hoops game recaps
Nine for thirty-one.
Michigan was bound to have a bad shooting night eventually, even in a game where they got a steady stream of open looks. That's exactly what happened tonight; the Wolverines were fortunate to be facing a hapless Minnesota team when the ball refused to behave.
Zak Irvin had himself a night, posting a 19-11-3 line. He did his best work off the dribble, utiziling the high screen to get layups and make 3/5 three-pointers. The rest of the team, however, combined to go 6/26 from beyond the arc. That included a 3/10 mark for Duncan Robinson, who uncharacteristically missed several wide-open looks from his favorite spot just above the break.
The result was a near-unwatchable slog. Minnesota is not a good team, and despite the final score they didn't play particularly well outside of Nate Mason, who scored 25 points—Michigan's perimeter defenders couldn't stay between him and the basket. The Gophers repeatedly gave up great outside looks; Michigan simply couldn't get them to fall.
The Wolverines pushed their lead as high as 15 points in the first half. Robinson, left all alone, had a chance to bump that up to 18, but couldn't find twine. Minnesota finished the half on an 8-0 run and twice as close as three points in the second half, but never kept it there for more than a minute at a time.
Each time they got that close, it was Derrick Walton who responsed, first with a driving layup, then by finding Aubrey Dawkins for a triple that actually fell. Walton scored 22 and got to the rim at will, making 4/7 two-pointers and 11/12 free throws. (He went 1/6 from three, because it was that kind of night.)
While the final result never truly felt in doubt, Michigan survived a scare in a game they'd have no business winning against a quality opponent. They were unlucky with their shots; they were lucky with their foe. It's probably best never to speak of this game again.
I'm trying and failing to process this game in the immediate aftermath.
Despite playing at home, Michigan seemingly had no business hanging with the third-ranked team in the country, not with their best player wearing sweats on the bench. Even the most cock-eyed optimist had to feel the other shoe looming overhead as Maryland whittled into what once stood as a 13-point Michigan lead. That feeling held as Mark Donnal missed the back end of a one-and-one, giving Rasheed Sulaimon an opportunity to send the game to overtime in a most devastating fashion.
Sulaimon weaved back and forth at the top of the arc, but Donnal shadowed him step for step, and while Sulaimon's heave cleared Donnal's fingertips, it didn't hit home. With that, Michigan had a signature win in hand.
Recounting how the two teams reached that point requires a play-by-play worthy of a boxing match. Donnal hit the first significant blow at the end of the first half, blocking consecutive Maryland shots before tipping in a Zak Irvin miss at the buzzer to give the Wolverines an eight-point halftime margin.
Michigan extended that lead behind jumpers from Duncan Robinson, Zak Irvin, and Derrick Walton—in Walton's case, a four-point play after holding his form with center Diamond Stone barrelling through him—but the combination of Stone and Jake Layman countered in a big way. Stone bullied Maryland back into striking distance; Layman tied it up with a smooth midrange stroke; Stone gave the Terps a one-point lead at the 6:33 mark with an and-one.
On the ropes, Michigan fought back, retaking the lead with an and-one of their own from Donnal. Robinson hit a spectacular lefty reverse. Walton drilled a step-back from the elbow. Irvin connected from long range. The lead stood at eight with three minutes remaining.
Sulaimon, who'd been off all night, knocked consecutive three-pointers through, leading to a furious finish as Michigan couldn't put the Terps away at the line. When Sulaimon's final attempt bounced to the corner and the clock hit zero, the Crisler Center crowd unleashed 40 minutes of pent-up nerves.
Irvin finished with 22 points on 17 shot equivalents, Robinson made 5/9 three-pointers on his way to 17, and Walton posted a 12-10-4 line while contributing to a season-worst performance from star Terps guard Melo Trimble, who mustered only two points. Donnal cemented himself as the team's top center with eight points, nine boards, and two blocks; his rebound of a Walton miss with 17 seconds left gained Michigan a critical point while burning a few seconds off the clock.
After little went right against Purdue, everything came together for a Michigan squad missing Caris LeVert, and the schedule eases up considerably after Sunday's trip to Iowa. This may well be the victory that pushes Michigan to the right side of the tourney bubble when all is said and done; it took a true team effort to obtain it.
That's the simple version. Without Caris LeVert in the lineup, Michigan took an early lead and remained in striking distance until late, but when the defense faltered the Wolverine offense couldn't keep pace against Purdue's top-ranked D.
Outside of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who tallied a career-high 25 points on 10/16 FG, nobody could consistently get to the rim and finish against Purdue's front line; center AJ Hammons blocked four shots and altered several others. Michigan had to rely on their perimeter play, and with reigning Big Ten DPOY Rapheal Davis shadowing Duncan Robinson, open looks weren't easy to come by—M managed to reach 40% from three but only following a few makes after the game was decided. Purdue's defense lived up to its billing.
Purdue's offensive success, meanwhile, didn't come in the way most expected. Instead of playing volleyball on the glass, they mixed post touches with a drive-and-kick approach that generated both layups and open three-pointers—the Boilermakers, not a great outside shooting squad, went 9/18 from beyond the arc. With Hammons scoring 17 on ten shots, Michigan couldn't slow the Boilermakers inside or outside the paint.
Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin couldn't make up the difference. Walton needed 12 shot equivalents to net his 12 points; he had trouble dealing with Purdue's size at the rim, and he also strugged mightily on defense. Irvin had to expend a ton of energy guarding burly power forward Caleb Swanigan, and while he did well in that regard, it left him without much juice to carry the offense—he went 2/10 for seven points with three assists and four turnovers.
There were positives to take away here, especially the play of Rahkman and the team keeping the rebounding battle even; that latter part was a huge issue in their previous losses. Mark Donnal didn't turn out to be an instant solution at center, however, even if he looked the best of M's bigs tonight, and for this team to compete with the top-tier B1G squads they need a healthy LeVert.
Michigan announced less than an hour before tipoff that Caris LeVert would miss the Penn State game with a lower leg injury. The Nittany Lions ran out to a 7-0 lead as the Wolverines struggled to even get a shot off in early going.
Instead of faltering, though, Michigan found their groove from beyond the arc, netting all of their first 18 points from beyond the arc. Duncan Robinson utilized his deadly pump fake to free up his own shot and assist on a couple others during that stretch, Zak Irvin got into rhythm, and a hot streak from Aubrey Dawkins turned a deficit into a rout.
Mark Donnal earned the start at center. After an inauspicious start—Donnal sat after one minute due to a foul—he picked up where he left off against Illinois, making his first seven shots on his way to a team-high 16 points and eight rebounds. The work of Robinson (six assists) and especially Irvin (seven) off the dribble left room for Donnal at the rim and he continued to look great catching and finishing off the high screen. His effort on the defensive end also stood out; in two games, Donnal has gone from odd man out to effective starter.
That couldn't have happened without a great team effort to move the ball around. Michigan assisted on 18 of their 29 made field goals, forcing Penn State to try an ill-advised switch to zone that had little positive effect. Dawkins took full advantage by slicing through the defense for a pair of layups and feeding off Robinson and Irvin to drill all three of his triples. He'd finish with 14 points, Irvin had 16 of his own—making 4/6 threes—and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman posted 14 on 5/7 shooting.
It's dangerous to take too much away from a matchup against Penn State, which looked as listless as their football team. That said, it's hard to ignore the transformation of Donnal—and to a lesser extent Irvin and even Robinson—in the absence of Michigan's best player, especially when Derrick Walton had a rough day.
A trip to Purdue looms on Thursday. If LeVert returns while his supporting cast continues to display this level of in-season improvement, however, Michigan can put themselves right back into the conversation as one of the Big Ten's upper-echelon teams.
Mark Donnal is taking over this game. He's set a new career-high in points: https://t.co/ksZh94arXe
— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) December 30, 2015
WHAT IS MARK DONNAL?
— Chris Gaerig (@cgaerig) December 30, 2015
There are few words to describe Mark Donnal right now.
— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) December 30, 2015
"You need to take that, Donnal" ~ a thing I said in real life.
— Bryan Mac (@Bry_Mac) December 30, 2015
...so. If you missed this game, you may have a hard time believing this recap, so I want to preface this by saying I triple-checked for typos and splashed cold water on my face: Mark Donnal led Michigan to a road conference win by scoring 26 points on 11/15 FG with nine rebounds (six offense), three blocks, and two steals.
While Illinois is not a good team up front, Donnal looked like a player transformed. He ran the high screen beautifully, finished strong at the hoop, stepped out to drill a triple, pulled down rebounds with authority, protected the rim, and did it all with more confidence than he's ever shown in a Michigan uniform. Perhaps it's an anomaly. Perhaps it's a turning point. For today, if nothing else, it was a whole lot of fun to watch.
In a more expected development, Caris LeVert also had one of his more impressive games, beating Illini defenders off the dribble all afternoon on his way to 22 points (9/16 FG) and ten assists, several of them to Donnal at the rim.
No other Wolverine made more than three shots from the field; Derrick Walton scored nine, Duncan Robinson and Zak Irvin had eight apiece. Michigan pulled away in the second half by riding the LeVert/Donnal two-man game until Illinois showed they could stop it; the Illini never did. After a hot start to the game from beyond the arc the Illini couldn't keep pace, and Zak Irvin did yeoman's work on the defensive end guarding Malcolm Hill, who needed 13 shot equivalents to score 11 points, seven below his season average.
In a most unpredictable fashion, Michigan opened Big Ten play with a road win. Penn State comes to town on Saturday, giving Donnal a golden opportunity to show today wasn't a fluke. If it was, the reality check may come next Thursday, when the team travels to Purdue to face Isaac Haas and AJ Hammons.
Until the time comes, though, I'll work on finding words to describe... that.
That went as expected.
The last time Bryant played at Michigan, the Wolverines rained in a school record 16 three-pointers in a blowout victory. This time around, Michigan one-upped their previous performance, tallying their 17th triple when Kam Chatman beat the shot clock and the final buzzer from right in front of the bench.
Any other drama had long since passed. Michigan tore apart Bryant's matchup and 2-3 zones in the first half, recording 12 of their threes in the first 20 minutes and tallying assists on 17 of their 21 first-half field goals. Even though the defense had a sub-par half, Michigan went into the tunnel with a 22-point lead. The going wasn't quite as easy when the Bulldogs went man-to-man for much of the second, but by that point it hardly mattered.
What did matter, from Michigan's perspective, was seeing Zak Irvin get off the schneid; he connected on 2/4 triples after heading into the game with a 3/19 in the month of December.
"It was a huge weight off my back," said a visibly relieved Irvin after the game.
Irvin was one of several beneficaries of great ball movement by Michigan, led by Caris LeVert (8 assists), Duncan Robinson (6), and Derrick Walton (5). The Wolverines passed up open jumpers for even more open jumpers, and that opened up the paint, especially once Bryant switched to man; Michigan made 20 of 28 two-pointers in addition to their record-setting night from beyond the arc.
LeVert paced the team with 19 points, followed by Irvin with 16, and three others finished in double figures.
At long last, Michigan has made their way through non-conference play, and they'll carry a 10-3 record—with no bad losses—into the conference opener at Illinois on December 30th. The fans aren't the only ones who are relieved to see stiffer competition.
"I want to get on with the Big Ten and play," said John Beilein. Amen to that.