Michigan’s win at Nebraska was the sort of beautiful mess that’s required to win on the road. The Wolverines were far from flawless on the night, but they were perfect for long enough.
Michigan scored 18 points in its first nine possessions of the first half, then managed to out-do itself and score 21 points in the first nine possessions of the second half — on 9-of-9 shooting. There’s probably no such thing as perfect basketball, but in those 18 possessions of the game the Wolverines scored 2.17 points per possession. That’s about as close to perfection as it gets.
While the Wolverines outscored the Huskers by 1.49 points per trip during those two 18 possession spans, they lost the other 46 possessions of the game by a 42-56 margin. The beautiful basketball to start each half was good enough for Michigan to hold on, but there’s still work to be done for a Wolverine team that has bigger aspirations.
This was Michigan’s best offensive performance against a major-conference team and the heavy-lifting was done in the previously mentioned half-opening runs. The threes were falling in both halves for the Wolverines, but the ball screen chess match that was going on was fascinating.
Early on, Michigan was aggressive looking for its bigs near the rim, but they were struggling to finish inside. The Wolverines made just 4-of-14 two-point attempts in the first half, but turned it around in the second as their guards managed to find the roll man even when Nebraska blitzed and doubled the screen. Michigan made 10-of-12 twos in the second half, the majority of which were rolls or slips to the hoops or backdoor cuts.
Turnovers were nearly Michigan’s undoing. The Wolverines gave the ball away on 22% of their possessions and now find themselves ranked 7th in the Big Ten — behind Rutgers — in turnover rate. Michigan’s turnovers against Nebraska were primarily live ball giveaways and steals that led to easy baskets on the other end of the floor. The Wolverines were outscored 20-7 in points off of turnovers on the night and need to figure out a way to handle the soft press defenses that teams are throwing at them and still be able to run their offense effectively.
Michigan made up for its sloppiness with the ball both at the free throw line — where it outscored Nebraska 20-6 — and behind the three-point line — where it had a 15 point margin. The Wolverines also continued to do a good job on the glass, holding Nebraska to a 25% offensive rebounding rate while grabbing 33% of their own misses.
Defensively, Michigan held the Huskers to 1.06 points per trip, their lowest output since a January 5th loss at Iowa. The defensive effort wasn’t always perfect, but I was impressed with Michigan’s 2-3 zone which neutralized Shavon Shields in the middle of the court and dared Nebraska to win the game from the outside. Shields and White had more shot attempts and turnovers combined than points, but the Wolverines also struggled to keep Nebraska’s smaller, quicker guards out of the lane — a growing fear after the Minnesota game.
This was a critical win for Michigan both to build its confidence on the road, but also to stay in the Big Ten hunt. The Wolverines should be favored against Rutgers and Penn State this coming week and have a chance of moving to 7-2 before hosting the Indiana Hoosiers in early February.
- Derrick Walton: Walton went through a legitimate struggle early in the Big Ten, but he played a complete, dominant game in Lincoln. He shot the three (4-6), he distributed (6 assists), he rebounded (12 rebounds), he defended (2 steals), he pushed the pace and he hit late free throws. Early in this year there were doubts, but now the 6-foot-1 point guard is proving that he’s capable of putting Michigan on his back and leading them to wins. Walton also must love playing at Pinnacle Bank Arena as some of the best moments of his career have come in Lincoln.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin is developing a sort of spurtability that’s reminiscent of Tim Hardaway Jr. He had an extremely quiet first half, but then just erupted in the second half in a stretch where he literally did it all offensively. He was hitting ball screen threes, ripping off pick-and-roll passes to the rim, and driving and kicking to shooters. In Michigan’s 21-6 run to open the second half, Irvin scored or assists 6 of the 9 made baskets. He also deserves credit defensively for battling against Shavon Shields, who was held to 11 points, 3 assists and 5 turnovers on 4-of-11 shooting.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal had 14 points and four rebounds in another stellar Big Ten performance. His resurgence was unexpected by just about everyone, but it appears to be the real deal. It wasn’t just pick-and-roll finishes that we saw from Donnal, he also had two big blocks and routinely did a good job of going straight up and using his body to defend drivers and made 6-of-8 free throws in the win.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson shot (only) 3-of-7 from long distance — we’re at a point where 43% three-point shooting feels like an off night — but led Michigan in scoring with 21 points and three assists. His backdoor cut and slam late in the game was the highlight, but he showed the most confidence offensively in cutting backdoor, finishing and passing the ball that we’ve seen in a while.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman had a few moments of trying to do too much with the ball, but he also had some brilliant moments where he just flat out made plays. He handed out three assists and probably could have had a few more and also knocked down a triple. He battled foul trouble — side note: the late first half fouling with any starter is maddening as the burned foul on MAAR cost him playing time in the second — which limited him to 25 minutes, but it was a solid overall performance from the freshman who had one of the most critical passes of the game to Robinson on the backdoor cut.
- Aubrey Dawkins: The good news for Dawkins is that Michigan went with Zak Irvin at the two whenever it had to rest Walton or MAAR, which meant that Dawkins could play on the wing rather than Dakich in the backcourt. He made the most of his 19 minutes and hit a critical three-pointer and a desperation shot clock buzzer beating heave in the second half to mute a Huskers’ run.
- Moritz Wagner: A couple smooth finishes and two turnovers trying to do way too much with the basketball. The potential was all there, but the risk-reward of playing Wagner was also evident.
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle got some run as the third big man off the bench and scored on a nice post-up, but Michigan struggled overall when he was on the floor with Kameron Chatman.