Michigan walked out of the Crisler Center with a 53-50 win over Texas on Tuesday night, but felt like a victory was only awarded because it had to be.
The Wolverines — namely Moritz Wagner — made the eventual decisive plays in the closing seconds and deserved the win, but it was one of the ugliest that we’ve seen in the John Beilein era.
But make no mistake about it, both Shaka Smart and John Beilein, will be screaming at their laptops tonight when they breakdown the game film. The mind-numbing mistakes, the missed transition layups, teammates deflecting the ball out of bounds — the game lay tantalizingly in the balance as the two teams exchanged botched opportunities.
Michigan only made 7 shots in the second half and it turned the ball over 8 times. The senior leaders and captains that are supposed to guide the Wolverines combined to score 10 points on 17 shots with 8 turnovers on the night in one of the worst games that Michigan’s guards have played in years.
Michigan only made threes baskets in the final 9 minutes of the game and still figured out a way to win. That’s because Texas only made two.
“The best way to win is to not live in fear of losing.”
That quote stuck with me when I heard it driving back to Ann Arbor for Tuesday night’s game and it couldn’t be more applicable to this Michigan team.
Early on in the game when Michigan was executing its game plan, it looked like the decidedly better team. The Wolverines were getting good shots (and making them) and Texas was forced to hit several desperation jumpers. It was no coincidence that they had multiple double-digit leads. But the moment any bit of self doubt crept in — late in the first half or the entire second — this team reverts to a shell of itself.
I’m not sure this performance is going to remove any of that doubt, but it’s clear that there’s a whole lot going on between the ears with this group right now.
Michigan has won exactly one game in the last three seasons (*) when it failed to score a point per possession: a 54-50 win at Rutgers immediately following Caris LeVert’s injury in 2015. The Wolverines just don’t play this poorly on offense and win games. To that point, the defense deserves at least some credit for holding the Longhorns to just .85 points per possession — their lowest output of the season.
About the only thing to complain about with Michigan’s defensive performance is that Tevin Mack — the only legitimate three-point shooting threat on the Texas roster — knocked in three triples and was fouled on another. Mack’s teammates scored 32 points on 42 shots, that’s pretty good even against a sub-par offense like Texas. Texas also made two or three extremely deep, late shot clock threes that have to qualify as bad breaks. On the other hand, Northwestern, Colorado and UT Arlington also held Texas below .9 points per possession — but they also managed to score the ball.
Michigan’s offense was anemic and its guard play was a nightmare. Silly turnovers, bad passes, forced shots — there wasn’t much to love other than Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson figuring out ways to produce. Texas has played good pick-and-roll defense this season — ranked among the top 10% of Division I teams — but the Wolverine ball handlers couldn’t figure out how to contend with the UT shot blockers inside and couldn’t get open for jumpers.
One thing is for certain: Michigan isn’t holding UCLA to 50 points on Saturday. The Bruins are the best shooting team in the country and play faster and more efficiently than just about any team in the country. They’ve been held under 80 points once this season. The good news: there’s no pressure. Michigan will presumably be a double-digit underdog and might be able to play with at least a degree of freedom that it can’t seem to figure out how to cope with as a favorite.
- Moritz Wagner: It was fitting that Wagner made all of the critical plays down the stretch because he was really the only option for the Wolverines for so long. Wagner’s offensive ability was one of the lone bright spots on that side of the ball. He led the Wolverines in scoring, hit the game-winner, had as many assists (2) as Derrick Walton, and got to the free throw line. The most impressive thing is how far he’s come defensively even in just the last week. He had active hands (two steals) and is learning to contest shots (game-clinching block) without trying to draw charges when he has no sense. At this point, run as much offense through Wagner as you can when he’s on the floor. Tonight, he used 37% of the Wolverines’ offensive possessions in his 26 minutes.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson hit a pair of threes from the right corner, played great defense on (five-star freshman) Jarrett Allen, and finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals. This was much closer to his New York City effort and at this point it’s clear that the Wolverines need everything they can get from Wilson. I thought Wilson’s middle game and finishing around the hoop (on non-dunks) was improved as well.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson got up 10 shot attempts in 21 minutes and finished with 12 points and four boards. He’s clearly hunting his offense when he checks in off the bench, but the aggressiveness has led to several mistakes. Still, he hit some big shots in the second half to answer when Texas first took the lead. Beilein hinted that he wouldn’t hesitate to go with the bigger lineup (Walton, Irvin, Robinson, DJ and Wagner) if Abdur-Rahkman continues to struggle. I also thought Robinson held up surprisingly well against a Texas offense that did a lot of head down driving right at the hoop.
- Derrick Walton: Michigan needs much, much more from Derrick Walton if its going anywhere this season. It’s not a question of wanting to make a play, but Walton just couldn’t stop turning the ball over when the game was in the balance. He would over-penetrate — rarely a threat to shoot attacking the rim — and force the issue with difficult passes. For a stretch in the first half, Walton was actually playing pretty well, but he just unraveled from the final four minutes of the first half into the second half.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin hit a big three late. He followed it up with a missed (contested) pull-up and a bad pass to Wagner. It was that kind of night. Texas took away his drives to the rim, took away his baseline kick outs, and he couldn’t get his shot off in the mid-range over UT defenders. Similar to Walton, Michigan isn’t going to win many games when Irvin plays this poorly.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman has been one of Michigan’s best ‘need a basket’ guys over the last two years, but he’s been a shell of himself since halftime of the Virginia Tech game. He’s gone back-to-back games without making a basket (he’s 1 of 11 over the last 5 halves) and looks to be searching for any confidence at all.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal played 14 minutes and Michigan was -11 when he was on the floor. Wagner has out-performed him this week by a wide margin and it appears to be growing. I did think Donnal had a few critical defensive plays later in the second half, but Michigan was better when Wagner was on the floor.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson played 3 minutes in the first half and didn’t get much of a chance to get going. Beilein opted to ride Derrick Walton for 20 minutes in the second.
* I’m rounding the .999 PPP Michigan scored against Purdue last year up to 1.