1. The guards guided Michigan past the Gophers.
Michigan's starting backcourt had the two biggest stars of the game. Derrick Walton had one of the best efforts of his career, recording 26 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman tallied 16 points thanks to a perfect shooting night, draining all five field goals and all three free throws. Combined, Walton and Abdur-Rahkman scored 42 points on 14-of-20 shooting, including 8-of-11 from three. That was more than half of U-M's total while averaging more than two points per shot.
That's pretty efficient.
Walton carried the baton for most of Michigan's 82-74 road win over Minnesota, shining the brightest during the end of the first half. Entering the final six minutes of the period, Michigan had only a 23-18 lead as both teams couldn't find their touch from the field. However, that's when Walton went to work. He closed the half with 13 points and two assists, accounting for 18 of Michigan's 19 points in that stretch. He filled his lane hard in transition for a layup, used his vision to find Abdur-Rahkman wide open in the left corner for three, threw an excellent over-the-top entry feed to Ricky Doyle for a layup, drew a foul while knocking down a straightaway three, and capped the flurry by crossing Joey King, stepping back, and hitting another three-pointer just before the horn:
Have yourself a day, Derrick Walton. https://t.co/jzzFO6btGJ— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) February 11, 2016
By halftime, Walton had 19 points and three assists, while Michigan had a 42-28 lead.
Walton picked up where he left off to start the second half. He fed Mark Donnal for a layup before he knocked the ball away for a steal and easy transition finish. That meant he had scored or assisted on 22 of Michigan's 23 points during a span that lasted about eight minutes. Then, as Minnesota tried to inch back into this game near the midpoint of the second frame, it was Walton that pushed back, dishing a slick pass to Donnal for a layup and connecting with Abdur-Rahkman for a three to maintain Michigan's double-digit lead. Walton was in total control, and Minnesota couldn't do anything to stop him.
But, in the final seven minutes, Walton started to sputter, missing shots and losing the ball, and Abdur-Rahkman took the baton from him. With Walton no longer in total control and Michigan's defense a mess, Minnesota rallied to cut the Wolverines' 17-point lead to two with about 90 seconds remaining. And that's when Abdur-Rahkman came to the rescue. First, he drove the right baseline and finished through contract for an and-one layup to give Michigan a 77-72 lead. Michigan got the ball back, but Walton lost his dribble at the top of the key, which led to what appeared to be a 2-on-0 fast break for Minnesota. However, Abdur-Rahkman sprinted back in flash, poked the ball away from Carlos Morris from behind, and threw it off of Nate Mason before falling out of bounds:
What a hustle play by MAAR. https://t.co/p9WzhLT8bD— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) February 11, 2016
Michigan had the ball with 31 seconds left, and Minnesota had no choice but to foul.
And that's how it ended, with Walton as the MVP and Abdur-Rahkman as the hero.
2. It's much more fun when Michigan's threes are falling.
It's no secret that Michigan had endured a cold spell from downtown recently. Overall, Michigan has been one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation. The Wolverines are 10th in three-point percentage (41.0) thanks to a stretch from December 12th to January 12th during which they made at least 40 percent of their threes in each of their eight games. However, they had failed to hit that mark in six of their seven games before Wednesday night with the Nebraska win being the lone exception. They knocked down just 34.6 percent in those seven games and 21-of-71 (29.6 pct.) in the prior three.
Last night, though, Michigan felt it from deep, draining 14-of-25 triples (56.0 pct.). This was led by Derrick Walton, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Duncan Robinson, who combined to make 12-of-18 threes (66.7 pct.). Though it became evident that it likely was going to be a good night for Michigan when Aubrey Dawkins hit two threes in a minute in the first half. It's not that Dawkins can't shoot -- he very well can (45.6 3P%) -- but that his threes came at the end of stagnant offensive sets when he was forced to launch one. When those shots are going down, beating Michigan is not an easy task.
And Michigan is fortunate that was the case because three-point shooting was the difference. Minnesota made a higher percentage of its twos, sunk more free throws, rebounded better, and committed fewer turnovers. However, the Gophers made only 4-of-19 threes (21.1 pct.). Though they aren't a very good outside shooting team, that's still much worse than their season average of 31.3 percent. And those extra 30 points that Michigan earned from deep are what pushed the Wolverines to their eight-point win.
3. Nonetheless, this was not an inspiring effort from Michigan.
Three-point shooting pushed Michigan to its win over Minnesota, but that's a problem, isn't it? Other than outside shooting, the Gophers -- a team that is 200th on KenPom and 0-12 in the Big Ten -- outperformed Michigan in every area except assist rate. That likely would not have been the case if the Wolverines had kept their foot on the gas pedal and cruised to a relaxing win after they led by 17 with less than seven minutes left. However, yet again, they were unable to cobble together a consistent, positive effort for a full 40 minutes. They made some head-scratching mistakes down the stretch -- the five-second violation on the inbounds pass is the first one that comes to mind -- and lost their composure. John Beilein could have used his timeouts better to stymie Minnesota's run.
But what stood out the most was Michigan's lack of defensive awareness and communication. This is a Minnesota team that cannot shoot the ball, and, given that the Gophers made only 4-of-19 threes against Michigan, last night wasn't any different. The Gophers are a team that relies on driving and trying to finish in traffic or drawing shooting fouls. And that's especially the case when Minnesota sends out a lineup of Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Carlos Morris, Jordan Murphy, and Bakary Konate for its last-gasp run. Morris is the only one that has made at least 31 percent of his threes, and even he is a so-so three-point shooter (35.2 pct.). So does Michigan pack in its defense and force the Gophers to beat them with jumpers? Nope. Instead, whether it was in man or a zone, Michigan was extended out, and Minnesota countered by slashing to the hoop for layups or trips to the charity stripe. That's how Minnesota was able to score in nine of 10 possessions to cut Michigan's 17-point lead to two in a little more than five minutes.
It's just not smart. I'm not sure if that's on Beilein or the players, but, when Michigan has defensive deficiencies due to just lack of skill and athletic ability, it must compensate by being aware of the situation. But, if U-M's lacking there, too, then things like this happen.
4. Zak Irvin didn't back up his post-Michigan State comments.
After Michigan was smacked around by in-state rival Michigan State on Saturday -- U-M's second straight humbling home loss -- Zak Irvin was frustrated. He spoke to the media about how he was "fed up" with Michigan's recent results and that the team needed to take these games more personally. I won't say that Irvin didn't take last night's game more personally because I don't know. But Irvin's actions didn't back up his words.
Irvin had a night he'd like to forget and was all out of sorts. He scored just four points, connecting on just one of his eight field-goal tries, and turned the ball over four times. Not only were his jumpers not falling, he didn't have the aggressive mindset that Michigan needs him to have. His takes to the rim were as if he was lollygagging around with one of his lackadaisical scoops getting pinned against the backboard. And he almost had his fifth turnover of the game when Michigan was clinging to its 74-72 lead in the final minutes. He's lucky his misdribble went to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who put on his cape. Plus, Irvin was outperformed by Jordan Murphy, his defensive assignment who registered 14 points on 11 shots and eight rebounds, on the other end.
Michigan needs Irvin to be a leader on this team, and, with Caris LeVert still not back, he can't afford to have games like this, especially when Michigan is in dire need of a win after two demoralizing losses. Irvin should be thankful that hapless Minnesota was the opponent and Derrick Walton and Abdur-Rahkman came to play. That saved his behind.
5. Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes are preserved ... for now.
If Minnesota had completed that comeback on Wednesday, Michigan's season essentially would have been over. The Wolverines squarely are on the bubble, and what's keeping them there despite a lack of RPI top-100 wins is that they have no bad losses. A loss to the Gophers, who are 247th in RPI, would have shredded that safety net. Michigan would have fallen out of most projected brackets and needed to dig itself out of a hole to get back into them, and given how Michigan has performed lately and its upcoming schedule, that would have seemed very unlikely. But U-M earned the much-needed win.
Now the Wolverines have two very important games next. Most likely, the three games that will decide Michigan's NCAA Tournament fate will be vs. Purdue, at Ohio State, and at Wisconsin, and the games against the Boilermakers and the Buckeyes are the next two on the slate. The Wolverines should be in good shape to go dancing if they win three more regular-season games. Assuming that they take care of business against Northwestern at home, they probably need to win two of the three aforementioned games. So, if Michigan can't get it done against Purdue, that'll put the pressure on them to win in Columbus and Madison -- something that's given U-M trouble this century.
So Michigan better bring its "A" game on Saturday.