Penn State walked into the Crisler Center on Wednesday night and punked Michigan for 30 minutes.
Nittany Lion head coach Pat Chambers might have had the most energy on the floor, but his players were next and the Wolverines were a distance third. The Nittany Lions beat Michigan to loose balls, shot as well as they have all season and looked like the better team. They answered every U-M run and extended their lead to 14 points midway through the second half.
But after playing its worst 30 minutes of basketball all season, Michigan woke up just in time to muster a comeback. The Wolverines erased a 13-point deficit in the final 11 minutes of play, thanks to some timely play from their seniors, and escaped with a much needed home victory.
It was a painstakingly frustrating reminder of just how far this Michigan team still has to go, but it was also a win in the direst of circumstances and one that John Beilein and his team will hope can provide a bit of extra confidence moving forward.
It’s rare for Michigan to win a game when it doesn’t out-shoot its opponent, but tonight was a case of just that. Turnovers kept the Wolverines just close enough to finally mount a comeback when the shots started falling down the stretch. Penn State gave the ball away 14 times in 65 possessions (21.5%) and Michigan converted those giveaways into 20 points. Michigan gave the ball away 5 times in 65 possessions (7.7%) which led to just 4 PSU points.
Michigan shot more twos than threes (38% of field goal attempts) and made 54% of its twos, but the three-pointer wasn’t falling (6-of-21) and that made for a long night for a struggling offense. There were a fair number of mid-range jumpers in that mix, but the two-point shooting saved what could have been a long night offensively. To score 1.11 points per possession on what felt like a disastrous offensive night is actually a pretty good performance, right now only three Big Ten teams have done better than that in league play.
Defensively, holding Penn State around a point per possession isn’t going to give anyone happy feelings. The Nittany Lions have failed to score a point per possession in half of their games this season and their 56 eFG% was their second best shooting performance of the season.
Michigan’s defense has been a problem in both of its first two Big Ten games and it is no secret that it was a problem last year as well. Can they improve? Sure, but it’s pretty clear that they haven’t improved by that much to this point.
Penn State has some talented newcomers, but those freshmen also gave the Wolverines a lifeline down the stretch with some classic freshmen mistakes. Lamar Stevens was dominant when he was on the floor, but fouled out of the game in 19 minutes (PSU was +10 while he was on the floor). Point guard Tony Carr struggled and had more turnovers (3) than made field goals (2) while settling for some questionable three-point attempts late.
Despite the fact that Michigan eventually came back, it’s worth pointing out that the Wolverines had a number of ugly mistakes as well. Penn State offensive rebounded two missed free throws, Zak Irvin missed a pair at the line late, and the Wolverines seemed to blow a number of layups that could have gotten them back into the game sooner. There will be plenty of teaching material in film session.
Basketball is a game played on the margins. The Wolverines dropped a game against Virginia Tech that they controlled throughout and just lost an overtime game at Iowa where they should have had a shot to win. If a couple of breaks go differently, maybe those are wins and this is a loss.
There are so many Big Ten teams that are pretty good, but far from great or dominant that I’d expect plenty more games just like this in conference play. Almost every game is winnable, but they might all be losable too.
To illustrate that phenomenon, the 85% chance that KenPom gave Michigan to win tonight was higher than any game remaining on the schedule. Conversely, KenPom gives U-M a 39% chance of better of winning all but two (at Indiana and at Wisconsin) of its final 16 games.
If Michigan gets in a habit of playing as flat and lifeless as it did for the first 30 minutes tonight, it’s going to lose enough games this season that a few close ones don’t matter. There are some clear mental hurdles with this team and it’s tough to ever know if they are fully corrected. This same group of players dominated Marquette and SMU at the Garden, collapsed against Virginia Tech and came back after a horrendous early performance against Penn State.
No, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin aren’t the best leaders to ever walk into the Crisler Center, but at this point all Michigan can do is hope that the light clicks on as their career winds down. The final 9 minutes tonight felt like they could be a big step in the right direction, but it’s anyone’s guess where this team goes from here.
Next up is Maryland at home on Saturday afternoon. The Terps are coming in off of a mid-week bye and split their opening games against Illinois and Nebraska. Expect another one to come down to the wire.
- Derrick Walton: Derrick Walton made a bunch of frustrating plays early on that you just don’t want to see from a senior point guar. He missed open shots and forced bad off the dribble jumpers early in the clock. He had a careless turnover and just looked completely out of sorts — like he was shooting bad shots to prove that he was confident rather than because he thought he’d make them. But give the senior credit, he hung in there and made a handful of big plays down the stretch to help Michigan pull away late. He scored 12 of his 14 points points, grabbed 4 of his 6 rebounds rebounds and handed out his only two assists in the final 9 minutes of the game.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner opened the game with a highlight dunk as he finally finished his nifty behind the back dribble from the top of the key. He gave Michigan a nice burst early in the second half as well, but also seemed to struggle with Penn State’s length around the rim (Mike Watkins is one of the best shot blockers in the country). He still had his bright spots offensively and was able to stay on the floor out of foul trouble and record 5 rebounds, 3 steals and an assist as well. He continues to gamble defensively in the pick and roll, but he also has 6 steals in two conference games.
- Zak Irvin: This was an old school Zak Irvin game, with extreme moments on both ends of the spectrum. He hit a number of critical elbow jumpers late (not a bad shot for him despite the criticism) and led the team with 4 assists. The biggest problem with Irvin’s game right now is that he struggles to adjust to ball screen coverages fast enough. When Penn State would change its coverage, Irvin was usually a split second late on the read or forced a shot — notably his late turnover that gave the Nittany Lions a bit of life. When it defended the ball screen in a way that he expected, he usually knocked in a mid-range jumper. Give Chambers some credit for mixing it up and negating the roll man from Michigan’s offense.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson sparked Michigan’s comeback with a personal 5-0 run after the Wolverines trailed by 13. Without those two shots (one a very difficult pull-up jumper) I don’t think Michigan comes close in this game. While he was fine offensively, he couldn’t stay on the floor due to picking up 4 fouls in 15 minutes. He’s been far more aggressive chasing steals this season, something that worked at Iowa but got him into foul trouble tonight.
- DJ Wilson: I wouldn’t have imagined it before the season, but DJ Wilson is the one guy that Michigan almost always needs on the floor. He finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks and a steal in 38 minutes. He might not have filled up the stat sheet offensively, but his energy on both ends of the floor is absolutely critical to the Wolverines.
- Xavier Simpson: Xavier Simpson had a few bright moments in the first half. He tossed a no-look dime to DJ Wilson against Penn State’s zone and also scored in the lane with a little floater. He finished with 2 points, 2 assists and a steal in 11 minutes and gave Michigan a much-needed first half boost with Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson in foul trouble.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman had a few bright moments, but he was just 2-of-7 from the floor in 21 minutes. He had some rough moments defensive in the first half, but deserves some credit for providing solid minutes late after Robinson’s fourth foul. He
- Mark Donnal: This wasn’t a good night for Donnal, who got overpowered down low by Mike Watkins and Julian Moore. Donnal did score a key basket on a putback in the second half, but didn’t grab a defensive rebound in 11 minutes.