CHICAGO, Ill. — When the season began, Michigan had its big three — Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin — who were supposed to keep the program afloat after the departures of a different trio to the NBA.
Friday afternoon, when the Wolverines’ year may have ended with an 11-point loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament, LeVert and Walton sat by the far wall of the team’s locker room at the United Center, both injured. Only Irvin remained standing, approached by reporters with a similar theme of questions:
For long stretches this season, the forward had been a one-dimensional, inconsistent player. What changed?
Irvin scored 21 points against the Badgers, marking his seventh consecutive contest in double-digits. Perhaps more importantly, he had three assists, three steals and 11 rebounds, evidence of the improvements he has made.
Friday’s double-double — which followed a six-assist performance Thursday — reminded John Beilein of a moment last spring, when the coach had to specifically instruct Irvin to fight for rebounds in a pickup game.
“I said, ‘All you’ve got to do it just go in there. You’ve got nose for it, you can do it,’ ” Beilein recalled. “Eleven rebounds for him today, a double‑double in that area with the assists he’s had, this is big steps for him.”
Michigan isn’t making the NCAA tournament, and even earning an NIT berth remains doubtful, but Beilein remains confident in the program’s stability despite a down year. That optimism has to be attributed at least partially to Irvin, who suddenly looks comfortable scoring on the dribble, running the pick-and-roll and making plays defensively.
“I’m just proud of how far — not only myself, but the team — has come,” Irvin said.
It showed early in the second half Friday, as Irvin helped the Wolverines keep pace with the top-seeded Badgers. Following a missed layup by Frank Kaminsky, Irvin grabbed the rebound and pushed the pace, attacking the basket before dropping a Spike Albrecht-esque pass to Max Bielfeldt for a bucket.
Michigan scored on its next possession, as Irvin pulled up from just inside the elbow while Bielfeldt rolled to the basket. And three minutes later, the forward sparked an 8-0 run that gave his team the lead, first knocking down a turnaround baseline jumper and then getting a steal.
“Zak, he’s a different player than he was last year,” Bielfeldt explained Thursday. “He’s really developed his game coming off ball screens and seeing the court. He’s always been a really good scorer, but he has that extra sense of seeing guys in his peripheral vision. It changes his game, because guys can’t focus as much on him, and he kicks to the right guy. And then next play, they have to stay close to their man, and Zak’s wide open.”
Yet what has been most surprising isn’t how much Irvin has improved from last year, but the leap he has made during this season. He had just five assists through Michigan’s first 11 games, for instance, and he didn’t record more than 10 rebounds in a contest until the end of January.
“He’s just grown like crazy,” Beilein said Thursday.
That much is clear.