Terran Petteway, who'd already poured in 14 second-half points, blew past Nik Stauskas with disconcerting ease. While Zak Irvin helped in the paint to force a difficult scoop that caromed off the backboard, nobody boxed out Leslee Smith—who, per hoop-math, has 20 putbacks this season on 72.7% shooting at the rim.
Smith's tip-in attempt lingered on the rim for an eternity before rolling off the mark. Two subsequent swipes at the ball by an indistinguishable assemblage of arms couldn't get the ball closer. We know that feel.
Derrick Walton drilled an running halfcourt shot to finish the first half. He also plowed over Smith on a baseline drive to lay in the eventual winning points; on another day, when the fates aren't as favorable, that's a charge.
On a night when 2013-14 Jordan Morgan played the role of 2010-11 Jordan Morgan, the fates cast Leslee Smith as Jordan Morgan vs. Indiana, with Walton playing the part of an early-arriving Ben Brust. We've all seen this show before, and I prefer this director's interpretation.
Nebraska is not last year's Indiana, of course, nor are they Wisconsin, and this 71-70 win featured plenty to be concerned about. A road win in the Big Ten, however, is rarely a thing of beauty. For every poorly-defended Nebraska pick-and-roll, Michigan executed one on the other end. For every blown switch, a beautiful set out of a timeout. For every blown call on Nebraska, one against the Wolverines. The three crucial free-throw misses late were canceled out on the scoreboard by an end-of-half prayer.* These plays offset until a victor had to be determined, and in that critical final minute, Michigan benefited from the breaks of the game.
If Michigan could've done something, anything, to stop the pick-and-roll in the second half, this would've been a relatively easy victory, as the Wolverines played efficient offensive basketball from wire to wire—1.21 points per trip with a 68.0 eFG%. Glenn Robinson III had one of his best games as a Wolverine, confidently knocking down a triple from the wing on Michigan's first possession and going on to score 19 points on 9/12 shooting. He hit multiple pull-up jumpers, got to the hoop off the dribble, and made one of the biggest plays of the game when he purloined a rebound from an unsuspecting Smith, corralled the ball at midcourt, and broke free for a one-handed throwdown to give Michigan a late two-point edge.
The player most representative of this game was Jordan Morgan, without a doubt. Working the pick-and-roll with Stauskas like he once did with Darius Morris, Morgan dropped 15 points on 7/9 shooting, slipping screens with impeccable timing to get wide-open looks at the rim; he even knocked down a pivoting baby hook for good measure. However—whether due to Michigan's defensive strategy, a mid-game foot or ankle injury that briefly took him out of action, or simply being too slow to move his feet—he struggled to stay between Nebraska ballhandlers and the basket on defense, beat to the rim time and again.
On Nebraska's final possession, John Beilein lifted Morgan for Zak Irvin, allowing Michigan to switch on every screen regardless of who set it for whom. That worked initially with Irvin challenging Petteway's shot; it almost backfired completely when nobody was in position to grab the rebound. This is still a team looking for the right answers, and they haven't found all of them quite yet.
One thing is certain, and that's Nik Stauskas' role as alpha-dog. After a relatively quiet first half, Stauskas asserted himself down the stretch, not only as a shot-maker but as the team's best passer; his four assists don't convey how well he moved the ball, especially off the high screen. Yes, he uncharacteristically missed a pair of free throws with five minutes to play. He also scored 12 points on 5/9 shooting, turned the ball over just once while facilitating much of the offense, hit a dagger of a three-pointer prior to that trip to the line, and hit a late layup to give the Wolverines a two-point lead.
After a rough stretch, Caris LeVert provided a solid offensive performance of his own with ten points (5/8 FG) and five assists, creating buckets for himself and others with his now-signature herky-jerky forays into the paint. While it wasn't a totally clean game from him—three turnovers and some poor on-ball defense come to mind—his assertiveness with the ball and ability to find the open man were encouraging given his recent outings.
Walton, meanwhile, may have finally asserted himself as the no-doubt starter at the point. The halfcourt shot was more luck than anything else, but he played within himself, dishing out four assists to just two turnovers, spotting up when need be—drilling a key corner three early in the second half—and playing solid perimeter defense in addition to hitting the game-winner. Spike Albrecht noticably struggled to contest three-point shots in his eight first-half minutes and was limited to just four minutes in the latter stanza. Nebraska was 5/11 on three-pointers in the first half, with three of those coming against Albrecht. The Huskers went just 2/9 the rest of the way as Ray Gallegos (3/5 in 1H, 1/5 in 2H) couldn't get clean looks over Walton.
There are adjustments to be made, no doubt; Michigan's bigs got caught in no-man's land far too often trying to defend high screens, and the guards let their man get around them far too easily on many a drive. Despite this, however, the Wolverines escaped with a road win; their 3-0 Big Ten record has them tied atop the conference standings with Wisconsin and Michigan State. In a season when, like last year, the conference champion could be determined by a few bounces of the ball, Michigan caught their breaks at just the right time.
With trips to Madison and East Lansing looming later this month—not to mention hosting a revitalized Iowa squad in between—the team held serve when they desperately needed it. Don't be surprised if we look back on this game as a turning point after the season plays out.
*Before anyone takes this too literally, I know that's not how it works. Go ahead and post "3-9 is UNACCEPTABLE" now, because you are fundamentally right that Michigan shouldn't miss that many free throws; just remember to conveniently ignore that the Wolverines are 57th in the country—third in the Big Ten—at making them, and free throws are worth one point regardless of the time on the clock.