1. Michigan's resume shouldn't be blemished by a bad loss.
The Wolverines have dug in their claws to remain in most projected NCAA Tournament brackets, and, thus far, they have been successful for two reasons. First, they have three signature wins (Maryland, Purdue, and Texas), and, second, they have no bad losses.
A bad loss is a loss to a team outside the RPI top 100, and it's not unusual for even the best teams to accrue at least one. Michigan State lost to #166 Nebraska (at home!), Kansas fell to #147 Oklahoma State (by 19 points!), Maryland was stunned by #230 Minnesota (who had been 0-13 in the Big Ten!), and Miami (FL) has not one, not two, but three (!).
But Michigan? Zero.
That was why the Northwestern game was a must-win. The Wildcats are not too far outside the RPI top 100 at #110, but they are outside of it nonetheless. With Michigan clinging onto an at-large bid right now due to a dearth of quality wins, it could not afford to have its first bad loss. A loss would have dropped the Wolverines out of the projected field and put them in a precarious position where they might have needed to close the regular season by beating Wisconsin and Iowa -- a daunting task. Instead, Michigan likely only needs to split the pair to feel safe about its tournament chances because the committee will know Michigan takes care of business when it is supposed to.
Of course, Michigan may have to take care of business when it is supposed to one more time in its first Big Ten Tournament game. That's why I wrote "shouldn't," not "won't."
2. Michigan's start was as frosty as the snow storm outside Crisler.
However, shortly after tip-off, it seemed Michigan was heading for its first bad loss.
Michigan could not make anything to start the game. Duncan Robinson misfired on open threes during Michigan's first two possessions before tossing up a bad baseline jumper. Zak Irvin and Mark Donnal followed that with missed threes of their own before Derrick Walton's transition pull-up jumper from the free-throw line had too much juice and drew the back of the iron. Then Robinson couldn't connect on his next two jump shots.
Eight shots. Eight misses. And Northwestern had a 10-0 lead about five minutes into it.
It's notable that five of those first eight misses were threes. It's also notable that Michigan didn't make its first three until its ninth try -- a Robinson attempt from the left wing that beat the halftime buzzer -- and that Michigan finished just 4-of-15 (26.7 pct.) behind the arc. Some of this can be credited to Northwestern's defense, which went man-to-man all 40 minutes after spending weeks in a matchup zone. John Beilein claimed that the sudden switch screwed his team up early, which probably is true to a certain extent because NU's matchup zone is more vulnerable to threes than its man defense.
However, Michigan still had open looks from deep against Northwestern's man defense, and this is more evidence of an alarming recent trend: Michigan is missing too many threes on its home court. In their last six home games dating back to January 20th, the Wolverines have knocked down only 44-of-145 threes (30.3 pct.). For context, they have made 39.3 percent of their threes this season -- the 12th-best mark in the nation. It would be one thing if these cold-shooting games were against only athletic, disciplined defenses, but Michigan has struggled to find its stroke against the likes of Minnesota, Rutgers, and now Northwestern at home. It's strange because Michigan should feel comfortable inside the confines of the Crisler Center. But it's been anything but that.
3. But MAAR and Walton warmed Michigan up with their penetration.
When the threes weren't falling for Michigan, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Derrick Walton took it upon themselves to put points on the board. They were Michigan's two leading scorers -- Abdur-Rahkman tallied 19 and Walton posted 16 -- and they did it without drilling a three as the two combined to make 12-of-19 two-pointers.
And how they did it was a pleasure to watch.
Abdur-Rahkman continues to demonstrate a knack for getting to the rim and scoring over the lanky trees despite not owning much athleticism. He dribbles down the lane, puts his body into the chest of the defender, and somehow finds a way to create enough space to flip the ball off the glass and into the hoop. Further, he added some pizzazz to his arsenal of tricks. Early on, he completed an up-and-under reverse layup. Once, he drove hard toward the paint from the left wing to get Bryant McIntosh leaning to the middle before using a quick spin back to his right to lose McIntosh and score a layup. Another time, at the top of the key with seven-foot Alex Olah on him, he took a hard dribble to the right, crossed over Olah, and burst to the left to beat Olah down the lane for a left-handed finish. But the best may have been when he was short on a fadeaway jumper from the left wing, beat everyone to his miss in a flash, and put in a quick layup to give the Wolverines a two-possession lead with just under three minutes remaining.
Walton had two excellent finishes at the tin of his own, but his movements and cuts stood out more. Walton was more assertive and had more energy than usual. Once Michigan realized that Northwestern was sticking with its man defense, Michigan began to run its usual offensive sets, which contain various ball screens. But Michigan seemed to run more action involving curl cuts off screens near the extended elbow, and, when Walton ran these cuts, he was precise. He'd be able to keep his defender behind him, allowing him to receive a pass as he entered the lane and freeing himself up for a shot or quick dish to a teammate. His activity and aggression were positive forces on the offense.
Consequently, Michigan made 20-of-34 twos (58.8 pct.) and shot 25 free throws (51.0 FTR) against Northwestern, who has one of the better two-point defenses (30th in 2P%).
4. The Duncan-Dawkins Dilemma
Duncan Robinson and Aubrey Dawkins are very similar players: three-point specialists that are defensive liabilities. Robinson took the starting job from Dawkins earlier because Robinson was lethal from behind the three-point line, making 59.5 percent of his triples against non-conference foes, and Dawkins' help defense was more inexplicable.
However, things have changed. Though Dawkins' defensive awareness hasn't improved much, Robinson is slumping and Dawkins is catching fire. Robinson has made only 35.8 percent of his threes in the conference season, and last night was the fourth time in six games that he failed to exceed five points. That had happened only twice in the previous 23 games. On the other hand, Dawkins was a spark off the bench against Northwestern, scoring 11 points and connecting on all three triples. And you probably won't believe this: Dawkins now has made 51 percent of his three-pointers against Big Ten opponents.
That's the best percentage in the conference!
This doesn't mean that Dawkins should be reinserted into the starting lineup, though. Instead, John Beilein should keep the starters the same and do what he did last night. He should keep the rotations the same in the first half and then go with the hot hand in the second. Dawkins came in for Robinson with 14:20 left and proceeded to hit two quick threes. Beilein opted to roll with Dawkins as Robinson sat for the final 14:20, and it paid off when Dawkins sunk a three that broke the final tie with 4:26 left on the game clock.
5. Michigan waves good-bye to Alex Olah.
Alex Olah is a Michigan killer. In his two meetings against the Wolverines last season, he recorded a total of 47 points on 21-of-30 shooting (70.0 pct.) and 19 rebounds. Michigan couldn't stop him, and it felt that way for much of Wednesday night. Notwithstanding a mid-season foot injury that had hindered his ability to move and score on the offensive end, he came out strong against the Wolverines. Whether he was taking mid-range jumpers or sealing off Mark Donnal to catch simple post-entry passes for quick hooks, he was knocking them down. And, when the under-four media timeout was called in the first half, Olah already had 14 points. Olah would slow down in the second half, though -- finishing with 19 points on 8-of-17 shooting -- which would help propel the Wolverines to their win. But his skill and strength usually were too much for Michigan to handle.
However, unless Michigan and Northwestern clash in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan won't worry about handling him again because the seven-footer is a senior.
And, with the utmost respect, Michigan won't miss him one bit.