside shots weren't dropping and made a more concerted effort to get to the rim (22 2PA to 6 3PA). Penn State's defensive strategy was to switch every screen, so Michigan capitalized by creating mismatches, forcing the Lions' big men to guard Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman on the perimeter. Those big men may have the length to contest outside shots, but they don't have the foot speed to keep up with dribble drives. As a result, Walton, Irvin, and Abdur-Rahkman were able to penetrate into the paint to score, combining for 28 of Michigan's 41 second-half points -- only three of which came from downtown. And Duncan Robinson may have had the most important drive of them all when he dribbled down the lane for a left-handed finish just after the Nittany Lions used a barrage of triples to cut Michigan's double-digit lead to five points with less than five minutes left.
Michigan must do this more frequently: Walton using his quickness to maneuver inside, Irvin getting into the body of defenders as he drives right, and Abdur-Rahkman turning his chaotic energy into points. It's not a problem when Michigan fires on all cylinders from deep. But, when that's not happening, Michigan must find other ways to score.
And the Wolverines did against Penn State, tallying 1.20 points per possession.
3. The 1-3-1 zone changed the dynamic of this game.
There are few opponents, if any, against which it's better to use a zone defense than Penn State. There are different ways to beat a zone, but outside shooting and crisp passing are two of the best. Of course, the Nittany Lions are 331st in three-point percentage and 342nd in assist rate. So it wasn't much of a surprise that Penn State became flustered when John Beilein brought out the 1-3-1 zone in the second half. Until that point, Michigan's lead was hovering around 10 points, but the Wolverines couldn't put Penn State away. Then, in a three-minute stretch beginning when play resumed after the under-12 timeout, the Lions missed two threes and committed three turnovers in their next five possessions. This allowed Michigan to extend its lead to 17 points, and, though Penn State made one last push near the end, the gap was too large for PSU to overcome.
Michigan has tried more zone defense lately -- usually a fluid 2-3 rather than the 1-3-1 -- and it'll be interesting to see if this trend continues. While the Wolverines looked active in their zones against Penn State, they also benefited from facing an opponent that doesn't have the offensive skill to pick it apart. Michigan's next two opponents -- Indiana and Michigan State -- are in the top-10 in three-point shooting, and the Spartans have the best assist rate in the nation. Zone defenses could be a death sentence against them two.
4. Michigan needs to add another wing to the rotation.
John Beilein noted on Friday that Michigan needed D.J. Wilson or Kam Chatman to "emerge right now" due to fatigue concerns, and he's absolutely correct. Since Caris LeVert was sidelined with his "lower left leg" injury, Derrick Walton (36.5), Zak Irvin (35.6), Duncan Robinson (33.6), and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (31.8) each has averaged more than 30.0 MPG, and Aubrey Dawkins (16.0) is the only reserve earning more than 6.6 MPG. Basically, there are only five Wolverines playing four positions, while Michigan rotates its centers with Mark Donnal receiving most of the minutes. This short of a rotation is taking its toll, and I believe it's a reason why Michigan's three-point shooting has faded in recent games because the players' legs are becoming more tired.
Just look at Robinson, who was averaging only 24.6 MPG before LeVert's injury. In his first 14 games, Robinson drained 49-of-84 threes (58.3 pct.). In the eight games since LeVert's injury, he connected on just 23-of-61 triples (37.7 pct.). While shooting 37.7 percent on threes still is great, he's no longer the dead-eye sniper that put fear into all of his opponents. Some of this could be attributed to natural regression and improved defenses, but it's hard not to blame fatigue, especially as he misfires on more open looks.
So the question is which wing can step up and give the main rotation more breathers. Beilein referenced Wilson and Chatman because they are the available options, but Wilson is too trigger-happy and out of place as a 4 and Chatman continues to look out of sync. And, as Michigan prepares to enter a tough stretch, the cost of playing either more minutes may not be worth the rest. At this point, Michigan might just have to wait until LeVert returns, which will move Abdur-Rahkman into a backup role and give Michigan a second guard/wing reserve. And there could be some good news coming on that front:
Beilein says there's a chance LeVert is back this week.— Simon Kaufman (@sjkauf) January 30, 2016
5. Cupcake carnival is over. This week's homestand is huge.
Michigan's goal for the past two weeks, which included four games against teams with RPIs outside the top 100, was to win all of them and avoid adding a bad loss to its resume. Mission accomplished. Now the Wolverines are 17-5 overall -- that's one more win than all of last season -- and 7-2 in the Big Ten, sitting just one game out of first place in the standings. However, Michigan is not considered a real contender for the crown because U-M benefited from a fairly soft schedule. Six of the Wolverines' nine conference games were against five of the six worst teams in the Big Ten. To prove that they are a contender or at least add some quality wins to the resume, they need to take advantage of this week when both Indiana and Michigan State come to Ann Arbor. These are the games that good teams -- NCAA Tournament teams -- are able to win. Michigan needs to win at least one to continue to separate itself from the bubble and improve its seed. However, if Michigan can win both, it will open the eyes of many around the nation.