The bigs delivered a spot in the Sweet 16 [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
Discussing Michigan’s Sweet 16 team
1. In Michigan’s last five games, they’ve defeated five straight NCAA Tournament teams at neutral sites, taking what had been a rather average season and making it one of John Beilein’s very best in Ann Arbor in a span of two weeks. March rules everything in college basketball and the Wolverines have already cemented a successful season with the potential to do even more.
In these past five wins, Beilein has tightened the rotation: seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are playing over 90% of available minutes; Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and DJ Wilson are playing over 80%; Duncan Robinson over 50% and Moritz Wagner right at 50%. Xavier Simpson and Mark Donnal play spot minutes as necessary to spell the starters, but it’s pretty much a six-man rotation.
2. Walton and Irvin spend as little time on the bench as possible, and for good reason. Plenty has been written about Walton: over the last half of his senior season, he’s become an elite point guard, commanding Michigan’s 5-out ball-screen offense with aplomb, draining threes and venturing on tough forays to the basket.
Walton’s ability to set up his teammates – marshaling the Wolverine offense into taking advantage of Wagner’s mismatches against Louisville’s wings in the mid-post, for example – to maximize Michigan’s offensive ability is uncanny. Overnight, he became something approximating a Nik Stauskas (or even a Trey Burke, honestly). Walton came in as a well-regarded recruit and was a starter on an Elite 8 team as a freshman, and even though his career was sidetracked by injuries, he’s fulfilling his potential, having become a star – capable of carrying Michigan on his back.
3. Irvin’s story is a little more complicated. The former five star wing was an unrepentant three-ball gunner with indifferent defense as a freshman, and morphed into a solid distributor as his shot abandoned him. He took leadership in a lost sophomore season after injuries to Caris LeVert and Walton; Michigan often rode with Irvin in late-game situations to mixed results and eventually found that it was better to run the offense through Walton instead of Irvin, especially during a February cold stretch. To his credit, Irvin has morphed into an excellent role player as of late – occasionally taking long jumpers, but deferring more and more. His ability to conjure a shot from nothing is still useful, and he’s a good passer.
Irvin’s work ethic really shows up on the defensive end: he works hard to get skinny over ball-screens, switches one-through-four, and he tracks shooters around the perimeter, working to deny them the ball. The improvement he’s made on that end of the floor over the course of his career has been remarkable. Michigan wouldn’t be in the Sweet 16 without him.
4. Walton and Irvin are program cornerstones: hyped prospects who were rotation players for a great team from day one, guys who have played so many games in a Michigan uniform, not quite talented enough to make a leap to the NBA but good enough to win at the college level. This team was built around Walton and Irvin, and now that the squad is exceeding expectations, full credit should go to those two foundational players – classmates who have grown into excellent leaders for Michigan. Beilein’s previous best teams (2012-2013 and 2013-2014) were led by youngsters. Not this season.
5. It’s too early to talk about Walton and Irvin’s legacies – as they still have games to play (and hopefully win) in the tournament – but, needless to say, they’ll be remembered more fondly because of their Big Ten Tournament title and Sweet 16 appearance as seniors. Of course, they could still carry the team even further in the NCAA Tournament. In Beilein’s tenure, there have been a few notable leadership tandems: Manny and Peedi, Zack and Stu, Trey and Tim – and Derrick and Zak. It will be extremely sad to see them go.
Rest of the post after the JUMP:
Michigan’s seniors have stepped up their play [Bryan Fuller]
6. Of Michigan’s six man core (Derrick Walton, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Zak Irvin, Duncan Robinson, DJ Wilson, and Moritz Wagner), Walton and Irvin were the only top recruits – and the only ones from the Midwest, hailing from Detroit and Indianapolis, respectively. Abdur-Rahkman was old for his class and received his first high-major offer – from Michigan – late in the recruiting cycle following NBA attrition. Robinson was a Division III star as a freshman and transferred up after his coach left for another job, far from anyone’s recruiting radar as a prep player. They both came from the Northeast. DJ Wilson, a California kid who was injured for part of his high school career, had Columbia and Gonzaga in his final three along with Michigan, though he did have some Pac-12 interest. Somehow, John Beilein managed to find a future center in Germany. How many Michigan fans remember the name Robin Benzing?
7. Yesterday, Beilein notched a win over Rick Pitino by unleashing Moritz Wagner in the second half as steady scoring from the Wolverines eventually outpaced Louisville’s alternating buckets and long-range bricks. Wagner scored a career-high 26 points and made eleven shots against Louisville’s fearsome cast of defenders: he iso’d Deng Adel and got a spinning layup, ran over Donovan Mitchell on a drive and got a bucket, backed down and bullied Adel from the three-point line, got an easy look from a MAAR cross-screen under the basket, beat Adel with another mid-post spin, spun off of Jaylen Johnson at the three-point line and made a layup over Mangok Mathiang, slipped an off-ball perimeter screen for a layup, popped for a wing three against shot-blocker Anas Mahmoud, spun for a layup on the block against Mitchell, and pump-faked Mathiang on the three-point line for a swooping layup. As a consequence of Pitino’s choice to disrupt Michigan’s ball-screens and outside shooting, Wagner often found himself guarded by a wing, and he took advantage.
8. Like the Big Ten Tournament victory over Purdue, it was an atypical win for Michigan. The Wolverines scored a quality 1.18 points per possession – Louisville’s third-worst defensive performance on the season – after a strong second half, but only made six threes on the game. Derrick Walton dished out six assists but had more shot attempts than points. The bench only chipped in three points and Duncan Robinson was held scoreless.
Michigan’s round of 64 game against Oklahoma State was the basketball equivalent of both sides going at it in a first-person shooter video game armed solely with bazookas; fiery three-point shooting was enough to save the Wolverines’ season despite the defensive implosion. Louisville was much different than Oklahoma State. Pitino’s characteristically stingy defense deterred Michigan’s offensive action with its length and athleticism – not to mention their deep cast of shot-blocking and glass-crashing intimidators. Michigan took what the Cardinals gave them, which wound up being a steady dose of Wagner.
9. Michigan’s ability to execute offensively in the second half is a testament to how good John Beilein is as a coach. Over the decade he’s been in Ann Arbor, his unique style has become quite familiar. There’s his signature motion with differing sets of reads for any combination of looks the defense can throw at it; there are clever little set plays countered off of Michigan’s normal looks; there’s the simple ball-screen two-man game surrounded by shooters. It’s rare that Michigan actively tries to take advantage of mismatches, instead preferring to destroy teams with their normal offense.
Yesterday, Beilein instructed the offense to run ball-screens that switched wings onto Wagner and work the ball to him in the mid-post. Walton had been settling for (normally decent) jumpers that weren’t going in when he was confronted with bigs on switches in the first half. Wagner’s buckets against wings carried Michigan early in the second half when Louisville still had a sizable lead and was still scoring; the rest of the second half featured more of the Michigan offense Beilein has become famous for. Walton-Wagner ball-screens in the last few non-fouling possessions in the game sealed it.
10. Derrick Walton is the unquestioned leader and most valuable player on the team, something approximating Yogi Ferrell, Travis Trice, or yes, even Trey Burke. He wasn’t at his best against Louisville though, so his sophomore big men, Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson, picked up the slack.
11. Both players blossomed after being inserted into the starting lineup this season after sparse playing time as freshmen; both were skilled shooting wings who hit unexpected growth spurts and are learning to play with physicality against other giants; both can look like future NBA players at times, flummoxing plodding opponents with quickness, dribbling prowess, and flair. The future of the program lies with them, assuming they both return next season. Wagner and Wilson enable Michigan to unleash an elite 5-out offense with 5 players who can put the ball on the floor and score, and each can dominate for stretches.
Moritz Wagner is a matchup nightmare for centers [Campredon]
12. Over the last five wins (all over NCAA Tournament teams), DJ Wilson has been superb, averaging 17.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game over that span. Occasionally, Michigan likes to run a pick-and-pop with Wilson or enter the ball to him in the mid-post, but it’s rare that any specific offensive set is run for him: he thrives off of residual action, gets a few buckets with his length and leaping ability on the offensive glass, can hit drive-and-kick threes, and scores with an array of elegant fadeaways and hooks.
Wilson was the second-leading scorer in yesterday’s win, and his scoring bookended the game for the Wolverines: a few two-point baskets to break the seal and 4-4 free throw shooting in the last minute to protect a narrow lead. In previous wins over Wisconsin and Oklahoma State, Wilson spent long stretches as the five; he slid back to his normal spot at the four with an effective Wagner present against Louisville.
13. Beilein’s offense is one of the best in the country as Michigan has ascended into the top five in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. It’s a very balanced offense. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are the team’s two senior leaders and, even though Walton has taken more responsibility as of late, they’re the only two players who can create shots for themselves and others. Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson, the versatile sophomore bigs, have provided an inside-outside scoring threat that’s nearly impossible to guard because of their shooting and off-the-dribble ability.
14. Those four are the most important Wolverines, but Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are valuable role players as well. There’s only been one positive outlier game between the two in the tournament thus far – which was Rahkman’s 16-point performance against Oklahoma State (in which he also did a great job helping prevent OSU sharpshooter Phil Forte from getting open threes). Both are good offensive players:
Robinson is a deadly 6’8 sniper who sprinkles in a few savvy cuts for layups, Rahkman is a low-usage 3-and-D shooting guard who can make tough shots from straight line drives at defenders. Like most of Michigan’s players, Rahkman’s defense can be poor on occasion, but he plays a lot of minutes and has been better at ball denial and three-point prevention as of late. Robinson is a liability on defense, of course.
15. Xavier Simpson and Mark Donnal occasionally play out of necessity: both prized Ohioan recruits who contribute very little on offense, the former a diminutive point guard who plays tenacious defense, the latter a finesse big who can shoot threes, but whose presence tends to signal frequent collapses in team defense. Any positive stats recorded by either rank as small victories for Michigan.
16. Anyways, Michigan’s in the Sweet 16. On February 4th, they lost at home to an Ohio State team that wouldn’t even make the NIT, dropping their record to 14-9 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten. There was November success with neutral site wins over Marquette and SMU; there was a stretch of absolutely horrendous defense in the first third of conference play. After that loss to Ohio State on February 4th, it felt like Michigan would have a hard time reaching the NCAA Tournament. It felt like it would be the third underachieving season in a row in Ann Arbor, although the first of the three that didn’t feature a major injury to a key player. People complained about John Beilein and it felt at least somewhat warranted. Few wanted him gone (and nobody should have), but it felt like the program had fallen so far from the heights of the Burke and Stauskas teams. It felt like he wouldn’t be able to get back there.
17. In the six weeks since that loss to Ohio State, Michigan is 12-2, with the two losses coming on the road in heartbreaking fashion to NCAA Tournament teams. Michigan beaten Purdue and Wisconsin, the other Big Ten Sweet 16 participants, twice each. They ended John Groce’s Illinois tenure in practice jerseys a day after a plane accident. They won four games in four days in Washington DC to bring home the program’s first Big Ten Tournament title in two decades – and the first BTT banner in the rafters of Crisler (after the program’s only other title, in 1998, was vacated). They’ve won five straight games against NCAA Tournament teams: a 4-seed, a 5, an 8, a 10, and a 2. Some of those wins came without good three-point shooting – wins that Beilein likes to call “gritty, not pretty.” Michigan runs pretty offense. They’re a phenomenal offensive team and a relatively mediocre defensive team. They play pretty basketball. Sometimes that pretty ball can be misconstrued as “white collar” by foolish Illinois centers. During this wonderful postseason run, Michigan’s wins haven’t all been pretty.
Bill Raftery says that Walton has a big ticker and he’s right [Campredon]
18. Any previous complaints about this team have been mostly forgotten. Derrick Walton has been playing like an All-American and has staked a very credible claim as one of Beilein’s best players ever in Ann Arbor. Irvin’s been absolved of shot selection self-indulgence earlier in this season and earlier in his career. Myriad defensive deficiencies are outweighed by the mismatches Wagner and Wilson provide on the other end of the floor. The defense itself has improved from atrocious to adequate enough, especially given Michigan’s offensive firepower. Michigan gave up 1.4 points per possession to another terrific offense (Oklahoma State’s) and somehow still won in the Round of 64, mostly due to amazing outside shooting by the Wolverines. Three-point shooting is John Beilein’s specialty, as we all know.
19. The Wolverines are on an outstanding run of form at the perfect time, and they’ll be playing in the second weekend of the tournament for the third time in the decade-long Beilein era. This is arguably his third-best team in Ann Arbor, or fourth, if you consider the 2011-2012 team – which ranked considerably lower in computer rankings, won a share of the toughest conference in college basketball, and were upset in the Round of 64 – to be better. Beilein’s balanced six-man core featuring two senior creators, two talented young bigs, and accurate outside shooting from nearly everyone has certainly gelled into a formidable squad after some rockiness earlier this season.
20. This team could make the Final 4. A national championship is won after a team wins three tournaments with four teams each – the first mini-tournament was in Indianapolis: Michigan survived against Oklahoma State and notched a comeback win over Louisville. The second mini-tournament will be in Kansas City, and if Michigan defeats Oregon and the winner of Kansas and Purdue, they’ll get a trip to the Final 4 in Phoenix for the final mini-tournament. Oregon won over 30 games and a share of the Pac-12; despite an injury to a key player, they are a formidable opponent. Kansas won the Big 12 (as always) and are rightfully a 1-seed; Purdue and Spike Albrecht loom as a possible opponent if they upset the Jayhawks. Michigan is 2-0 against the Boilermakers, but they’re still the best team in the Big Ten. Getting to the Final 4 would require beating two great opponents, just like getting to the Sweet 16 did.
21. We’ll see how it goes. Michigan has a phenomenal offense, a phenomenal point guard, and a phenomenal coach. It’s been a fun season. Hopefully it lasts a little longer.