You don’t go into the Kohl Center and leave with a win without making a few of your own breaks in the process. Michigan learned that lesson the hard way on Tuesday night.
The Wolverines made plenty of big shots and big plays on the road against the Big Ten’s best, but old habits, key mistakes, bad breaks and Bronson Koenig were just too much to overcome down the stretch. Michigan was the better team for 34 minutes, but the Badgers won the final 6.
The Wolverines led throughout much of the second half after opening the period on a 17-2 run. Back-to-back threes helped the Wolverines surge into a 49-43 lead with 6:29 to play and forced a Wisconsin timeout. Then Bronson Koenig came alive and took over the game. The Wisconsin senior scored 10 of Wisconsin’s next 12 points as the Badgers rattled off a 15-0 run to seize control of the game.
Yes — there were an array of plays and calls that didn’t quite seem to go Michigan’s way. Wisconsin was in the bonus for the final 14:29 of the game after a first half that featured only 10 fouls total. Xavier Simpson’s late steal never did appear to go out of bounds as was called and it wasn’t reviewed. It’s easy to come up with a list of gripes after any game on the road in the Big Ten, especially in Madison, but the chance was there for Michigan to make winning plays down the stretch.
Even after everything that happened, the Wolverines had that late 6-point lead. The opportunity was there, they just didn’t take it.
There was still progress for a team that was wiped off the floor in Champaign last week to prove that they can play at least some defense and compete with the league’s best team. But it’s still not enough. The critical mistakes that have plagued Michigan this year were still present: an offensive rebound on a free throw that led to a four-point possession, a late missed front-end, a turnover on an offensive inbound play, helping off of Bronson Koenig late.
Those mistakes aren’t new and Michigan couldn’t avoid them for 40 minutes.
“Up six with six to go: I’ve seen that movie before,” John Beilein said after the loss. “They did a great job down the stretch. We did not make some shots, they made some shots and that’s the story.”
Michigan’s offense sputtered along in the first half, but came to life in the second. As encouraging as it was to score 43 points on 31 second half possessions against the Badgers (1.38 PPP), scoring .69 points per trip in the first half was equally discouraging. For all of the great offensive moments — Zak Irvin played a great game, Duncan Robinson — there were those moments where the Wolverine offense just let a few too many possessions get away.
Give Michigan’s defense some credit, they got down and really defended better than they have for weeks. Wisconsin eventually pulled over a point per possession, but even the 1.08 points per trip that Michigan allowed was its second best defensive performance of the Big Ten season (and Wisconsin’s second-worst offensive performance in league play). Wisconsin relentlessly pounded the ball into the post and the Wolverines provided more resistance than I thought they had in them, holding the Badgers to 49% two-point shooting. Michigan also held up on the glass, rebounding 77% of Wisconsin’s missed shots on the night.
The biggest difference defensively was Wisconsin’s ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. Three Wolverines fouled out and the Badgers shot 24 free throws to 53 field goal attempts, although 12 were off of late intentional fouls. That difference at the line could have been an even bigger difference, but the Badgers made only 14-of-24 freebies.
John Beilein’s history at Michigan is littered with frustrating games just like this one against Wisconsin. He’s now 2-18 against the Badgers and this one might not have been as maddeningly painful of a loss as some others, but it certainly cracks the top-10 script.
The hope has to be that the Wolverines proved to themselves that they are capable of playing with just about anyone in this conference and learned a thing or two about what it takes to win down the stretch. Next up, a rematch with the Illinois team that throttled them and called them ‘white collar’ and that is dramatically worse on the road.
- Zak Irvin: Zak Irvin played a hell of a game. He finished 9-of-16 from the floor and hit all of the tough twos that we talked about Michigan needing against Wisconsin. He also attacked the basket early in both halves and picked up some critical buckets. His three assists led the team and Michigan probably isn’t in this game without his performance. The turnovers, especially the late inbound, are frustrating, but this was a good game overall from the 6-6 senior. Irvin disappeared a bit down the stretch (a phenomenon that Nigel Hayes wants to take some credit for), but it also seemed like Michigan just started going in a different direction as Walton and then Wagner had their number called late.
- Derrick Walton: The last thing Michigan needed was for Derrick Walton to leave injured. He took two hard falls — first on a box out and then on a drive — and left the game in serious pain with what looked to be a back injury. Walton’s health is paramount to wherever this team is going and it’s too bad because it seems like he’s starting to put a few things together. The Michigan point guard finished with 15 points and made 3-of-5 triples, he also managed to keep Koenig in check for 35 minutes, but will want a few of those late moments back as he got caught on an elevator screen and helped off of him late.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner held in there to play much better defense than I thought he was capable of against Ethan Happ, and he also had some nice offensive moments. But John Beilein called his number down the stretch and he just didn’t come up with the goods. Michigan called timeout after Wisconsin tied the game with 5 minutes to play and Wagner used the next three possessions: missed three, missed three, missed front-end, turnover. When he was done, Michigan trailed by 9. He’s one of Michigan’s most efficient offensive players, he’s hit big shots, shoots over 40% on threes: I have no problem with calling his number late, but he just didn’t execute tonight.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson stepped up and made some huge shots, finishing with 11 points on 4-of-7 (3-5 3pt) shooting from the floor. There were a couple moments that it looked like he hesitated in the second half, but then he snapped out of it and really started hunting his shot. I liked the aggressiveness and this was one of the better games that the junior has played in a while, especially when he was forced into action with Wilson’s foul trouble.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman hit a pair of threes, grabbed six rebounds and handed out two assists, but made only 1-of-4 shots inside the arc. I liked how aggressive he attacked at times, but he just needs to finish a few more of those looks at the basket.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson is just so close to putting everything together, but the moments when he can actually do everything that he’s capable of are fleeting. He had some great defensive moments in the post, blocked three shots and his five defensive rebounds were the most he’s had in a game since Iowa. He held Nigel Hayes in check, played well against Happ. I’m not even worried about the 0 points from the floor, those will come, he just needs to eliminate the moments where he just turns off. For example in the first half, Wilson missed a three, almost fronted Happ, got pinned on a layup attempt and then gave up an and-one in transition. Those bursts where he just can’t quite execute can be back-breakers.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson provided a defensive spark and it felt like he should have been credited with more than the 1 steal on the box score. He might be limited offensively, but he gave the Wolverines key minutes when Walton was on the bench. He missed his only three-point attempt, but it was encouraging to see that he didn’t hesitate before firing it up as he did against Nebraska.
- Mark Donnal: This was a disappointing performance from Donnal. He was immediately scored on twice in the block in the first half and committed two quick fouls. He didn’t record a defensive rebound and was whistled for 3 fouls in 8 minutes in a forgettable performance against the Badger front line.