Michigan passed its first test of the season with flying colors, blowing Marquette out of the gym on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. The Wolverines had the Golden Eagles doubled-up late in the second half and advanced to the championship round of the 2K Classic with a 79-61 victory.
At times in the first half it felt like everything came up Michigan’s way — it also felt like every bounce or break was deserved. The Wolverines had the better game plan, execution and, surprisingly, showed more hustle. The first half was about as close to flawless basketball as Michigan has played in quite some time despite Derrick Walton only playing four minutes after picking up two fouls before the first media timeout.
Beilein’s decision to insert DJ Wilson into the starting lineup felt like a no-brainer before the game and he answered the call, finishing with a 10 point, 12 rebound double-double in 34 minutes. Duncan Robinson coming off the bench worked might have worked even better, he hit three triples and scored 10 points in just 7 minutes.
Freshman point guard Xavier Simpson is still figuring out the Michigan offense, but he gave Michigan 16 critical first half minutes of terrific defense and steady ball handling while Zak Irvin was the first half star as he sliced apart the Marquette defense with his passing out of the pick-and-roll game.
The Wolverines made things interesting in the second half, allowing Marquette to cut the lead to 12 points late, but pulled away with a few critical late baskets from Zak Irvin (a contested three) and DJ Wilson (an alley-oop through contact).
A year ago the Wolverines were demolished in their own gym by a Big East team in the second week of the season. Despite returning so many players it’s tough to deny that this was the kind of game that could forge an entirely different identity for a group of players that’s nearly identical, but feels so different.
Michigan’s offense was superb in the first half, scoring 50 points in 40 possessions, but turnovers became a significant problem in the final 20 minutes. The Wolverines tried to sit on the ball with the big lead, but gave the ball away 9 times in 33 second half possessions. Despite the turnovers, Michigan only allowed Marquette to score 6 fast break points and 13 points off of turnovers — both well below their early game performances.
The Wolverine offense continued to be more diverse than we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons. The Wolverines shot 39% from three, but also made 60% of their twos and got to the free throw line 20 times. Five Wolverines reached double figures and John Beilein got as much production out of his frontcourt as he has in a long while.
I think it’s hard not to be pleased with Michigan’s defensive performance. The Wolverines held Marquette — who looked quite formidable in its opening games — to just .84 points per possession and a 44 eFG%. For comparison, Michigan only held Delaware State, Youngstown State, Charlotte and Northern Michigan to .84 points per possession or worse last season.
Marquette’s execution left plenty to be desired — both teams were whistled for an extraordinary number of travels — but Michigan cleaned up the glass, held Marquette to sub-50% two-point shooting and took the three-point shot away in the first half (1-of-3).
Michigan won just three games by double-digits against high-major opponents last year — 11 points over Rutgers, 23 points over Penn State, 10 points over Illinois — and this the kind of the performance that can accelerate this team’s growth and confidence. Next up is a 24 hour turnaround to face an SMU program that has dominated Michigan to a man over the last two years.
If Marquette was a pop quiz, SMU feels more like an important midterm that you forgot to study for. A win isn’t out of the question — KenPom projects a 68-67 U-M win — and the Wolverines could squash plenty of doubts, both internal and external, with another strong showing on Friday night.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson has emerged as a walking double-double. He’s grabbing every defensive rebound, blocking shots and finishing alley-oops — and to the shock of just about everyone he has a motor. He’s providing a dimension that Michigan just hasn’t had over the last two seasons and he’s making plays all over the floor. The 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore that was arguably one of the biggest question marks entering the season and now, by game #3, he’s emerged as a guy that Michigan can’t even afford to have off the court. Wilson’s final stat line: 10 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 2 turnovers in 34 minutes.
- Zak Irvin: When Zak Irvin is dropping dimes in the pick-and-roll game, Michigan’s offense heats up in a hurry. Marquette’s ball screen rotations were terrible out of the gate — Wojo said the Golden Eagles failed in all three phases — and Irvin took advantage. He finished with 16 points, 5 assists and 7 boards in his best performance of the season. Irvin hit 3-of-4 triples including a vintage ‘no, no, no, yes!’ three that helped put the game to bed in the second half. He looked confident and was an active playmaker despite a rough stretch of back-to-back turnovers in the second half.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman had a shaky start to the game and was settling for 3-pointers, then he came up with a loose ball and-one layup with some assistance from Wilson and he never looked back. Over the final 11 minutes of the half, he was critical to Michigan’s offense as he filled in to run the offense and continuously attacked the rim. He finished the game with 15 points on 4-of-4 shooting inside the arc and 7-of-7 at the line. He missed all four three-point attempts, but his off the dribble game is still the best on the roster.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner had the dunk of the season, taking Luke Fischer off the bounce and putting him on a poster. He also hit a three and had another nice take off the bounce. His offensive skill is obvious, but his defensive rotations are going to hamstring his minutes — he played 17 to Donnal’s 21. He’s not doing a good job of contesting shots, and keeps half trying to take a charge at any sign of dribble penetration.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and grabbed 3 boards. He’s also doing a much better job defensively than Wagner and played some great man-to-man defense on Luke Fischer late in the first half. Donnal has a great feel in the ball screen game and he managed to keep things simple catching and finishing around the basket.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson didn’t score and had 2 assists to 2 turnovers, but he was steady with the ball and great on the defensive end when he was thrown into the fire early on. That’s a big spot to play 16 minutes and Michigan didn’t just survive, it blew the game wide open. Simpson might not have been the playmaker, but this was an important step in his development.
- Derrick Walton: Walton picked up two quick fouls and then really struggled to find the game in the second half. He failed to score for the first time since December 30th, 2014, but did manage 4 assists to 1 turnover, including a critical alley-oop to DJ Wilson out of the ball screen game.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson provided instant offense off the bench. He hit a pair of threes almost immediately off the bench in the first half and repeated the feat with a quick strike triple in the second. That’s a lethal weapon and if you can get 10 points in 7 minutes from Robinson, then you can afford his defense.
- Ibi Watson: There’s a lot to like from Ibi Watson in small doses. He checked into the game in the first half and immediately missed a three, but didn’t hesitate the next time down the floor and got open with a terrific cut and then buried a mid-range jumper. He added a nice drive in the second half and looks like he’ll grow into a capable backup over the next few months.