After treading water the Big Ten season to date, Michigan flirted with basketball perfection on Thursday night at the Crisler Center.
Facing a critical home game that they couldn’t afford to drop — a trip to the Breslin Center with a 3-5 conference record is equivalent to staring down the barrel of a loaded gun — the Wolverines answered the challenge. Michigan didn’t just win a game it needed, it handed Indiana its second-worst league loss of the Tom Crean era.
The Wolverines jumped out to an early 18-4 lead and never looked back in a game they led by as much as 37 points and won by a final score of 90-60.
I wrote in the preview that this was a match-up of two teams with high ceilings and low floors, but tonight Michigan reached a ceiling that it hasn’t even come close to since the 2K Classic in November. Indiana isn’t without its flaws, but the Wolverines have now dismantled three very good teams (SMU, Marquette and Indiana) at different points this year. The ability is there, now they just need to figure out some way to bring that effort and execution on a more consistent basis.
Michigan scored 1.54 points per possession. That’s a point and a half every time down the floor despite ending the game on a two minute scoring drought after emptying the bench. The per-possession output is Michigan’s second-best of the KenPom era (2002+) and its best against a major-conference team. According to John Gasaway, it was the 8th best offensive performance in a major-conference game since 2006.
About the only thing that separated the Wolverine offense from perfection was 7 missed free throws on 24 attempts. The Wolverines shot 69% inside the arc, made 11-of-20 threes, and dominated the offensive glass (17 second chance points), all while getting to the free throw line as often as they have all season.
Six Wolverines reached double figures — led by Derrick Walton’s 21 — in the win and they all attempted fewer than 10 shots and made at least half of their attempts.
Michigan also managed to play its second-best defensive performance of the conference season against the league’s (former) best offense. The Wolverines held Indiana to 1.02 points per trip, which was its third-worst offensive performance of the season.
Michigan’s defensive gameplan was as well constructed and executed as I can remember. The Wolverines stuck Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman on James Blackmon Jr. and denied him the ball — Blackmon finished with 4 points on 3 shot attempts — and they helped freely off some of Indiana’s non-shooters (notably Zach McRoberts). Both moves worked (Wilson had 4 blocks and a steal, Blackmon did nothing) and that helped the Wolverines to the early lead before Indiana could adjust.
Turnovers and defensive rebounds were also critical on the defensive side of the floor. The Hoosiers always turn the ball over, but Michigan forced giveaways on 27% of Indiana’s possessions which resulted in 16 points on the other end. Indiana guards were very capable of taking Michigan players off the dribble, but the Wolverines did a great job of getting deflections and a handful of drives that ended with the ball dribbled off a Hoosier leg.
The defensive rebounding effort — Indiana grabbed 25% of its misses for just 5 second chance points — was equally impressive. The Hoosiers were ranked 6th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and led the Big Ten, yet Michigan cleaned up the glass all night.
A year ago Indiana walked into the Crisler Center and basically torpedoed Michigan’s season. This year the Wolverines have to be hoping that this could have the alternative effective and galvanize the year. A trip to the Breslin Center isn’t the easiest way to build momentum, but the short turnaround to Sunday’s game looks a lot better after a 30-point win.
- Derrick Walton: Derrick Walton didn’t just play a good or great game, he might have played the best game of his career. This was Derrick Walton getting down hill and making tough twos, getting to the free throw line, distributing the ball (5 assists), hitting big shots, and not turning it over. Walton finished 7-of-8 from the floor and he made 6-of-6 two-point attempts. He’s only made more than 2 baskets inside the arc in one game this season (3 last weekend vs. Illinois) and he’s never made 6 in a game. There were a pair of mid-range jumpers in there, but also a number of great downhill drives to the rim. Walton isn’t going to play a perfect game every night, but he showed a new dimension of his game that could give the Wolverines a huge boost down the stretch.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Michigan’s 6-foot-3 junior guard has been invisible for stretches this season, but he answered the challenge on both ends of the floor. Abdur-Rahkman hit three important triples, but most importantly he was glued to James Blackmon Jr. all night. Blackmon — the Big Ten’s No. 3 scorer — scored just 4 points and only attempted three shots (to 4 turnovers).
- DJ Wilson: I love DJ Wilson’s 11 point games like tonight more than his scoring outbursts. It wasn’t about offense for Wilson tonight, it was length and energy. He made plays all over the floor: 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocks, 1 steal. That’s what Michigan needs on any given night and he’s been reenergized defensively in a way that we haven’t seen since early this year. Wilson has also shown a really underrated ability to pass the ball as he had 3 assists and makes some really heads up plays that you wouldn’t expect from a 6-foot-10 swingman.
- Moritz Wagner: This was one of the first games that I can remember this year where a team opted not to guard Wagner with their five. The thought process was that Bryant couldn’t stay in front of Wagner, but the German big man got busy inside early and often. He attacked the offensive glass and set the tone from the opening tip off around the hoop. My favorite Wagner basket of the evening was a new one in the bag of tricks: a second-half turnaround jumper off of one leg reminiscent of Dirk — unfortunately that’s a shot Beilein says he never makes in practice.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin used only 16% of Michigan’s offensive possessions, the fewest in a game since mid-December vs. Central Arkansas, but played well. He wasn’t running the offense, but he found good shots and didn’t force anything. No one is going to complain with a 12 point, 4-of-8 shooting, night including a pair of threes.
- Duncan Robinson: 13 points on 5-of-7 (3-5 3pt) shooting off the bench is just what Michigan needs from Duncan. He’s not good defensively, but a couple of quick threes can change the complexion of a game and that’s exactly what he brought tonight.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal had another tough defensive stretch in the first half, but in the second he played Bryant perfectly and forced him into a double. He also came into the game in the first half and promptly knocked in a three. I know everyone is screaming for Jon Teske to get those 7 or 8 minutes per game, but at this point it’s pretty clear that Beilein has more trust in Donnal.
- Jon Teske: Teske blocked a shot and tipped out a couple of offensive rebounds late, but he still needs to get more comfortable catching and finishing around the hoop.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson played 8 minutes and caught a nice backdoor feed, finishing with 2 points on 2-of-4 free throw shooting. He lost a guy early in transition off of a made basket which seemed to cut his first half playing time short and when Walton is playing that well minutes are going to be hard to come by.
- Ibi Watson: The jumper still hasn’t heated up for Watson as he missed a pair of threes in garbage time.