"The end crowns all. And that old common arbitrator, Time, will one day end it."
In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the Trojan hero Hector gives an existential twist to the Latin phrase finis coronat opus: the end crowns the work. The original is a more forgiving statement; when a task is completed, the finished product justifies the effort. Hector, preparing for a fatal battle with Achilles, adds that cruelest of elements: time. Only so much of his fate rests in his own hands, for there are forces present no person can control.
[left: Patrick Barron; right and center: Marc-Gregor Campredon]
Michigan lost at Illinois on January 11th, falling to 11-6 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten. Their November dismantlings of Marquette and SMU had gone from promising augurs to cruel teases. The offense was merely good, the defense abominable. When the Illini's Maverick Morgan described Michigan as a "white collar" program, it rankled because it rang true.
Derrick Walton didn't spend his summer in the gym for this. He called a team meeting. When asked about the timing, the senior captain answered with his usual calm, but his words communicated a sense of urgency.
"It’s only so many games left.
"We’re hitting the mid stretch and the back stretch is coming soon. It’s time to make some noise. I feel like we are a ton better team than we’ve showed and our record doesn’t show it. I think we’re a lot better than we’re playing and guys are ready to show that."
In only so many games, Walton redefined his legacy from program guy to program legend, led a storybook turnaround, and shifted the perception of the coach whose offense he helped reshape.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
The final shots. [Joseph Dressler]
In the movie script, that shot goes in.
Michigan hadn't played their best game—far from it—but Derrick Walton nevertheless had a clean look to send the Wolverines to the Elite Eight and keep this magical run going. With time about to expire, Walton cleared out space, rose, and fired. His shot caught iron. Walton clutched his head, likely feeling the same combination of surprise and dismay as the rest of us.
"I had a good look at the basket and it just didn't drop for me," Walton said.
This is not a movie script.
In a disjointed game, Michigan's seniors fought valiantly to the finish. Walton shook off a hard fall on his elbow in the first half to finish with a game-high 20 points on 6-for-10 shooting, five rebounds, and eight assists. Zak Irvin poured in 19, going 8-of-14 from the field, pulled down eight rebounds, and played lockdown defense on Oregon star Dillon Brooks, who needed 13 shots to score 12 points. In the last five minutes, the two combined for three go-ahead shots, and Walton added a nasty fadeaway jumper to give the Wolverines a three-point lead with 2:02 left.
They could not get a fourth. Instead, Oregon's two best players on the night made the plays in winning time. Jordan Bell, a force in the paint all evening, put back a missed free throw to get the Ducks within one after Walton's jumper. After Walton couldn't get a tough layup to fall, Tyler Dorsey got a step on Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and finished at the rim for what were ultimately the final points of the game.
Michigan would get two more shots to win. DJ Wilson's three-pointer with 46 seconds remaining was well off the mark. After Dylan Ennis missed another free throw with 15 seconds to play, Oregon surprisingly chose to give only one of their three remaining fouls to give, allowing Walton to get that final look. It fell short.
"I've seen him make that shot thousands of times, so I had confidence in him knocking it down," said Irvin. "It looked good from my angle. No one else on this team that we wanted taking that shot. He's been on a run and he's such a great player. I'm proud of him."
Jordan Bell made play after play in the paint. [Dressler]
From the start, this didn't feel like Michigan's night. The Wolverines went just 11-for-28 in the first half, and while they only trailed by two at the break, it could've easily been worse. Wilson sat for much of the half with foul trouble. Oregon's guards repeatedly blew by Michigan defenders. Dorsey sunk three of his four first-half three-point attempts. Walton grinded out 11 points and seven assists by halftime, keeping his team within striking distance. With Wilson set to get back on the court, the hope was Michigan could find their groove.
It never quite clicked. Moe Wagner barely played in the second half and finished the night with only seven points on 3-for-10 shooting. Abdur-Rahkman all but disappeared, tallying more turnovers (3) than points (2). Duncan Robinson's eight points weren't enough to offset his defensive shortcomings. While Wilson hit four three-pointers, he didn't get a bucket inside the arc as Bell dominated the paint; his missed second-half layup will stay with him for a while.
While tonight wasn't their night, this team can hold their heads high. Walton and Irvin battled to the bitter end, and this season will ultimately be remembered far more for the remarkable highs of the last month than tonight's low. When it mattered the most, this team galvanized around its leaders, and the most difficult part of tonight is knowing we won't get to see them all play together again.
"It's the tightest bunch I've been around in all my years of playing basketball," said Walton. "Just a very selfless group. I had the joy of being a part of it and being one of the leaders. Like I said, I wish we could have more games to play together because I think a couple minutes throughout the game we didn't show the type of team we were becoming and overall just thank them for allowing me to be part of such a great team."
"We're very close-knit, playing our best basketball and didn't want the season to end," said Irvin. "This team had a lot of great memories. We battled through adversity and just a team that I will always remember."
He's not alone.
3/17/2017 – Michigan 92, Oklahoma State 91 – 25-11, NCAA second round
3/19/2017 – Michigan 73, Louisville 69 – 26-11, Sweet 16
Michigan's NCAA tournament weekend was a lot like what I imagine it's like to enter Earth orbit.
You are strapped to a rocket. In the English language, "rocket" is shorthand for "tube that barely contains fuel." When lit, that fuel explodes; the rocket shunts the exploding bits out its rear to create the kind of incredible, bowel-threatening acceleration that allows one to escape the surly bonds of earth.
I'll be damned if there's a better metaphor for playing Jawun Evans and Oklahoma State. To watch this Oklahoma State team is to be continually surprised that Evans does not literally have flames coming out of his ass, propelling him inevitably towards death or glory at the rim.
At first, there was a lot of noise but not much action. This is also in keeping with rockets, which have various moments early in the enterprise when it is unclear whether the thing will go up or tip over, explosively.
After ten minutes when the game threatened to teeter over into a dud, the acceleration took, and did not stop until all observers were weak kneed and gripped with pallor, as if the blood had been forced from their heads.
Rockets do not have men in grimy outfits and train engineer hats frantically heaping fuel into a furnace to keep the thing from sputtering out and allowing gravity to reclaim what is rightfully hers. Our metaphorical rocket does. The men in hats are flinging three pointers, desperately attempting to stay ahead of gravity's brutal math. Evans and company are providing a constant drag of 1.58 points a possession. Walton and Irvin and Robinson must pump at least that much into the ever-hungry, blazing heart of the engine.
Amazingly, they do so. At first it seems easy. Walton drifts to one corner and then the other to work screens and grab passes for wide open looks. Robinson comes off a screen and rises up from a comfortable spot. A couple of transition opportunities find guys open in the corners. Things are going well—very well—but so far you can chalk it up to a bunch of open looks and good fortune against the nation's #133 defense.
Two things happen nearly back-to-back that take it into the realm of the spooky. Zak Irvin comes off a screen, takes a dribble, and fires an objectively bad shot, a heavily contested jack that draws the NO NO NO YES reaction not just from all Michigan fans but also the announcers. Almost immediately after this, Walton passes to Robinson, who's two or three feet from the line and getting more than a token contest. Walton yells at Robinson to shoot. He probably shouldn't shoot. Robinson shoots. It goes down, because of course it does. A bit later, Walton ignores DJ Wilson posting up a 5'11" guy to take this:
This goes down. Because of course it does.
As all this is happening, Evans is taking his rocket ass into the lane to claw two points back, like gravity does. Gravity draws you back at a constant 9.8 m/s^2, and you either beat it or you don't. Michigan beat it, in the way movies portray the first stage of rocket liftoff. There is a tremendous amount of noise. The camera shakes impressively. One of the cast members says "ohhhhhhhhh shiiiiiiiiiiiiit." There is a moment of unbearable tension as the G forces ramp up to the maximum humans can tolerate.
Then everything stops. There's a clunk as the first stage departs. You have won! You are alive. You are very high in the air on a fatal trajectory.
You've dropped your first-stage booster and watched it burn up in the atmosphere. (Underwood's stunning, immediate departure for Illinois will do nicely in our analogy.) Now you are up up up very far and have entered the realm of orbital mechanics. I've read just enough science fiction to not understand orbital mechanics at all.
The gist seems to be that certain things are all but impossible despite seeming easy, while other things are damn near free because of... reasons. The image above is something called the "interplanetary transport network," which allows you to visit any point of interest in the solar system—eventually, very eventually—by hopscotching through Lagrange points where all the competing gravities of the system average out to zero. This is virtually free in terms of energy.
These are tiny pinholes in a vast expanse of quicksand. Reaction mass is limited and space is very big.
Louisville basketball has four centers and plays two of them at a time, and if you want to get a shot up it's time to hunt for Lagrange points.
Mo Wagner changed the way most teams defend Michigan with his white-hot first half against Purdue. After halftime the desperate Boilermakers decided they were going to switch every screen no matter what kind of ludicrous matchups resulted. Michigan was initially confused, and then Wagner was forced to the bench with foul trouble for nine minutes of the second half. By the time he returned there were only a few possessions before Michigan's Lloydball clock-drain offense made the switching moot. Painter's move exited the game more or less untested.
That did not prevent it from quickly being replicated, to middling-at-best effect. The constant switching did dull the effectiveness of Michigan's pick and roll. It dared Michigan to post up, which they simply do not do. It's pretty easy to holler about exploiting a post mismatch when you are a fan looking at a 5'11" guy on DJ Wilson. It's evidently much tougher when you are part of a Beilein basketball organism that forcibly expelled post-ups from its DNA back when it was using flagella to florp around in its Canisius days.
So the switching mostly resulted in a lot of isolation with Walton or whoever against a big. It took Michigan's silky, flowing offense and battered it down to the heroball stuff you see at Kansas or Kentucky, except without the infinite alley oops. Since Walton stepback threes are Very Good Offense, somehow, the switching didn't really slow Michigan down much. All it did was cause me to goggle at Michigan bigs guarded by oompa-loompas and be like all "AARGH THROW IT TO THAT GUY."
There was that particularly brutal possession pictured above on which DJ Wilson was trying to post up a 5'11" dude and Walton decided to jack up a 35-foot three pointer. This went in because of course it did; whether or not Michigan could do anything with this tactic in the event that Walton jacks stopped being Very Good Offense remained an open question. No longer.
In the aftermath of Sunday it is possible to interpret Michigan's somewhat frustrating inability to take advantage of said oompa-loompas as a devastating long con. Louisville entered the game with a plan: no threes. They would switch everything to remove the rotation, because Michigan will get you eventually if you rotate. They would refuse to help in the post, because that results in rotation. They would make Michigan execute a thing they simply do not do. In an advantageous situation, sure. But they wanted to make the fish ride the bicycle.
The fish rode the bicycle.
It popped wheelies.
Louisville's tactic backfired spectacularly in the second half. The tiny windows their giant posts leave drivers became caverns as 6'7" Adel Deng was repeatedly tasked with checking a guy much taller and more skilled than him. The posts stuck to their shooters, and Michigan lived and died by the two for a change.
Pitino did not relent. If he was going to lose this game it was two points at a time. Thus Michigan calmly and gradually reeled Louisville back in after the disastrous last minute of the first half. Screen and screen until you get your matchup, dump it down, score. Repeat. Regular, controlled thrust, easing Michigan through.
"It was some scheme things," Beilein said of his halftime talk, "but it was more: 'Alright, hit singles. Do not come out of here trying to win in the first four minutes. Let's just win the first four minutes. Let's just win the first four minutes. Win it by two points. Win every segment and you'll win the game.'"
Too bad that doesn't fit on a whiteboard.
So here we are. Orbit. It's nice. Very pretty. Can see Phoenix from here. Or Glendale. Whatever. Just two more harrowing white-knuckle terrordomes to go.
The most explosive team in the country is in the rear view. So too is a nation of angry ents. Confidence is through the roof, relative to your average white-knuckle terrordome experience. Let's go.
SAY 'WHAT' AGAIN, uh, SIR (via @the_mikeyb1246)
"Since Maverick" update. Michigan is up to #6 nationally in adjusted efficiency margin:
Amongst teams still in the tournament they're #3 behind Gonzaga and Florida. You'll note they're a nose ahead of Kansas.
First-round victim Oklahoma State shows up at #12. (They have a lot of losses, yes. In this time period they were all against tourney teams: two against Kansas, two against ISU, one to Baylor, one to KSU, one to Michigan. Most of those were 3-5 point games.) When I tweeted this out after the game I meant it:
Michigan just won a Sweet 16 game in the first round.
— mgoblog (@mgoblog) March 17, 2017
That felt like a #2 going up against a #3. This is not a seeding complaint, or at least it's not much of one. Oklahoma State, like Michigan, was a team that got a ton better about halfway through January and was 1) more or less fairly seeded while 2) being a terrible draw for whoever got them. Michigan did, and barely survived despite scorching the nets.
Finally, the road doesn't get any easier in the Sweet 16 as Michigan draws #10 Oregon. That hurdle is significantly lower with Duck post Chris Boucher out for the season. Oregon's given up significantly more than 1 PPP in the three games since Boucher's injury, against offenses ranging from "somewhat worse" to a "a lot worse" than Michigan.
DJ Wilson, sometimes center, is a thing. Wagner finished the Okie State game on the bench just like he finished the B10 championship game, and this was fine because DJ Wilson was functional at center. The opposition didn't have the ability to blow him away with guys who are both very burly and very athletic. Ethan Happ is burly but not that athletic and Wilson's length bothered him. Mitchell Solomon is pretty much the same minus the post-up skills.
Michigan's ability to go small against a light-speed team and then run Wagner and Wilson at the same time against Louisville provided them the flexibility to get past two crazy outlier teams with just one day of prep. That's a major asset.
Expect more of that going forward: Oregon is minus a 6'10" center they played 20 minutes a game and is now a small-ball outfit that runs out one player taller than 6'7" at a time*. Kansas is along the same lines, with wing Josh Jackson playing the 4 for them most of the time. DJ can play center against both, and likely will.
*[To be specific, 6'9" Jordan Bell is their 5 and they'll give 6'11" Kavell Bigby-Williams 10-15 minutes a game spelling him. Dillon Brooks is the only other Oregon player seeing meaningful minutes who's taller than 6'4".]
Donnal survived against Louisville. Credit to the most maligned current Wolverine: Mark Donnal hit a three and blocked a shot in nine minutes, which went a good way towards offsetting the facemashing he's naturally going to receive when he finds himself trying to check UL's infinite conveyor belt of giant dudes.
I wasn't even irritated at Donnal's foul, which was an enthusiastic boxout of lanky 7-footer Anas Mahmoud. He got whistled for a foul that seemed impossible, because I've spent all season watching Michigan bigs take the same contact and get blasted off their spot. Donnal flipped the script and got a foul for his troubles. Better that than weak post D.
Walton didn't score much against Louisville, but... naturally he led the team in rebounds with seven and had six assists to zero turnovers. Also he was instrumental in harassing Quinn Snider into an 0/9 shooting performance. Also:
Michigan committed 10 turnovers, total, in its first 2 NCAA Tournament games.
Derrick Walton Jr has 17 assists & 3 turnovers in 75 minutes.
— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) March 20, 2017
Shot parity: close enough! Against UL Michigan lost the offensive rebound battle by six; they won turnovers by five. That'll do when you're the most efficient shooting team around. Against Oklahoma State it was dodgier, with Michigan –10 in OREBs while only ending up +6 in turnovers. Still, if you told me Michigan was going into a game with a top ten OREB offense and came out only –4 in shot margin I'd take that.
There is an alternate universe of Wagner foul bitchin'. One man's comically inept refereeing is another man's comically inept refereeing multiplied by –1, and I have to relate to you, dear reader, that it is the opinion of many Louisville fans that Mo Wagner commits offensive fouls every time he touches the ball.
— Williamncaudill (@wncaudill) March 19, 2017
This is not the most convincing ref incompetence highlight reel I've seen.
I imagine this stems from one of the first times Michigan went after the Deng Adel-Wagner mismatch in the first half. Adel flopped at the same time Wagner appeared to go for the ol' chicken wing on his path to the basket. The refs did not bite on the flop and the wing met air; Wagner went for an easy bucket. After that everything Wagner did seemed to set off cascades of complaints on UL game threads.
Big Ten seeding complaints on point. After the bracket came out there was consternation about the ordering of various Big Ten teams, and it was proven correct. 5 seed Minnesota was a Vegas dog against 12 MTSU and duly lost. Maryland was hammered by 11 seed Xavier. Meanwhile Wisconsin beat Villanova and Michigan beat Louisville to reach the Sweet 16.
The sample sizes are necessarily tiny here, but since there was plenty of evidence before the games were even played they serve to reinforce the fact that the tourney was badly mis-seeded.
Also worth noting that MSU was the only 8-9 not to give its opponent a competitive game. Wisconsin won, Northwestern battled valiantly before losing by 6 thanks in part to that missed goaltend, Arkansas led in the last four minutes. Hell, you can rope in the two seeds here as well: Michigan and South Carolina won while St Mary's and Wichita State battled valiantly to the final whistle. Only Michigan State was blown out, as you would expect them to be.
Wooooof. There was a plague of refereeing blunders this weekend that should but almost certainly won't be the cause for some soul-searching at the NCAA. The most egregious miss—Northwestern's comeback-stalling missed goaltend—saw the NCAA's head of officials show up on one of the studio shows to lamely defend the refs working the game because he, a 70-year-old man watching on TV, didn't catch it. I expect slightly more from a man literally standing under the basket.
Anyway, there were some doozies in Michigan's game, none worse than the two calls late in the first half against Louisville. The first was a phantom call on Walton that turned a turnover into two free throws for UL; the second was the Wagner open-court steal that again turned into two free throws. With Michigan likely to get a fast-break bucket if the second call isn't made that was a six-point swing just after Michigan had finally managed to claw its way back into a tie.
At that moment I could only think of the Trey Burke block and a couple other calls in the title game that prevented that one from truly going down to the wire, as it deserved to, and I resolved to never watch basketball again. I resolve this several times a season, and sometimes multiple times in one game.
And the worst bit about all this. Yahoo has an accurate summation of the worst five calls of the weekend:
- Gonzaga goaltend
- North Carolina's travel/charge/travel/charge
- Arizona's Lauri Markannen blasting a St Mary's player out of bounds, for which the St Mary's player got call
- The Plessy v Ferguson flagrant in Seton Hall vs Arkansas
- A horrendous charge call EC Mathews picked up in Oregon-Rhode Island.
Every single one of these made a tight game less tight, and every one of them favored the higher seed. (Seton Hall-Arkansas was an 8-9; the rest were serious upset bits.) A lot of the drama of March Madness was sapped by referee errors.
John Beilein’s defining characteristics (at least publicly) are being incredibly nice/genuine and being a bit, how do you say, hokey. In 2013, he celebrated going to the Sweet 16 with crazy subs, and this year has taken to ambushing players with water guns after big wins. It’s notable when he freaks out on the sidelines about the officiating because (a) it almost always means he’s getting a technical, and (b) he’s almost always right, and has held his tongue for untold transgressions up to that point. Maverick Morgan called Michigan “white collar” this year as a pejorative about their toughness, and more than a few fans felt the Wolverines reflected Beilein’s temperament. Both Louisville and Okie St. outrebounded Michigan this weekend, and a common refrain was that the team didn’t play tough enough on the glass.
But behind that gentile veneer is the heart of a killer. Okay, maybe not “killer”, but as Ace noted, quite evil. He knows what his offense can do to other teams. Matt Painter was exasperated trying to explain the difficulties defending Michigan, the harsh realization that your center has to defend a guy who shoots over 40% from three and can also shake-and-bake you behind his back on the way to the hoop. That even when the outside shot isn’t falling, Beilein will tax your team the entire time they are in the half-court offense, probing for breakdowns. And when they are firing from outside at a good clip, ooohhh. Oklahoma State scored 91 points and didn’t hold a lead after the 10-minute mark of the second half because Michigan shot 11-15 from 3 in the second half, a performance so scarring that OSU’s head coachg Brad Underwood left the Cowboys…for Illinois. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Matt Norlander on the narrative. John Beilein on ESPN:
D.J. Wilson, another of the day's stars, sank four free throws in the final 17 seconds.
That pragmatism? It was on full display. Wilson, a sophomore, made each free throw like he was in the driveway. Asked about the pressure of the moment later, Wilson sat stone-faced and said: "I don't feel any really."
Five key plays from Oklahoma State.
Etc. Rodger Sherman on Wagner. Pat Forde thinks Beilein is famously serious. Must not know about subs. Michigan is a one point favorite over Oregon. Hang on to your butts. Hoo boy does the Underwood departure suck for Okie State. Illinois fans are happy, as they should be. Oklahoma State fans shouldn't be.
A sweet victory, indeed. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
As John Beilein delivered his opening statement of the postgame presser, Derrick Walton looked up to the ceiling and mouthed "oh my god."
Michigan won their second instant classic in as many games. Perhaps most remarkable is they went about it in an entirely different way. After making 16 three-pointers against Oklahoma State, the Wolverines were forced by Louisville's aggressive, switching defense to play through their big men. With Derrick Walton struggling to hit his shots, Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson stole the show.
Wagner scored a game-high 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting. In arguably the best performance of his young career, the big man used a dizzying array of post moves to punish mismatches. His biggest bucket of the game came on a move Beilein has wanted to see from him for a long time; off a pick-and-pop, Wagner got his defender to bite on a pump fake at the three-point line, then drove for a layup to give Michigan a six-point lead with 1:18 to go.
"We feed off of him," Walton said. "Because he's not afraid of anything."
Wilson's all-around impact nearly matched that of his German roommate. The last of his 17 points came in the final 20 seconds at the free-throw line, where his perfect four-for-four shooting kept the Cardinals at bay. His third block of the game ended the contest, as Walton plucked Donovan Mitchell's tipped shot out of the air and triumphantly raced into the frontcourt as the clock expired.
"Our play is kinda contagious on the floor," said Wilson. "I feed off his energy and he feeds off mine. Down the stretch when we pulled out the victory, I was as happy as I could possibly be."
Moe Wagner's best game couldn't have come at a better time. [Campredon]
Louisville led for nearly the entire first half. While neither team shot the ball well, ten UL offensive rebounds kept them out in front, and some creative officiating helped them go on an 8-0 run to close the half after Michigan had finally managed to tie it up. At the break, the outlook was bleak.
"The end of the first half I thought was a defining moment for our team," said Beilein. "A team that's not as experienced or doesn't have the poise that we had, they come back and try to win it all right away, but we won every four-minute period until we got ahead in the game."
That meant weathering a tough stretch at the beginning of the second half. Louisville center Mangok Mathiang matched Wagner bucket-for-bucket, and his putback off a missed three-pointer extended the lead to nine with 14:46 left. Then Michigan's offense really got rolling. Three straight baskets by Zak Irvin cut the deficit to three, and a short time later Wilson nailed a pick-and-pop three to get the Wolverines within one.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman knotted the game at 51 with 8:54 to play, hitting two free-throws after taking a hard foul at the rim. While the teams would trade blows, Michigan never trailed again. Wilson worked his way into the paint to give them the lead. The perimeter finally opened up a bit; Wagner knocked down a triple out of a timeout, then Walton followed suit with a signature stepback, looking as if he had no recollection of going 1-for-11 up to that point.
Derrick Walton came up huge when his team needed it most. [Campredon]
Wagner's pump-fake layup looked like it would ice the game, especially when Jaylon Johnson committed an offensive foul on the following possession, but Louisville wasn't done. Irvin coughed up back-to-back turnovers on inbounds as UL turned up the pressure, and a layup by Mitchell, who led the Cardinals with 19 points, cut the deficit to two as hearts jumped into throats and stomachs churned.
That was Walton's cue. Michigan's unflappable leader hadn't made a shot at the rim all afternoon, but when he got a step on his defender, he didn't hesitate to go up strong over Deng Adel for a layup.
Mitchell would get two more layups, but each one was answered by Wilson free throws. Wilson and Wagner embraced after the game-sealing block to send Michigan to the Sweet Sixteen.
"We're very close," said Wagner. "It's beautiful seeing each other be successful."
It sure is.
Zak Irvin, in practice gear, had one of his best all-around games. [Paul Sherman]
While the harrowing details of yesterday's plane accident were still being released, Michigan played Illinois wearing their practice jerseys. Their normal gear sat in the cargo hold of a crashed plane in Willow Run. Tipoff was delayed by under a half-hour to accommodate the Wolverines arriving at the Verizon Center at 10:40 am for what was originally set to be a noon game.
Once the game started, however, the unusual uniforms were the only sign the Wolverines were less than 24 hours removed from skidding off a runway. Fresh off an early morning flight, Michigan jumped out to a 15-4 lead against Illinois and spent much of the duration ahead by double digits, ending the Illini's NCAA tournament hopes (and quite possibly John Groce's employment hopes) while earning a quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded Purdue. John Beilein also broke Johnny Orr's school record with his 210th victory at Michigan.
Zak Irvin had his shot going early, netting 12 of his 18 points in the first half. That inital run held strong as Michigan made 5-of-11 threes in the half and forced nine Illinois turnovers on the other end. The defense was every bit as impressive as the offense. Timely weak-side double-teams from the baseline caught the Illini off-guard time and again, and the Wolverines used that element of surprise to convert turnovers into easy points.
Michigan didn't look ready to play a game. Looks can be deceiving. [Sherman]
Tracy Abrams was almost singlehandedly responsible for keeping Illinois within striking distance at halftime due to a personal ten-point run late in the first, and he kept his offense going in the second, finishing with a game-high 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting. But Michigan shut down everyone else; no other Illini scored in double figures. Irvin locked down second-team all-conference forward Malcolm Hill, who mustered only four points while going 1-for-8 from the field.
That strong defensive effort gave Michigan the breathing room it needed when their outside shooting suddenly went cold. The Wolverines went only 4-for-14 from beyond the arc in the second half, missing nine in a row at one point. Lethal finishing helped, too; M finished the game a stellar 21-for-31 on two-pointers.
Much of that was driven, as usual, by Derrick Walton. The first-team All-B1G snub played at the remarkable level he has for the last couple months, scoring 19 points, dishing out five assists, and pulling down four rebounds while continually pushing the tempo to catch the Illini defense out of position. Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman looked ready to replicate last year's Big Ten Tournament breakout with 17 points, three assists, and three steals. DJ Wilson had a quiet yet efficient 11 points. Illinois was content to focus on limiting Moe Wagner, who only scored six points but had a huge impact on the other end, coming away with five steals and committing just three fouls.
Maverick Morgan finished with four points, three rebounds, and five turnovers while his "white collar" quote hung above Michigan's lockers.
This team is anything but that now. After a frightening, hectic, and ultimately triumphant 24 hours, they finally have a little time to regroup before facing Purdue at noon tomorrow. The Wolverines are the last team the Boilermakers want to face right now.
3/5/2017 – Michigan 93, Nebraska 57 – 20-11, 10-8
This is not a game column.
God DAMN, Derrick Walton. There was a point last night where Derrick Walton took a terrible shot with verve and élan and it went in and I was neither mad at the shot nor surprised at the outcome. The rest of his night was on that level: 18 points, 16 assists (a program record), 5 steals, and... sigh... one rebound. Walton missing a triple-double because of insufficient rebounds is a killer.
Also killer: Derrick Walton. He is now taking those Chauncey Billups transition pull-up threes and I love them even when they do not go down. He is efficient inside the arc for the first time since he was a freshman, and he's doing Trey Burke things, and he's making himself a verb. If I say a senior has "gone Walton" you know what I mean. Not that anyone is likely to have such a transformation again.
I have gotten in the occasional twitter fight with Minnesota fans who are arguing that Nate Mason should be first-team All Big Ten, and I would just like to state for the record that any such assertions are insane homerism. The only thing Mason has on Walton is volume, and that volume is underwhelming: he's shot 268 twos at a 38% clip this year.
Well then. Michigan's 36-point road annihilation of Nebraska ends their regular season and confirms Michigan as one of the weirdest teams in the country. It also conjures a hypothetical: would you rather be a nine seed that plays like a six or a six seed that plays like a nine? The former team wins a lot of blowouts and drops close games; the latter wins a disproportionate share of close games.
Being a six seed that isn't quite as good would feel better. Michigan is the nine because of their record in games decided by five or less: 3-6. Last year's team was 6-1 and still slid into Dayton. Also last year's team finished the year losing six of their last nine. Michigan's inverted that, albeit in a much worse Big Ten.
So either nearly the same crew of players went from super clutch to not clutch or this is a much better team that doesn't look like one record-wise because their point distribution across games was suboptimal.
An illustration. Nobody really doubts Michigan's sea change on defense anymore. Nonetheless, Nebraska provided an easy before-and-after photo for Beilein: the game at Crisler in January was in the immediate aftermath of the Maverick Morgan White Collar Incident; Michigan won a barn-burner 91-85. Nebraska shot 59% from two and 50% from 3, with Tai Webster torching Michigan for 37.
Yesterday, Webster was held to 8 points; Nebraska shot 53% from 3 and was just 2/15 from three. Ace and Alex have mentioned this before and it bears re-emphasizing after a game where Michigan gave up just 15 attempts from behind the arc: a big part of three point defense is keeping them from being launched in the first place, and Michigan is suddenly very good at that.
A selection of team D stats from last year to this year, with major shifts bolded:
Michigan's now slightly better than they were a year ago because they've offset big declines in rebounding and three-point percentage allowed with more turnovers forced, better free throw D (high five!), and a severe restriction on opponent threes. Even last year's team, which was dead last in the league in 2PT% D and right on the NCAA average for 3PT% D, gave up more points per three attempted than per two.
Obviously this is not a complete picture of the value of two-pointers since you're much more likely to draw free throws inside the line, but in case you've missed the last 20 years of basketball it remains the case that three is more than two even in extreme environments. Michigan's closeout competency surge is the biggest effect of hiring Billy Donlon: Michigan has never (never!) been in the top 100 in that stat under Beilein, and now they're in elite company.
Why Michigan's rebounding has declined is a bit of a mystery. It's mostly the same crew playing with the exceptions of DJ Wilson and Mo Wagner. Those two guys are replacing either wing types or Michigan's 2016 centers, who were Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle. Both of those guys had DREB rates barely over 10%. IE: they were not good rebounders. I maintained last year that Doyle was good at boxing out while letting others grab the ball; Ace theorized that Michigan's stronger closeout game has taken guys away from the basket.
Dunno. Area for improvement next year.
The volume of shift. Ace didn't want to round this and I don't either. Michigan's defense post-Nebraska-torching: 0.998 points per possession. That's a 12 game sample against much better competition* than the bad old days and would have been fourth in the league.
Perspective: Michigan's D improved just as much as Derrick Walton did after Maverick Morgan.
*[That ugly five game stretch to start the conference season is even uglier when you consider that it came against five opponents who were #3, #8, #11, #12, and #13 in offensive efficiency.]
Don't look at it. Use your peripheral vision. Zak Irvin's miserable stretch ended after the Indiana game. Since then he's been middling, hitting 53%/35% from the field on third-banana usage and helping Michigan's team-wide defensive renaissance. With Walton emerging as the team's alpha dog and Wagner either running things inside or throwing entire defensive systems into disarray ("Let's switch bigs on to Walton" –Tim Miles), third-banana, doesn't-dribble-out-half-a-shot-clock, zero-hero-ball Zak Irvin has re-emerged into an asset. Even if there's like one or two hero-balls in there.
Also in post-Maverick surges. MAAR is quietly the sixth-most efficient player in conference play. There was a point midseason where everyone seemed pretty mad at him, including Beilein. That seems like a long time ago, what with MAAR shooting 56/49 in Big Ten play, with many of those two-pointers difficult late-clock takes to the bucket when Michigan can't get anything else going.
One of the key questions on next year's offense is "how does MAAR maintain his efficiency at much higher usage?" He's at 17% now and will probably tack on 5% next year—that's a big leap. Pretty well if he just up that assist rate, I think. MAAR's done something pretty difficult for a guard: his career shooting percentage inside the arc is higher in conference play than it is over the course of the season, for three straight years. The kind of shots he gets are good ones.
Graham Couch time! It's been a minute since we checked in with the only beat writer on the planet who thinks Martin Luther King Day is for lazy people. It takes time to regather yourself after such a take and find the next thing you're going to be spectacularly, inanely wrong about. Couch rises to the occasion:
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – If Michigan State is left out of the NCAA tournament this month, MSU’s non-conference schedule next season should be a who’s who of the SWAC and MEAC, with a couple mid-level MAC and Missouri Valley Conference teams sprinkled in to give the illusion that competition matters.
MSU is in line for a bid mostly because they successfully gamed the RPI by losing to good teams. That's how they're one spot behind Michigan in that metric despite a 25-spot gap in Kenpom, two fewer wins, and the same conference record. MSU beat one nonconference team of consequence, Wichita State; Michigan beat Marquette and SMU. MSU also lost to Northeastern. The only reason to project those teams at or near the same seedline is because the NCAA is still relying on the archaic RPI, and the RPI has rewarded MSU for losing to good teams.
What would the SWAC-and-MEAC schedule do to Michigan State's RPI? Annihilate it. The worst thing you can do as a college basketball team looking to game the system is play teams ranked 300+. Graham Couch's argument is "if the NCAA puts MSU in the NIT, MSU should throw a fit... and put themselves in it." I can't let this zinger languish on Slack:
By and for juggaloes.