A month and a half ago Michigan players and coaches sat through an hour of questions about their toughness and whether they would be any better than last year’s team given that they return so many of the same players. Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton sat there and answered questions about embarrassing losses, bad defense, inconsistency and everything else.
They talked a good game and promised this year would be different, but it never felt like there was any real reason to believe them. Sort of like John Beilein saying that he wants DJ Wilson to play like Troy Williams in a summer radio interview — an idea that seemed so far disconnected from anything that DJ Wilson had shown in two years in a Michigan uniform that it sounded insane.
Turns out that Michigan’s offseason talk wasn’t as cheap as it sounded.
On Friday night in Madison Square Garden, Michigan’s seniors sat at the podium smiling and were asked how it felt to beat SMU to win the 2K Classic given some past results.
“It feels great,” Zak Irvin said with a knowing laugh of satisfaction.
Michigan didn’t just win two games in New York City this weekend, it put together back-to-back dominant performances. Both games were, for all intents and purposes, decided by half time. This wasn’t just the best stretch of basketball that Michigan has played in two years, the second win was against the same team that provided two of the lowest moments of the last two seasons.
Derrick Walton shot the Wolverines into an early lead, finishing with a career-high 7 triples on the night, and the new-and-improved Wolverine defense handled the rest. Senior big man Mark Donnal had 9 first half points and two drawn charges while DJ Wilson was all over the floor and held SMU star Semi Ojeleye to 13 points on 16 shots.
Michigan extended its lead to 19 points by half time and the only questions left to answer were when John Beilein would empty his bench and whether the Wolverines would win by 20 or 30.
Michigan’s offense was lethally efficient, scoring 1.31 points per possession (a mark Michigan hasn’t reached against a high-major opponent since 2014) and the offensive approach was more along the lines of traditional Beilein ball. The Wolverines shot 13-of-31 from three-point range and then made easy looks around the basket (14-of-20). Michigan assisted on 16 of 27 baskets and turned the ball over only four times.
The offense was led by its seniors as Walton and Irvin were 13-of-26 from the floor for 39 points and tallied 11 assists to just 1 turnover — they were responsible for 24 of 27 made baskets on the night.
The Wolverines held SMU to .93 points per possession for the game and .8 points per possession in the first half when the game was decided. Michigan’s first half defensive rebounding was as good (2 SMU offensive rebounds) as it was bad in the second half (16 SMU offensive rebounds). Perhaps the most telling statistic about Michigan’s defense was that SMU shot just 37% inside the arc. The Wolverines have legitimate options to defend the rim — namely DJ Wilson — and they are getting the job done.
Last year the Mustangs dunked all over Michigan — this year the Wolverines had three dunks and SMU didn’t make a single dunk. Buckets are buckets, but that had to be a point of pride for a Wolverine team that was flat out embarrassed in Dallas last season.
What now? Michigan played so well in New York City that it’s almost impossible not to readjust expectations. They say that a team is never as good or bad as it looks on any given day, but this was the best two-game performance from Michigan since 2014 — the sort that I wasn’t sure this team even had in it. The Wolverines are almost certain to jump into the top 25 — they are now ranked 15th by KenPom — and next up is a trip to face South Carolina (4-0).
- Derrick Walton: Walton wasn’t going to be held scoreless again and hit three triples before the first TV timeout. He’s already made 14-of-28 threes this season (and 1-of-8 twos) and an aggressive Derrick Walton is the best thing for Michigan. The senior point guard also dished 6 assists and played some terrific defense against Shake Milton (9 points on 11 shots).
- Zak Irvin: Irvin struggled to find his jump shot early on, but he didn’t let it throw his game out of whack as he would have in past seasons. He started being more aggressive and attacking the rim, making 4-of-6 two-point attempts and handing out 5 assists to 1 turnover. Irvin scored time and again on scoop shots at the basket and finally knocked in a couple of threes en route to a 2K Classic MVP honor.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson led Michigan in minutes played (36) — something I wouldn’t have imagined writing two weeks ago. His stat line looked innocuous with 6 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal and an assist, but he was all over the floor and has transformed Michigan’s defense. He defended countless shots at the rim, he rebounded, he threw down a pair of big dunks. SMU went right at Wilson on the opening possession with Semi Ojeleye and Wilson blocked his shot and scored on the other end, that set the ton for the next 39 minutes.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal outplayed Wagner off the bench for the second straight game. He was the rock of Michigan’s defense, drawing back to back charges and blocking a shot. He scored on the offensive glass, in the ball screen game, buried a three and even threw down a transition dunk. He played with as much confidence as I’ve seen him play with in the first half, even attempting an early in the shot clock baseline turnaround.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman made all three two-point attempts — his standard floating circus shots in the lane — and finally knocked in a three late in the first half and another in the second. He was really battling the three and had missed three, but making his last two should help him gain some confidence from long distance.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner’s bad defensive habits caught up with him as he was whistled for an immediate foul to start the game and could only stay on the floor for 11 minutes. He hit a three-pointer, but the match-up with Ben Moore made it tough to exploit his face-up abilities.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson only played 6 minutes off the bench and Beilein admitted that he probably needs to trust his freshman guards more. Simpson still appears to be lagging behind offensively, but his defensive abilities continue to impress.
- Jon Teske: With Wagner picking up two fouls in the first half, Teske saw a couple key minutes in the first half. He got to the free throw line and knocked down a pair thanks to a nice roll to the hoop and was also credited with a block and a steal in just 3 minutes. Teske needs to improve on the defensive glass, but his ability to move his feet at his size is impressive.
- Ibi Watson: Watson knocked down a nice baseline jumper in garbage time late, but was limited to only 3 minutes.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson never got going in 16 minutes off the bench and looked shaky with the ball when he got caught in in-between areas.