Michigan fans had plenty to like about Saturday’s 81-68 win over Nebraska. Every player played well at some point, and most looked improved over previous games, highlighting many of the team’s long-term efforts coming to fruition. Rebounding, passing and getting to the free-throw line were notable improvements, and the Wolverines’ shooting was as good as ever.
As Michigan celebrates the impressive win, we look at the five key plays from Nebraska.
1) Michigan connects for explosive start
After missing its initial two shots, Michigan began to connect.
The Wolverines began the game looking for backdoor cuts and rolls to the hoop, but the lead started to grow quickly when the three-pointer started to fall. Four straight Michigan threes stretched a close game to a 12-point lead in a matter of minutes.
“When you have a team like that that’s a rhythm offensive team you can’t let them get rolling,” said Nebraska forward Andrew White III. “That was our emphasis all week was to not let them have a hot start.”
Added Nebraska coach Tim Miles: “They go nine possessions to start the game and get 18 points. Now, just remember this, our goal is less than one point per possession. So, they’re at (two points per possession), we need ten straight stops to get back under one point per possession.”
The Wolverines cooled off in the second half of the first half, but controlled the half thanks to the hot start.
2) Explosive start, Part II
As dominant as Michigan’s start to the game was, it found itself with just a three-point halftime lead after Glynn Watson Jr. buried a three-pointer at the end of the first half. Pinnacle Bank Arena was re-energized and Michigan needed a spark to begin the second half and regain control of the game.
The Wolverines managed to one-up their first half performance, making their first nine shots and building an 18-point lead that tasked Nebraska with a lengthy comeback assignment.
“It never feels like they’re going to miss,” Miles said. “Every one, I’m like, ‘I think that’s in.’
“Anytime you play a team with as much skill and ability to execute like Michigan, you’ve got a lot of fear that could come to fruition.”
It was Zak Irvin that dominated this stretch after a quiet first half. Irvin settled into a rhythm quickly and John Beilein continued to call his number as the 6-foot-7 junior picked apart Nebraska’s defense by utilizing an array of ball screens, dribble hand-offs and other off ball action.
3) Points off turnovers key Nebraska comeback
The Cornhuskers had a tough task ahead of them trying to erase an 18-point deficit, but with 14 turnovers, including eight in the second half, Michigan came close to giving away the lead on its own.
Mostly from ill-advised, cross-court passes, Nebraska scored 20 of its 68 points off turnovers, compared to just seven from the Wolverines.
“It took us a while to (figure that out) and that was painful, watching us negotiate it was painful,” Beilein said of Nebraska’s soft press defense. What appeared to be a 2-2-1 zone press morphed into a match-up zone in the half court.
The turnovers were alarming as part of what’s becoming a pattern in Big Ten road games for Michigan. Last week’s 13 turnovers at Iowa were “catastrophic,” according to Beilein, and came close to being so on Saturday, as Nebraska pulled the game to within two midway through the second half.
“There was a couple of times where we mishandled the ball,” Beilein said. “Kam had one go through his hands, you’re gonna have stuff — but you’ve gotta be under 10 (turnovers in the game) or shoot the way we did tonight (to win).”
Perhaps the biggest frustration with Michigan’s turnover struggles was that so many were live ball giveaways that usually led to a layup on the other end of the floor. These ‘turnovers for touchdowns’ changed the momentum of the game in the second half.
4) Derrick Walton stays calm
With the game as close as ever and over 15,000 rabid Cornhusker fans suddenly reawakened, the pressure was on Michigan to close out the win.
Derrick Walton had just given the ball away on a poor cross-court pass and the Wolverine lead was down to just two points. There was no Caris LeVert to stem the momentum and Derrick Walton captained the mission to right the ship, immediately drawing a foul to add two points and slow the game down.
“Those babies hit nothing but the bottom,” Beilein said. “That just shows another step in him and just being a leader of this team and a guy that they can look to.”
Walton’s free throws calmed down the Wolverines and the lead never dipped below four points again. Walton finished the game as Michigan’s best player with 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, but his poise in this key moment might have been most critical.
“He’s the guy that makes them go,” said an exasperated Miles after the game.
5) Abdur-Rahkman finds Robinson
Just after Walton’s free throws, Michigan had a little bit more breathing room, but still needed to finish the game out. It gone one, when sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman found redshirt sophomore forward Duncan Robinson on a beautiful back door cut, and Robinson elevated over Nebraska’s defenders for the dunk.
The play was pretty on its own, but given the context that neither player knew what their roles were going to be and just began playing together in games a few weeks ago, it was more than just a slam dunk for the Wolverines, it was a testament of a winning team.
“So two guys who have never played together — didn’t even know each other last year — now they’re responding,” Beilein said. “It’s things like that. Not relying on the coach to draw something up. That’s huge for us to be able to do.
“Just play off penetration. That’s something that we’re doing now. Duncan would never have read that backdoor cut before.”
Robinson’s backdoor cut and finish was pretty, but Abdur-Rahkman’s one-handed look away dish was another sign that the Wolverines’ shooting guard is developing as a passer rather than just a driver.