While it's easy to chalk 2015-16 up as another lost season for Michigan basketball, the program made real progress despite again dealing with injuries that would cripple a lesser squad. The Wolverines improved their win total by seven, made their way back to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence, avoiding anything resembling the NJIT-EMU experience of the previous season, and saw promising development from some of their younger players.
Yes, there was plenty of bad, but we'll get to that later. Today's focus is on what went right for Michigan in 2015-16 and the implications for next season and beyond.
More MAAR, More Efficiency. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman flashed potential as a freshman, but a wonky jumper, too many turnovers, a low free-throw rate, and early-season struggles finishing at the rim knocked his ORating down to an ugly 92.5.
This season, MAAR was thrust into a far bigger role after Caris LeVert's injury, and he responded by improving every facet of his game. His turnover rate dropped by more than half, he made 57% of his two-pointers in Big Ten play, he reliably knocked down corner threes, he got to the line more often, and while he won't be confused for a point guard any time soon he showed an increased willingness and ability to dish off the drive.
Most importantly, MAAR emerged as the team's most (read: only) reliable shot-creator in LeVert's absence. 33.2% of MAAR's shots came at the rim, the highest rate for a non-center on the team, per hoop-math. After LeVert (32.7%), the next-closest Wolverine in the rotation was Aubrey Dawkins at 22.4%, and MAAR worked a whole lot harder for his attempts at the basket—Dawkins was assisted on 75.0% of such shots, while MAAR was on just 16.4%. Even though MAAR had to go solo the vast majority of the time, he made an impressive 72.6% of his shots at the rim.
In an offense spearheaded by Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, two players who have struggled to create and finish shots at the basket, that ability takes on paramount importance for next season. If MAAR can increase his usage—still at a relatively low 16.3% this season—while maintaining the efficiency he had this season, he could easily become the team's top option, especially if he improves as a passer out of the pick-and-roll. That would allow Walton to play off the ball more often, the role he's been best at in his Michigan career, and take pressure off Irvin to be an off-the-dribble creator, something he's improved at but still doesn't look totally comfortable doing.
Weezy, Freed. Save a few anomalous performances by Mark Donnal, the center position was a major sore spot this season, but there's renewed hope for next year after the late-season breakout of Moe Wagner.
Over the last four games of the season, Wagner went 9/9 from the field—including a three-pointer—with six offensive rebounds and four blocks in only 55 minutes. He was far and away Michigan's best pick-and-roll big, catching opponents square with his screens—he freed up Derrick Walton on the last play of the Indiana BTT game, forcing the help that opened up Kam Chatman in the corner—and showing great instincts for when to slip to the basket; it helped that he was a more reliable catcher and finisher than Donnal or Ricky Doyle, too. Despite being a skinny freshman, he showed he can hold up in the post on defense and potentially be a sorely needed rim protector.
Wagner's potential is tantalizing. At 6'10", he's got the frame to easily add 15-25 pounds and return next season in the 240-250 range. He dunks when Michigan's other big men go for layups. He has the athleticism and length to alter shots, run the floor, and even beat big men off the dribble. He made 71%(!) of his two-pointers as a freshman. If he can stay on the floor—a big question given his 7.3 fouls/40 minutes mark—he could turn the center spot from a negative into a positive in just one season.
Duncan Robinson. Even after an extended late-season slump—which, given Robinson's lofty standard, meant he made a mere 35% of his three-pointers in conference play—the D-III transfer proved he could more than hold his own at the highest level of college basketball. His shot chart remains a thing of beauty:
Robinson's dropoff can be attributed to issues that should be mitigated next season. He played more games than he ever had before while simultaneously facing a much higher level of competition. Opponents increasingly game-planned to eliminate Robinson as Michigan's other offensive weapons went down to injury or proved ineffective. With a year of D-I experience under his belt and what should be an improved group of players around him next season, Robinson should better be able to maintain his torrid early-season shooting pace. He showed signs of perking up at the end of this season, too, making 5/10 threes in the NCAA Tournament.
While Robinson would be a valuable starter based on his outside shooting alone, he rounded out his game as the season progressed. He drove to the basket more often late in the season, and while he wasn't great at finishing through contact, he shot a solid percentage near the hoop by using the basket to help shield him from defenders—the reverse layup off a baseline cut is becoming something of a signature for him. He went from being a terrible defender to merely a below-average one, separating himself from Aubrey Dawkins in that regard.
Robinson isn't quite Nik Stauskas 2.0—Stauskas created far more offense off the dribble—but Michigan ideally only needs him to be a second or third option in the offense instead of being the go-to guy. With more strength to finish drives after another summer of Camp Sanderson, Robinson should be a closer facsimile to Stauskas next season.
Derrick Walton's rebounding. At 6'1", Walton finished 14th in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding rate. Yes, some of that is due to the rebounding strategy put in place by the coaches—the big men seal off while the guards crash—but it's still ridiculous. While the rest of Walton's season was a disappointment, his remarkable ability to grab contested rebounds over bigger players shouldn't be overlooked.
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.
It wasn't easy. It was, in fact, excruciatingly difficult to watch. In the end, however, Michigan survived a borderline-comedic series of late-game issues to eke past Northwestern, and they'll play for their NCAA Tournament lives tomorrow at noon against top-seeded Indiana.
In a tight game late in the second half, Michigan twice split a pair of free throws that could've helped seal the deal, first by Zak Irvin then Duncan Robinson. On the first occasion, Northwestern capitalized with an Alex Olah three-pointer. On the second, which kept the Wildcats within two points after the shot clock was turned off, Olah put back a Tre Demps miss with 0.1 seconds remaining to force overtime. Robinson shouldn't even have had the chance to extend M's lead in the first place; after Michigan burned two timeouts trying to get the ball inbounds, Northwestern trapped Robinson in the corner on M's third attempt, and before they fouled him the officials missed an obvious travel.
Robinson went off for 14 first-half points then was silent in the second half before his ill-fated trip to the line; his miss there was just his third of the season. That didn't shake the shooter's confidence, however. Robinson opened the scoring in overtime with a triple from above the break, and after Tre Demps and Nathan Taphorn put the Wildcats ahead by three, he knotted the ballgame at 70 with 46 seconds to go with another bomb off a well-designed sideline inbounds play.
After Bryant McIntosh missed a shot on Northwestern's ensuing possession and the ball grazed Taphorn on its way out of bounds to give Michigan the rock, Irvin rose above McIntosh for a long two and the lead with only three seconds left. The game appeared to be over when Irvin tipped Northwestern's desperation inbounds pass to Derrick Walton, who seemingly dribbled out the clock. Since nothing can be easy, though, an official review revealed Walton stepped on the baseline with 0.6 seconds left.
Mercifully, Walton was spared an ignominous fate when Taphorn's three-point attempt at the buzzer clanged harmlessly off the front of the rim.
Robinson finished with a team-high 21 points, Irvin added 16 points and 8 rebounds, and Abdur-Rahkman had 14 and 8. Walton had seven boards and five assists but couldn't get his shot to fall, scoring his only two points at the line while going 0/7 from the field. Michigan's big men were once again dominated by Olah, who put up 20 and 13 despite a quiet first half; Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle combined for just 8 and 6.
Michigan's postseason dreams are still alive for now. If they turn in a similar performance against Indiana, however, the NIT beckons.
pick me up [Eric Upchurch]
So that was odd. For some reason during this game I thought to myself that this team was a stereotype of Beilein teams, a stereotype of the variety that gets passed around message boards that always, always call Michigan "scUM."
It more or less is. Michigan is 146th in defensive efficiency even after a strong outing against Purdue. They're 12th in the league in two point defense. They don't get to the line and don't get to the offensive boards. All of these things are more or less true every year. They're less easy to stomach when you get hammered over and over by teams that can exploit Michigan's various and sundry flaws. Michigan's been blown out of the building in every loss save Iowa*, often because they've resembled a grim parody of John Beilein basketball.
So I am thinking this and then Michigan wins a game by holding Purdue to 56 points. Michigan is 5/20 from three and significantly outrebounds a gigantic Purdue outfit. Okay. Whatever. In this very stereotypical Beilein year this was a genre-defying game.
*[That game was reasonably competitive despite the 11-point final margin.]
Doubly odd. Meanwhile there was a period in the second half when Michigan's offense devolved into ridiculous heroball. Walton, Irvin, and Robinson all took very bad shots on which they tried to beat guys off the dribble, failed, and shot anyway. This was during a 2/20 run from the floor. It was deeply unpleasant, and then Michigan won anyway.
Walton ain't wiltin'. Takes some cojones to drive in the vicinity of Hammons when you're 0/9 for the game and then aim for contact, but Derrick Walton has always been an assassin at the end of games. As a freshman he closed out wins against MSU and Nebraska with and-one drives; here he pushed Michigan in front on their 11-0 closing spurt. He then made four free throws down the stretch to seal it. I'm not a big fan of "clutch" but in his case I'll allow it.
While we're talking about weird-ass Derrick Walton, should be noted that he's still the top defensive rebouder on the team, and that is a good sign, not an ominous one. Michigan always does this thing where their defensive rebounding looks pretty good through the nonconference season and then they finish 10th or so in the league; not so this year. Michigan is 3rd(!) in the league at defensive rebounding. They haven't managed that since 2009, when Anthony Wright was tossing bombs at Oklahoma in the second round of the tourney instead of at Dan Dakich on Twitter.
Walton appears to have a tangible positive effect on Michigan's team rebounding, which is huge for a team that plays as small as Michigan does. A 6-foot-nothing point guard led all rebounders in a game featuring Purdue with 7 DREBs. Again, Purdue versus Derrick Walton and Walton wins.
Ticket more or less punched. Michigan needed to find a couple wins in a difficult closing stretch to feel secure about a bid; with the Purdue win they have reached 19 wins against a difficult schedule (SMU, Texas, UConn, and Xavier are all top-25 Kenpom teams). They've got three wins that will go on everyone's "good" list and zero bad losses. One of those wins is against a projected one-seed. Even if they had a season-ending skid that is not a profile that gets left out, especially when two programs that would normally be in the tournament (SMU and Lousiville) are taking postseason bans this year. And that's before the committee accounts for the fact that Levert has barely played during the Big Ten schedule.
Michigan would likely have to lose out to be on the bubble.
This is what I am saying about post offense. It's inefficient. Purdue makes it work better than most because they have simply enormous dudes but as Ace pointed out, all those post ups lead to a barrage of two point jumpers that aren't good at scoring points. This game was a good example of why. Hammons got shut out(!!!) on the offensive boards and Haas got just one. Those two combined to go 9/21 from the field and 3/7 from the line, with two of the makes Hammons 15-footers. Hammons turned it over 3 times. All this was against a very bad defense.
Hammons is 88% at the rim but:
- 71% of his shots there are assisted
- another 18% are putbacks, so
- 11% of his shots at the rim are unassisted non-rebouds, ie, post-ups.
Meanwhile he's hitting 39% on two point jumpers, which comprise the vast majority of shots arising from post ups. Haas is similar but is hitting 48%. And both guys see a lot of assists on their two point makes, which means raw put-it-on-the deck post ups are mostly a waste of time even when you have the biggest damn team in the world against a bad defense.
I am completely fine with the way Michigan has discarded post-ups entirely. I just wish they'd recruit posts based solely on resemblance to Dikembe Mutumbo; all the guy has to do is dunk and wag his finger.
(Other possibility: Purdue is super generous with assists. They're 11th nationally in A/FGM, and I've seen them play. That's not reality.)
Robinson quiet, but occupying people. Purdue has Raphael Davis. Davis is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Raphael Davis spent most of this game checking Duncan Robinson. This resulted in Robinson not doing much and an ugly offensive game for the rest of the team, but Irvin got loose in part because he got a matchup against Swanigan; only after he'd heated up did Purdue try to match Davis on him.
If Levert does get back to full strength either he occupies the ace defender and Robinson gets loose or he gets to attack those wide open lanes. This is one of two reasons getting LeVert back and functional is so critical; the other is that the committee won't give Michigan the benefit of the doubt for his absence unless he does return.
MAAR, ball-hawk. Abdur-Rahkman helped rescue the game with a couple of key steals late. That's a flash of the perimeter defender we hoped we were getting last year after he shut down DeAngelo Russell; for a lot of reasons that has not really manifested itself. He's probably been Michigan's most consistent defender, but that's not saying much.
While he's not exactly a standout statistically, he's piecing it together this year. He's shooting really well in conference (76%/59%/41%), he's inching up that assist rate, and he's getting to the line. Usage is still in the Spike Albrecht range; that's the main hangup when you're trying to project him. He should be a very solid upperclassman; the ten-point bump in his three point shooting percentage is encouraging.
Okay Caris. Just get right by the Big Ten Tournament. Now that he's seen the court the direst predictions are off the table.
After cruising for most of the game, Michigan found themselves against the ropes, up only five in the final minute on the road with the momentum suddenly on the side of host Minnesota.
Derrick Walton had the ball poked away from behind and Carlos Morris looked to cut the lead further with a 2-on-1 the other way. Out of nowhere, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman poked the ball out from behind, chased it down, and threw it off Nate Mason to retain possession. Walton iced the game at the line and the Wolverines escaped Minneapolis with a much-needed win.
Aside from that shaky moment late, Walton was masterful, scoring a career-high 26 points on 9/15 FG with eight rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. He had a hand in 15 of Michigan's 19 points over the final 5:50 of the first half, which culminated in a Rucker-caliber Walton crossover and three in the face of Joey King at the buzzer to give the Wolverines a 14-point lead.
Walton picked up where he left off early in the second half, and he started getting help from Abdur-Rahkman (16 points on a perfect 5-5 night from the field) and Duncan Robinson (14 points, 4/7 3P, career-high 8 rebounds). Michigan's lead reached as many as 19 points and stayed in double-digits until Nate Mason hit a one-handed runner while falling out of bounds with 5:46 to play.
Michigan found themselves unable to keep the Gophers guards out of the paint. Dupree McBrayer bulled his way to the hoop to earn two straight trips to the line. Walton tipped a potential defensive rebound back to Minnesota and Mason nailed a pull-up. A Robinson triple only temporarily stemmed the tide as McBrayer, Mason, and Morris answered with consecutive layups to cut the margin to two.
Then Rahk saved the day, first by putting his shoulder into Morris on a baseline drive for a tough and-one layup, then by cleaning up after Walton on Michigan's next possession. In the process, he may have saved the team's NCAA Tournament hopes.
I guess we should discuss that. The other thing, too. Let's open the floor for questions.
— Jay Winkler (@jman077) February 8, 2016
@AceAnbender when will we stop playing like Rutgers?
— Anthony Lodato (@ajlodato) February 8, 2016
@AceAnbender why is basketball
— Burrill Strong (@sgtwolverine) February 8, 2016
— Stefan Zonia (@iamstefanzonia) February 8, 2016
— mgoblog (@mgoblog) February 8, 2016
I'm sensing some despair. Does anyone have a more specific question?
— Tom Lawrence (@LordSupremo) February 8, 2016
Ah, so. Let's try this again after the jump.
[JUMP, if you dare.]