Michigan's top options had a tough time creating good looks at the rim.
Injuries. Let's get this out of the way. Michigan managed to make the tournament despite losing Caris LeVert, who was playing at an All-American level when injury struck, and Spike Albrecht, whose absence kept Derrick Walton on the court for huge minute totals and caused John Beilein to give Andrew Dakich a spot at the end of the rotation. Add in Zak Irvin's wonky back, which affected his shot well into the season, and Derrick Walton still not looking like the player he was before his sophomore-year injury, and it's fair to say health cost the Wolverines at least a couple wins.
The center position. Moe Wagner's late emergence provided hope for the future. For most of the season, however, the center position was the source of much consternation. Ricky Doyle, the presumed starter heading into the season, took a huge step backward as a sophomore; his turnover rate nearly doubled and his teammates clearly lost trust in him as a result. Doyle's struggles may be attributed to the late-season revelation he suffers from sleep apnea, but that realization came too late to save his season or, ultimately, his career at Michigan.
Mark Donnal stepped into the void and improved markedly from his first year of game action. That said, he still had obvious deficiencies, especially on defense. Getting beat up by AJ Hammons is one thing; making Alex Olah look like Hakeem Olajuwon for the second straight year is another. Unless Donnal gets a lot stronger or becomes a legitimate three-point threat, he seems best suited as a backup center; deploying him against opposing backups would mitigate his weaknesses. For that to happen, though, Wagner must cut his foul rate significantly.
Perimeter defense. It was bad, even by the mediocre standard of previous Beilein squads. Michigan's best perimeter defenders, MAAR and Derrick Walton, had uneven seasons on that end of the floor—especially Walton, who'd vacillate from awful performances to good ones with little indication of what he'd bring on a given day. The three spot the biggest sore spot with Duncan Robinson somehow looking sigificantly less bad than Aubrey Dawkins by the end of the season; Robinson was still quite far from good.
The Wolverines were especially poor in the halfcourt. While their transition eFG% allowed fell in the middle of the NCAA pack, they were 273rd out of 351 teams in non-transition eFG% defense, per hoop-math. The problems were myriad: fighting through screens, guarding isolation, contesting shots, weakside rotation—you name it, really. The problems on the perimeter were amplified by the lack of a rim protector; they still started on the perimeter.
via Shot Analytics
Stars taking one step back for every step forward. There were encouraging developments out of both Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton this season. Irvin did an admirable job playing out of position on defense and rounded out his offensive repertoire, nearly doubling his assist rate. Walton posted center-level defensive rebounding numbers and returned to his freshman form as a perimeter shooter.
But with their bigger roles, flaws were exposed. Irvin's forays to the hoop increasingly resulted in turnovers as the season wore on; his handles still need work and teams exploited the fact that he was far more likely to try to kick the ball out than finish in traffic. Walton simply couldn't finish at the rim, continuing an alarming trend from his injury-plagued sophomore season.
This is where LeVert's absence hurt the most. The only player Michigan could rely upon to consistently generate a decent look—MAAR—still had a limited game; while he could weave his way to the basket in LeVert-like fashion, he wasn't nearly on LeVert's level as a shot-creator for others. Rahkman becoming a better all-around offensive player would be huge for the 2016-17 squad. It's becoming harder and harder to expect Irvin or Walton to live up to the expectations set by M's previous top options.
[Left and right: Patrick Barron; middle: Eric Upchurch]
Nik Stauskas, with his ability to make almost any shot a good one, made the game look easy. Trey Burke, with his varied and lethal methods for creating offense, made the game look easy, not to mention beautiful.
Nothing about this season's iteration of Michigan basketball felt easy. It's shown in the pictures, in which seemingly every layup attempt required a Herculean feat of strength and body control just to get the ball on the backboard. It's shown in the statistics; according to KenPom, 10.3% of Michigan's two-point attempts were blocked, a mark worse than all but 13 major-conference programs. It's shown in the despairing comments as the offense ground to a halt against Notre Dame before VJ Beachem delivered the coup de grâce to 2015-16 Michigan.
And that's on the good side of the court. Stopping the opponent has never seemed simple under John Beilein, especially the last few years. The flaws on defense have only been magnified as the offense has gone from historically great to merely good. Every flailing layup attempt swatted into photographers' row didn't just serve as a painful reminder of the team's scoring limitations, but also what they lacked on the other end.
[Hit THE JUMP for feelingsball.]
A five-minute scoring drought. A struggling star player. Iffy post play and equally iffy substitution patterns.
Michigan charged out to an early lead against Notre Dame and controlled much of the game. In the end, however, a familiar set of problems cost the Wolverines the game and capped the season in unfortunately fitting fashion.
Zak Irvin couldn't recreate his recent late-game magic, missing the potential game-tying three-pointer from the top of the key after a discombobulated final possession. Irvin finished the game 4/16 from the field and 1/9 from long range. Derrick Walton temporarily broke out of his shooting slump with a 4/7 first half and looked on his way to a great all-around game; he crashed to a halt in the second, going 0/6 from the field over the final 20 minutes.
The short version, via FiveThirtyEight.
For Notre Dame, forwards Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson each went 4/5 from the field. Michigan's best counter to them in the post, Moe Wagner, hit all three of his shots but played only eight minutes; a questionable charge call for his fourth foul swung the momentum and quite possibly the game in favor of the Irish. The foul negated a Wagner layup that would've given Michigan a two-point lead with 5:39 to play; when Wagner finally reentered with 1:01 on the clock, Notre Dame had a three-point lead and the ball. In the interim, Mark Donnal blew a critical layup.
Clutch late shots by VJ Beachem (game-high 18 points, 7/7 FG) on the perimeter and Colson in the paint gave the Irish the margin they needed to advance. Michigan will be left to wonder: What if John Beilein gave Wagner a longer leash or at least played him ahead of Ricky Doyle? What if Irvin and Walton could play well in the same game? What if MAAR shifted to the point instead of sticking at the two while the team went two scoreless minutes with Andrew Dakich running the offense? What if that official called a block? We now have a long offseason to ponder the answers.
On the plus side, Michigan didn't lose to a 15-seed today.
Zak Irvin making plays late. pic.twitter.com/R5Ia8IbGsp
— Big Ten Geeks (@bigtengeeks) March 17, 2016
Zak Irvin had been, for lack of a better word, terrible. His last shot had barely grazed the rim. His last drive had resulted in a depressingly predictable turnover. He'd made one three-pointer all game.
But when Irvin's defender ducked under a Moe Wagner screen, he didn't hesitate to rise and fire with Michigan down a point and less than a minute on the clock. Despite some trepidation from onlookers...
The look on John Beilein's face on that Irvin 3 pic.twitter.com/FbrqNjs3gH
— Patrick Barron (@BlueBarronPhoto) March 17, 2016
...Irvin's shot found twine. A couple stops and five free-throws later, Michigan booked a trip to Brooklyn to face six-seed Notre Dame.
While the game got the desired result, it's not one Michigan fans are likely to want to relive. Both teams went through first-half scoring droughts that exceeded six minutes. After the Wolverines finished the half on a drawn out 19-4 run to take an eight-point lead, they gave it all back in the first three minutes of the second before both teams went ice-cold.
John Beilein played Andrew Dakich for five frustrating minutes while Derrick Walton sat on the bench with foul trouble. For murkier reasons, he sat Wagner—Michigan's biggest bright spot all game—in favor of Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle before rectifying that error for the home stretch.
While the Wolverines were effective when they attacked the basket against an undersized Tulsa squad, only Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman—and on a couple surprising occasions, Wagner—was willing to drive to the paint with any consistency. MAAR wasn't a paragon of efficiency with 16 points on 5/16 FG, but he created havoc on the Tulsa defense that led to putback opportunities and drew enough contact to get extra points at the line (6/8 FT).
Wagner, meanwhile, played like he should be the clear-cut starter at center. After recording two blocks all season, he had four tonight in addition to pulling down eight rebounds and making both his shot attempts, including a poster-worthy slam on a second-chance opportunity to give M a late three-point lead. Michigan functioned better on both sides of the court with Wagner on the floor.
Duncan Robinson opened the game with a three; while he wouldn't hit another until late in the game, he found other ways to contribute—he grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out a team-high four assists, and finished a few forays to the hoop to tally 13 points. The contributions of MAAR, Wagner, and Robinson—a sophomore no major program wanted, a freshman who barely clung to a role this season, and a D-III transfer—allowed Michigan to overcome underwhelming performances from their two go-to guys.
Then, with the pressure on, Irvin delivered. It wasn't pretty. It was, in fact, cringeworthy, as Beilein's face can attest. At this point in the year, however, the final score is all that matters.
Now somebody grab me a drink.
AJ Hammons celebrates Purdue's victory.
Midway through the second half, CBS cut to a shot of John Beilein giving Moe Wagner an on-the-fly lesson on post defense. Wagner had just committed a shooting foul on Purdue center Isaac Haas and was subsequently pulled for Ricky Doyle.
On Purdue's ensuing possession, Haas bullied Doyle down low and drew another shooting foul. Any lessons Beilein gave out this afternoon came far too late to salvage Michigan's chances of reaching the Big Ten final and locking up an at-large bid.
Instead, it'll be a stressful Selection Sunday after the Boilermakers dominated the Wolverines in the paint. Michigan played all four of their centers; none provided resistance to the fearsome duo of Haas and AJ Hammons. Hammons finished with 27 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks; Haas added 11 points in only nine minutes. Michigan's big men combined for ten points—seven by Mark Donnal, who played only 15 minutes due to foul trouble—and four boards.
Purdue opened each half with a big run—8-0 to start the game, 9-0 to open the second half—and whenever Michigan threatened to close the gap, the Boilermakers beat them back with dominant post play; Purdue scored 44 points in the paint to Michigan's 28. Despite being overwhelmed on the interior, the Wolverines frustratingly declined to double-team Purdue's big men until less than four minutes remained; when they finally did so on Hammons, the double was weak, and a few quick passes around the perimeter resulted in a Rapheal Davis layup.
Derrick Walton (14 points, 5 assists, 4 steals) and Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman (15 points, 7/11 FG) did their best to overcome Purdue's considerable advantage inside. They got little help. Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson shot 2/12 combined from three-point range; the Wolverines were 6/25 as a team. The Boilermakers made two fewer three-pointers—on 13 fewer attempts.
Now Michigan, which entered today as the last at-large in the field on the Bracket Matrix, will nervously await their postseason fate.
Wow. Michigan wins. pic.twitter.com/GNZLREzdyL
— Simon Kaufman (@sjkauf) March 11, 2016
Wow doesn't even begin to cover it.
Michigan played for their tournament lives against Big Ten champions Indiana, a team that ran them off their home court just over a month ago, in front of a heavily pro-Hoosiers crowd in Indianapolis. Heading into the final minute, the perimeter-oriented Wolverines had made only 4/19 three-pointers. Somehow, they were only down three.
Zak Irvin found Duncan Robinson open in the corner; after missing his first five attempts from beyond the arc, Robinson calmly tied the game with 46 seconds left.
Then Kam Chatman stripped IU's OG Anunoby on Indiana's ensuing possession. Irvin secured the ball with 20 seconds left, and as Derrick Walton took the ball up the court, John Beilein allowed the game to play out instead of calling a timeout.
I doubt Beilein imagined Walton would dish the ball off to Chatman in the corner; it's certainly not what he would've drawn up in the huddle. But Chatman—much-maligned, bust-in-the-making, 27%-career-three-point-shooter Kam Chatman—hesitated a moment, then hoisted a picture-perfect shot over Nick Zeisloft that caught nothing but net, beating the buzzer by 0.2 seconds.
With that most unlikely play, Michigan went from very much out of the NCAA Tournament to, at worst, very much in the conversation for an at-large bid; they'll have the opportunity to cement their place in the field when they play the winner of Purdue/Illinois in tomorrow afternoon's semifinal.
Much like the final play, nobody could've guessed how the Wolverines would upset Indiana. Mark Donnal and Moe Wagner combined for 21 points on 9/9 FGs while frustrating talented Hoosier big man Thomas Bryant into going 3/8 from the field with two turnovers; Wagner hadn't tallied a point in over a month. For the second straight game, Derrick Walton didn't make a field goal and didn't score at all until the final minutes, but he dished out a Big Ten Tournament record 12 assists. Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman scored 15 points on 14 shots before fouling out late; Irvin and Robinson combined to go 9/25 from the field in uneven performances for each.
While Yogi Ferrell (14 points, 8 assists) was his usual stellar self, Michigan kept Indiana from their standard perimeter dominance; they went just 4/17 from beyond the arc, and the Wolverines scored 22 points off 15 IU turnovers.
The last of those points may have secured an NCAA bid for Michigan a day after Northwestern pushed them to the brink of the NIT. It's been difficult to guess how this Michigan squad will play on any given day. Today, when it mattered most, they surprised in the best possible fashion.