College basketball games don’t win themselves. And they aren’t won in the first 20, 30 or 35 minutes.
The Wolverines controlled Wednesday night’s game against Virginia Tech for about 38 minutes, but they thought they could coast to the finish and couldn’t have been more wrong. The Hokies kept coming and kept executing while Michigan made more than enough mistakes to give them second and third chances before the whole thing unraveled in the final 120 seconds.
There were more than enough opportunities for the Wolverines to salt this game away.
Michigan had regained a double-digit lead with 7:44 to play with Derrick Walton going to the line for a one-and-one. Not only did he miss the front end, DJ Wilson committed a foul pursuing the rebound resulting in free points on the other end of the floor. The Wolverines went cold down the stretch and Wilson would commit another foul chasing a rebound with 3:03 to play, fouling out of the game and allowing Virginia Tech to cut the lead to just two.
Michigan still had a clear chance to win, down 1 with the ball and under 30 seconds to play, but resorted to Zak Irvin hero ball down the stretch and watched the game just slip away as a well-executed final second shot by Duncan Robinson rimmed out rather than tying the game.
Michigan lost this game with its defense, which was strong early and fell apart late. The Wolverines held Virginia Tech to just 8 points in its first 12 possessions. Then the Hokies scored 65 in the final 52 possessions (1.25 points per trip). The defense came unglued because of foul trouble and most of Michigan’s foul concerns were unforced.
The Wolverines committed handfuls of fouls off the ball, chasing loose balls or offensive rebounds. There aren’t many plays in basketball more costly then fouling while chasing an offensive rebound when the other team is already in the bonus — a lesson the Wolverines certainly learned today. Virginia Tech made 19-of-21 free throws, and was in the bonus early in both halves, Michigan only made 4-of-7.
Michigan’s offense was probably good enough to win if it could get a couple of extra stops down the stretch. The Wolverines scored 1.1 points per possession — they only lost once when reaching that mark offensively last season — and shot the ball well until the final 6 or 7 minutes. There were plenty of bright spots on offense across the board, but when the game was on the line there were no answers.
Make no mistake about it, this is a brutal loss and one that the Wolverines will be kicking themselves over for a while, probably until Selection Sunday. Virginia Tech is a good team, but this is a game that Michigan had in the bag on its home floor. On the other hand, one November game doesn’t make a season. Just like, as is very clear by now, the games two weeks ago in New York didn’t necessarily show us the complete picture, this loss is only one chapter. There are still 24 of these things left in the regular season, but the Wolverines have some soul searching to do.
I immediately think back to two years ago when Michigan’s season went off track with a couple of upsets after the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, and this group needs to re-focus and not let one brutal loss snowball into two or three. Kennesaw State comes to the Crisler Center on Saturday in what feels like a trap game for a team in a crisis of confidence and then the Wolverines face a slumping Texas team desperate for a win and travel to UCLA before final exams.
- Zak Irvin: “This team goes as Zak Irvin goes” has fluctuated on a game-by-game basis, but this was one of the most dramatic in-game swings on the Zak Irvin-scale. Irvin was fantastic in the first half and early in the second and he finished with 23 points. He hit mid-range jumpers, attacked the rim, hit threes and was the primary reason that Michigan got out to such a big lead. Down the stretch? Everything went wrong for Irvin as he missed his last four shots from the floor. He made some terrible decisions in the clutch and settled for hero ball contested pull-up twos time and again.
- Duncan Robinson: Duncan drew four offensive fouls — three charges and a push off — and hit three triples, finishing with 15 points in 29 minutes. It was one of his better offensive games of the season as he also scored off of a backcut and a dribble drive. He has his problems defensively, but he made up for a lot of them with all of the drawn offensive fouls. Robinson hit a big triple to cut it to 1 point late, but he couldn’t get the game-tying three to fall despite having a pretty good look considering the circumstances.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman didn’t have his best moments down the stretch either. He missed a 7 footer in the lane late and had two poor defensive plays: getting beat on a drive that resulted in an easy layup and going under a dribble hand off that ended up an easy triple.
- DJ Wilson: I wrote in the preview that Wilson could be the only player that Michigan has capable of defending LeDay. He was barely on the floor long enough to find out. Wilson fouled out in 11 minutes and four of his five fouls were pushing off chasing after offensive rebounds. That had crippling effects to Michigan’s gameplan and left Duncan Robinson to play 29 minutes.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner has so much offensive ability and he’s able to show it when he’s locked in and can stay on the floor, but he’s still all over the place defensively. No one from Michigan was great defensively, but the uncertainty of just what he’s going to do on that end of the floor poses problems. Offensively, we saw it all: post-ups, face-ups in the post, dribble drives from the perimeter. If he can put it all together and just play passable defense, the sky is the limit.
- Derrick Walton: This was one of those vintage ‘solid Derrick Walton games’, but it was also one of those times where Michigan just needs a little more out of him. Walton had 6 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds and 1 turnover, but he had the critical missed front-end and just can’t buy a basket or create anything inside the three-point line.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal didn’t score in 17 minutes, grabbed two rebounds, committed three fouls and turned the ball over twice. He’s been the better defender this year, by a long shot, but he had more than his fair share of struggles (in an admittedly very difficult matchup against a quick, athletic big in LeDay) on the night.
- Jon Teske: I think Teske might be giving the best minutes of Michigan’s three freshmen, especially on the defensive end. He can move his feet very well and grabbed a couple of boards in 4 minutes. Offensively, things are a bit dicier as he had a sloppy turnover at the top of the key and wasn’t very involved otherwise.
- Xavier Simpson: Two quick fouls in just 5 minutes, but Simpson did hand out a pair of assists.
- Ibi Watson: Watson only played 3 minutes and missed an open triple. He still seems to have a ways to go to feature in the rotation.