The result last night, and the fashion Michigan got there, was no doubt painful. Lost in the insanity and disappointment, however, were several encouraging signs for the future. Since Brian covered the coaching stuff in today's mailbag, my focus for today will mostly be on the bright side of life.
BUT FIRST, NIT OUTLOOK. So, yeah, that obviously wasn't ideal. DRatings updated their NIT bracketology today, putting Michigan as the second six-seed. A home win over Rutgers isn't likely to change much there (a loss would obviously be a huge blow), which puts Michigan perilously close to the edge:
All regular season champions that did not win their conference tournament automatically qualify for the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). It is important to note that early predictions will be flawed because of this rule. Typically, there are about seven to nine teams that win their conference in the regular season but don’t win their conference tournament and end up in the NIT. So, in early predictions, if your team is a seven or eight seed, then it is likely they won’t make the tournament because of these auto qualifiers.
DRatings currently has ten teams below Michigan projected to make the NIT field. Hold onto your butts.
ZAK IRVIN, EVOLVING. For much of the season, Zak Irvin has been a source of disappointment. If Caris LeVert was supposed to step into Nik Stauskas' shoes, Irvin was supposed to step into LeVert's, becoming this year's guy to add a ton to his game and set himself up for lead dog status/early entry discussion.
It didn't happen right away, but take a look at Irvin's last six games:
|TOTAL (Avg.)||105 (17.5)||20/41 (49%)||16/40 (40%)||17/23 (74%)||3 (0.5)||31 (5.2)||13 (2.2)||9 (1.5)|
Now think about this: Irvin didn't make more than three two-pointers in any game his freshman year—and he only did that twice—and other than the opener against D-II Hillsdale he hadn't made more than four this season until the Indiana game. He had five last night, mostly on NBA-level pullup looks that he generated with surprising ease:
Over the last month, Irvin has raised the bar from top-flight supporting player to potential go-to guy on a good team, and that's a huge step. He's developing moves that reliably get him to the basket—he's incorporating the shot fake, for instance, which is particularly effective given his shooting ability—and he's both finishing and getting to the line more often.
[Hit THE JUMP for more Irvin and a look at the development of three freshmen.]
Despite taking defenders off the dribble more often, he's managed to keep turnovers in check, and that becomes even more impressive when noting his uptick in assists. In the first 20 games of the season, he tallied three assists just once, against Coppin State. He's had three or more in five of the last nine games, including each of the last three. I'm not sure Irvin's had a better assist in his career than the pass he threaded between two defenders to Mark Donnal last night. His court vision has improved, and he's a more willing passer now that he's doing a lot more than just spotting up and firing away.
Irvin's also been much more active on the defensive boards, which could be an especially significant development if he's forced into a lot of action at the four again next year. What we've seen of Irvin recently indicates 2015-16 should be his breakout season.
PRONOUNCED WITH AN UMPTY. Also a welcome sight: Aubrey Dawkins splashing in 21 points on just 12 shot equivalents. The kid can flat out shoot; Dawkins is now fourth in the Big Ten in eFG%, behind only MSU sharpshooter Bryn Forbes among non-seven-footers. In the 11 games since the first Northwestern matchup, when Dawkins went scoreless in ten minutes, he's averaged 9.6 points in 33.4 minutes per game; that, of course, corresponds with LeVert's season-ending injury.
Unlike Irvin, Dawkins is still for the most part a one-dimensional player. His superior athleticism provides a lot of potential for a similar breakout, however, and he's already starting to show signs of rounding out his game:
I will never not be amazed that this dude's best offer was from Dayton, even after taking a prep year, before Michigan stepped in. There's always a place for an athletic wing who can shoot threes.
SADLY, FRESHMAN BIGS CAN'T PLAY 50 MINUTES. Seven-footer Alex Olah obliterated Michigan for the second time in as many games, scoring a career-high 25 points on 12/18 shooting. He had 22 on 9/12 FGs in the first matchup; notably, one in which Ricky Doyle barely played due to illness.
It wasn't hard to see who Olah had the toughest time against last night. While Doyle's defense may not have been great, he forced Olah to battle hard for position in the post. Olah went 8/14 with a turnover when Doyle was in the game—still a strong offensive performance, but not a killer one.
The killer is what happened when Doyle was on the bench. Olah went 2/2 from the field against both Max Bielfeldt and Mark Donnal, and those baskets came far too easy. Donnal hasn't developed the physicality to bang in the post with a center that size, and Bielfeldt is just too short to hide in that situation. Northwestern went right at those two as soon as they entered the game; they had a much tougher time forcing the ball into the post with Doyle on the floor. With post defense, off-ball denial is often just as valuable as on-ball defending, and that was evident last night.
ROLE FOR RAHK? Looking to next year, Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman's potential role is as up in the air as anyone's—he could easily end up coming off the bench, especially if LeVert returns. He may have carved out a role as a defensive stopper, however. His defense against D'Angelo Russell a couple weeks ago opened a lot of eyes, and he was solid again in his matchup against Tre Demps. Yes, Demps ended up being the hero, but he didn't get many easy looks against Rahk—he just happened to make a few absurd triples late in the game. Rahk's offense has been inconsistent, but that doesn't mean he's not making noticeable developments.
INBOUNDING. Frustrating as all hell, I know. For those asking why Michigan keeps using Spike Albrecht as the inbounder when he has such a hard time getting the ball in, Bielfeldt's ill-fated attempt at a baseball pass last night should stand as evidence Spike is the only real option. John Beilein said as much after the Illinois game—having the right inbounder is the top priority and there isn't another player he trusts yet:
"When they put a 6-10, active guy on the ball and you can't move, you're in a five count, you can't pass it backward and you have a guy on you," Beilein said. "Inbounder over action. We believe in getting the right action, and you have to have your best eyes (throwing it in). Muhammad hasn't had to do that a lot of times and he got into a little trouble. And then Spike got it. It was the same situation. There's not a lot you can do if guys aren't running the right routes, and we didn't run the right routes. We didn't do a lot of things right there.
This shouldn't be an issue next year with all the freshmen getting a year of experience; one of those guys, at least, should be able to pick up how to do this.