It took 20 minutes, but Michigan finally looked like Michigan again in the second half of its 14 point home victory over Nebraska. Even if the names and faces were still unfamiliar.
The Wolverines were without Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton and Mark Donnal, 60% of their opening day starting lineup this season, but were still able to knock off the Huskers comfortably with a dominant second half.
Michigan’s starting lineup featured Spike Albrecht, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Zak Irvin, Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle. That’s two players who didn’t have a high-major offer when Michigan was playing in the Elite Eight last March. But the Wolverines got it done defensively – holding Nebraska to 44 points in 57 possessions – and found timely contributions from a host of unexpected players.
Zak Irvin grabbed a career high 12 rebounds and tied a career high with three assists. Aubrey Dawkins made five jumpers in the first half to keep the Wolverines afloat in an ugly half. Max Bielfeldt came off the bench to score 12 points and grab nine rebounds in 26 minutes. And Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, in just his second start, scored 9 points in the second half to jumpstart a decisive 12-0 Michigan run.
There were ugly moments – Michigan shot just 29% inside the arc in the first half – but considering the circumstances this was one of Michigan’s most complete performances of the season. The Wolverines hadn’t beaten a high-major opponent by more than eight points this season, so it was surprising to see them snap that streak with a shortened rotation.
Michigan shot almost entirely jumpshots in the first half and was lucky that Aubrey Dawkins and Zak Irvin were able to hit a few. The Wolverines shot just 29% on twos and 63% on threes in the opening frame and didn’t record a single free throw attempt. Michigan led at the half, but overall the first half offensive performance was uninspiring.
In the second half, the Wolverines started clicking. After scoring only two points in the paint in the first, the Wolverines scored 20 points in the paint in the second. Michigan shot 67% on twos in the final 20 minutes and played with a clear focus on getting to the rim.. While the first half featured jump shots, the second half was more about post ups, passes to the roll man, transition offense and even a few free throws.
Michigan also managed to navigate through a 40 minute game without missing more than four shots in a row – avoiding the cold streaks that have plagued it this season. While the offense started clicking, this game was won with defense.
This was Michigan’s best defensive performance against a high-major opponent since it held Wisconsin to .75 points per possession in a 59-41 victory in 2012. Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields combined for 21 points, six turnovers and 2 assists on 5 of 23 shooting. Some of the duo’s struggles were self-inflicted, but Petteway hadn’t been held to single figures since February 5th, 2014 – the last time he traveled to Ann Arbor.
Nebraska missed 25 of its first 32 shots, a span which stretched well into the second half, and Michigan cleaned up the defensive glass consistently against a Husker team that had little interest in crashing for extra chances.
John Beilein’s zone wizardry was in full effect and the Wolverines shuffled between man-to-man, 2-3 zone and 1-3-1 zone defenses yet again. The 2-3 zone was effective overall, but it was the 1-3-1 zone that flummoxed the Huskers.
Beilein went with the 1-3-1 zone out of the halftime break and the result was a 12-0 Michigan run fueled by Nebraska turnovers, poor decisions and easy Wolverine baskets. The zone didn’t just stop Nebraska’s offense, it got Michigan out in a great position to run and they seized the moment. A 12-0 run is always impressive, but it’s especially decisive when the halftime score was just 23-18.
The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in points allowed per possession nine games into the conference season.
Nebraska didn’t have the corner three-point shooters to make Michigan pay for gambling in the 1-3-1 and didn’t have the discipline to work the ball into good shot attempts. The Wolverine defense hasn’t always been perfect this season, but the Wolverines lead the Big Ten in points allowed per possession nine games into the conference season.
Michigan is 6-3 in league games, but it’s no secret that the Wolverines six wins are over the teams in the bottom six spots in the standings. Now the Wolverines need to go hunting for quality wins. Their first shot will be on Super Bowl Sunday in East Lansing against a Spartan team that has to play Rutgers on Thursday evening.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: In the first half, Benny Parker got up in Abdur-Rahkman’s grill and completely took him out of his game. In the second half, he settled down, made adjustments and started to play. The 6-foot-3 freshman took the game over to start the second half with his length, athleticism and ability to finish in transition. All nine of his points came in the second half and he was very disruptive at the top of Michigan’s zone defenses. Abdur-Rahkman is easily Michigan’s best finisher at the rim right now and I suspect that’s an ability that Beilein and his staff will continue to extract as the season wears on.
- Max Bielfeldt: 12 points and nine rebounds on 6 of 9 shooting, Bielfeldt was dominant. His ability to muscle his way to rebounds was beyond impressive, including his four offensive boards. Michigan isolated him in the post against Pitchford and he scored, he missed a pair of threes so he pump faked and made a mid-range jumper off the dribble. Nebraska isn’t the best low-post team in the conference by any means, but Max has looked very good since LeVert’s injury and gives Michigan a legitimate extra offensive option.
- Zak Irvin: You don’t have to double check the box score, Irvin actually grabbed 12 rebounds in 38 minutes. Nebraska is not an aggressive offensive rebounding team, but that’s still an encouraging number for Zak, who also showed some improved passing and vision (3 assists) for the second straight game. He also hit a huge mid-range jumper off the dribble through contact that helped ice away in the game in the second half. This was one of Irvin’s most complete games of the season and an encouraging step in the right direction.
- Aubrey Dawkins: Dawkins was the only reason that Michigan was able to hang around in the first half, knocking down 5 of 6 jumpers for 13 points. His no-dribble jump shot is pure and he showed that he can knock down the curl jumper as well as the catch and shoot three. Scary things still tend to happen when Dawkins takes more than one or two dribbles (two turnovers), but it was nice to see him make an effort.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht missed both of his field goal attempts, but finished with seven assists to one turnover as he kept the offense running. He finally started to break some of his tendencies in the second half with a nice lob pass on the high ball screen for an easy basket early and then his beautiful assist to Max Bielfeldt when he didn’t pass the ball to the corner when he drove baseline. His six free throw attempts were also a positive sign of him being more aggressive with the ball with Walton sidelined.
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle hasn’t seemed quite the same since he went down with that sickness earlier this month. He was 2 of 5 from the floor, but he got his fair share of post up chances, and was a couple steps late on a few defensive rotations. He did draw a charge when stepping in front of a driving Walter Pitchford in the first half.
- Kameron Chatman: After playing a solid game against Wisconsin, Chatman really struggled against the Huskers. He was 0 of 3 from the floor with 3 turnovers in eight minutes. That’s six empty possessions in eight minutes of clock time.
- Andrew Dakich: Dakich played eight minutes and mostly held his own and although he didn’t make much of an impact on the stat sheet, playing solid minutes was a luxury with Walton sidelined.