The season may very well be over, and that might be for the best. This Michigan squad squeezed every last bit of talent and effort out of an undersized, overmatched, and exceedingly young group over the last couple months, to the point that I'm not sure they have much left to prove this year. This team battled harder than anyone expected after the losses of Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, and there's little doubt they're going to be dangerous as all hell next year.
For the first 15 minutes of today's matchup against the Goliaths of Wisconsin, Michigan looked to be on their way to a stunning upset. Eventually, though, the mismatches up front caught up to the Wolverines, who started the game with Zak Irvin guarding Frank Kaminsky and Max Bielfeldt on Nigel Hayes. The Badgers closed the first half on an 18-4 run and kept Michigan at bay, though not by much, through the second half.
The Badgers won by virtue of size, talent, and experience. Aubrey Dawkins looked the part of a freshman against Sam Dekker, who led Wisconsin with 17 points and pulled down four offensive rebounds. Hayes managed nine points and three offensive boards of his own. Kaminsky talled 16 and 12 against a wave of double-teams. Fittingly, a Hayes putback after Kaminsky drew in M's interior defenders proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
But man, did Michigan fight. Irvin once again raised expectations for next year with a tremendous all-around performance. He scored 21 points on 9/18 shooting, hitting an array of NBA-level midrange shots, knocking down three of his seven triples, and finding his way to the basket. Tasked with cleaning the glass against Wisconsin's huge front line, he recorded 11 rebounds, all on defense, which was one off a career high. For good measure, he added three assists and three steals; a baseline dish to Ricky Doyle looked like it was ripped straight from Spike Albrecht's highlight reel.
Doyle, who's been quiet of late, gamely battled Kaminsky in the post, and got the better of the Big Ten Player of the Year his fair share of times: Doyle hit all six of his shots from the field to tally 12 points. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had a couple great takes to the hoop on his way to eight points on 4/7 shooting. Albrecht added ten, highlighted by a couple deep threes.
So, yes, Michigan lost, but the positive indicators for next season were everywhere: a pivoting Doyle finish against Kaminsky, Albrecht dribbling through defenders like Steph Curry before pulling up for a jumper, Dawkins throwing down an Irvin miss on the break, Rahk blowing by the defense for a layup, Kam Chatman tossing an inch-perfect entry pass to Doyle for a layup.
The Wolverines didn't have quite enough juice to overcome one of the best teams in the country. Suddenly, though, the big question for next year is this: how is John Beilein going to find playing time for all these promising young guys? After a season replete with real problems, that's one heck of a good problem.