Patrick Barron / MGoBlog
These will be my general thoughts from the Big Ten Tournament. I’ll delve into the season at-large some other time.
It was apparent for some time that Michigan would be locked into the 8 / 9 game in the Big Ten Tournament, meaning that we knew for weeks that any theoretical BTT run would have to go through a rested Wisconsin team in the Friday noon slot. Unfortunately, the most suboptimal path to the conference semifinal came to fruition: beat Illinois and then beat Wisconsin. Ken Pomeroy’s numbers gave us about a 2% chance of doing that.
For that reason, the Big Ten Tournament was not a disappointment – not by any means. Michigan destroyed Illinois and its feeble NCAA Tournament hopes before acquitting themselves well in a loss against Bo Ryan’s Big Bad Badgers. 1-1 wasn’t enough to get Michigan into the NIT – which was a mild disappointment, if only because we want to see more of this Michigan team. Seriously: after Beilein’s last underachieving squad – the mightily frustrating 2009-2010 Manny / Deshawn team – didn’t get an invite to the NIT, it felt like a mercy kill of sorts. Now, we just wish we could continue to see this team develop and gel.
The Illinois game was a huge reason for this. Exactly a month after squandering a late seven point lead in Champaign to get blown out in overtime, Michigan was awarded a rematch with the Illini and, well, the Wolverines beat their asses. Illinois erased a 14-2 run from Michigan to open the game and eventually took a 19-17 lead, but Michigan went on an extended 27-4 run into the second half to run the Illini right out of the United Center. To be fair, Illinois played a ghastly game, replete with bonehead turnovers and impressively errant shooting, but Michigan played objectively its best game of the season Thursday in Chicago.
Some player bullets from that game:
Aubrey Dawkins tallied an efficient 18 points and was Kenpom’s player of the game; over the Northwestern, Rutgers, and Illinois games near the end of the season, Dawkins combined for 70 points. 70! Even though his shot wasn’t as lethal as it had been against the Illini, he shot 6-7 from inside the arc, including this Glenn Robinsonesque alley-oop from
Zak Irvin, who is truly not-just-a-shooter anymore. He wasn’t all that effective from the field against Illinois, but he tallied a career-high six assists and was an excellent distributor throughout. It wasn’t just a great game passing the ball from a former offensive black hole, it was just a great game passing the ball, period. His shot’s still not right but Zak’s emergence in the pick-and-roll as a complete player was one of Michigan’s biggest storylines moving forward down the stretch.
Spike “Nash” Albrecht, who now is and should be considered legitimately good, hit two big threes and had this wonderful assist to a cutting Dawkins. It was probably Michigan’s best highlight of the year, an artifact of Michigan’s beautiful, high-flying offense from the past few seasons.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was awesome as well – it was the first game where he and Dawkins combined to play well. Mo put up a line of 15-8-2 and that doesn’t seem like it tells the whole story; he drove the ball with reckless abandon and finished pretty well. It’s not often you see a freshman guard routinely barreling into the chest of a long senior shot-blocker (Nnanna Egwu) with such confidence and scoring tough layups.
Max Bielfeldt threw ten points up on the board. Thanks, Max.
Every time Dawkins made a nice basket cut, or Irvin threw a pin-point pass, or Rahkman challenged Illinois at the rim, I had this little tune ringing through my head:
Michigan was finally evolving and showing its true potential after all that time. Dawkins and Rahkman showed what they were capable of in combining for 33 points (which, when you really think about that, speaks volumes to Beilein’s ability to identify talent in the wake of unexpected NBA departures); Irvin was showing off the type of individual brilliance that will work excellently in a complementary role next season; Ricky Doyle didn’t play much against Illinois but looked great at times against Wisconsin; Kam Chatman even did a few nice things; and Spike Albrecht showed – as he did ever since Walton’s injury – that he’s a very useful college player and not just a quirky little stat from a national title game a few years ago.
After the game, I posted something that gained a ton of traction on Twitter: the scholarship offers of Michigan’s starting five in that Illinois game (which combined for 65 points and routed a pretty solid team)
- Albrecht: Appalachian State
- Abdur-Rahkman: George Mason, Bucknell, Harvard
- Zak Irvin: [was a highly-touted recruit, had plenty of good offers]
- Aubrey Dawkins: Dayton, Northeastern, College of Charleston
- Max Bielfeldt: Illinois*, Western Michigan, Ball State
*Should be noted that Bielfeldt’s family donates a crapton of money to Illinois’s AD.
Michigan would have these guys, if not for variably expected early entry or injury: Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson, Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton. Beilein was left with the lineup above and did as reasonably well as anybody could have expected with it.
The Wisconsin game was a seemingly preordained loss, but Michigan made a very good game of it. From neutral observer Kevin Trahan afterwards:
Friday night Michigan lost to Wisconsin 71-60 in Chicago, in a basketball game that will likely never be noted for its historical relevance. Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the country, while Michigan might be able to sneak into the NIT, so this outcome was to be expected.
But this was no cakewalk for Wisconsin like it should have been. Michigan had the lead for much of the first half, and the Wolverines tied the game with five minutes left. Eventually, the Badgers' talent won out, but this game was brought up a situation that I've found myself noticing a lot this year: There was no way in hell Michigan should have been in that game.
Spike led the charge with 10 early points (but finished with just ten); Rahkman and Dawkins took a big step back and only combined for 13 points. Still, Zak Irvin played a phenomenal game and carried the Wolverines – 21 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals against a one-seed is the Zak Irvin we could have only hoped for, even at the beginning of the season before the well-documented sophomore slump. Trahan wrote that Ricky Doyle “out-played Frank Kaminsky for a spell” which seems unfathomable – but correct.
Michigan played Wisconsin even for 35 minutes in Chicago, and though the Badgers’ impressive work on the offensive glass eventually ended the Wolverines’ season, it was still an indicator of positive things to come. This, to me, is the biggest story: over the two games in the Big Ten Tournament, Zak Irvin combined for 35 points, 17 rebounds, 9 assists (to just 4 turnovers) and 4 steals. The light finally came on for him and I’m miffed at the lack of NIT invite, maybe if only because I want to see how much more Zak can do. He faced a ton of criticism this year and, with his performances in Chicago, answered the questions about his game and quieted those asking them.
In addition, Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman showed positive signs of being program cornerstones – a wing and a guard, both capable of becoming solidly above-average Big Ten contributors for multiple seasons. If Dawkins learns to play defense, the sky’s the limit; Rahkman might be forever underrated because of his style – not as many threes, more tough, workmanlike defense. Ricky Doyle was sick for most of the end of the season, but he showed good things against Wisconsin – Michigan’s questions at the center position won’t carry over to next year, I’m thinking.
In the end, this was somewhat of a lost season, but only the true pessimists can’t see some silver linings from the last several games of the season. Michigan’s evolving, slowly but surely, and after some time in the chrysalis, the Wolverines will be back to being Big Ten contenders.