There was no sugar coating just how desperate Michigan was for a win on Tuesday night, and there’s no sugar coating just how emphatically it took care of business. The Wolverines ran the Spartans out of the Crisler Center en route to a 86-57 victory, their largest margin-of-victory in the rivalry since 1996.
It’s hard to play a perfect basketball game, but Michigan has now come close to doing just that in two of its last four games. Unfortunately the two games sandwiched in between were about as frustrating as the wins were impressive.
Playing in what could be the last game of his career against the Spartans, Derrick Walton — the only Michigan native in the Wolverine rotation — played one of the best games of his career with 20 points, 8 assists and five rebounds. He was excellent in East Lansing, but this time he finished the job by halftime.
Walton made big shot after big shot and when he needed a blow, true freshman Xavier Simpson checked in and played the best game of his career. The Wolverine point guards were the difference and they held Michigan State’s point guards to as many points (6) as turnovers (6) on just 2-of-9 shooting.
The barometer for whether Michigan’s offense is clicking is 2-point shooting percentage. The Wolverines don’t attempt many twos, but the ones that they take are usually easy baskets. Those easy twos were missing on Saturday, but they kept on flowing against the Spartans. Back cuts, transition layups, pick-and-roll drop offs, point guards driving to the rim — it was all there as the Wolverines went 22-of-32 inside the arc (69%).
Hot three-point shooting (10-of-21) helped open up the Spartan defense, but the early aggressiveness seemed to be contagious as the lead grew. Not much else mattered with Michigan making so many shots, but the low turnovers were nice to see after there had been a spike in silly giveaways in 3 of the last 4 games.
Scoring 1.29 points per possession is a great day, but this was arguably the best defensive game that Michigan has played all season. The Wolverines held the Spartans to just .86 points per possession and brought a different intensity than we’ve seen all season from the opening tip.
Michigan State turned the ball over on almost a third of its possessions and yes there were some ugly ones, but it was clear from early on that the Spartans weren’t comfortable against the U-M defense. Michigan’s help was active and aggressive, causing deflections, and it forced 4 shot clock violations — a sign of great defense. The Wolverines drew several offensive fouls, held their own on the defensive glass and did a great job of being prepared for Michigan State’s set actions.
The peripheral stats in this one are particularly telling: 34-34 points in the paint, 30-7 points off turnovers (30 points off of turnovers was the most in a Michigan game in 5 years), 22-16 points off the bench.
The NCAA Tournament situation hasn’t changed much for this group. Whether they are in, out, or directly on the bubble at any given time over the next month is moot, they just need to wing games — at least four and potentially five. If they manage that, they’ll find themselves in the NCAA Tournament.
Five of the final seven games are away from home and the two home games are against the league’s best teams. That’s no easy task, but if Michigan has proven it has the ceiling — now it needs to bring that effort a few more times.
- Derrick Walton: The clock is ticking on Derrick Walton’s career, but he’s starting to put everything together in the nick of time. Walton’s performance was essentially flawless: 20 points, 4-of-7 on twos, 3-of-3 on threes, 3-of-3 at the line, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 turnover. Have yourself a night and take a bow, Derrick. At this moment in time, I’m not sure there’s a point guard in the Big Ten playing better basketball than Walton over the last four or five games, really since he picked up the first half technical at Illinois. Defensively, Walton did a great job of pressuring Winston, but also playing off of Nairn like a free safety to help in the lane.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson played easily the best 12 minutes of his young career and it was no secret who was lining up across from him. Simpson attacked the basket and was aggressive defensively, finishing with 7 points on 3-of-4 shooting (1-1 3pt) with 2 assists and a turnover. Beilein said the offense was simplified a bit when he was on the floor and the move paid off. I loved the Walton/Simpson lineups and if Simpson can give Michigan closer to 15 good minutes minutes per game rather than 5 average ones that would be a huge lift.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: He hit a couple of early threes and started to fall in love with the shot, but there were stretches where he seemed to remember what he was all about and attacked the rim. He finished 4-of-4 inside the arc, made a couple of free throws and handed out 3 assists in easily one of his best Big Ten games of the season.
- Moritz Wagner: Watching Wagner play touches on just about every emotion. He gives you just about everything — good, bad and ridiculous. Michigan did a terrific job of getting him in positions where he could attack down hill whether it was off of cuts, rolls or face up drives and he finished with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting with 6 rebounds, two steals and three turnovers. The turnovers are a growing problem, the silly fouls (and ensuing reactions) are still frustrating, , and he has very little vision out of the post or when he’s driving. But Wagner just needs touches because he can make a game like this look routine. He also did a much better job against Ward defensively this time around and clearly got into his head based on the tripping incident.
- Zak Irvin: There was a lot to like in Michigan’s win, but Zak Irvin’s disappearing act continued. Part of Irvin’s slump is the fact that Michigan is running almost everything through Walton at this point (a decision that should stick) and Irvin used only 8% of available possession tonight. But Irvin just doesn’t look himself as he scored 3 points on 1-of-5 shooting with 3 rebounds and a steal. His Big Ten numbers are ugly: 45% on twos, 26% on threes and Michigan is going to need him to find his way sooner than later.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson started the game in a bit of a fog, but had a couple of emphatic dunks and started to bring more energy. I have no problem with the technical after dunking on Kenny Goins, but I’m also sure that transition defense after a big play was emphasized all weekend and that Beilein was upset.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson made 2-of-4 threes, but it was his two layups at the rim on great cuts that stood out. People are going to overplay him and those are the kind of baskets that he needs to score to make them pay. He played 21 minutes and also handed out an assist while not looking out of place with some tough defensive match ups.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal played 8 solid minutes for Michigan. He scored on a roll to the basket through contact and missed another one and also had a turnover on a post-up (those should probably be saved for when Wagner is on the floor). It wasn’t a great showing, but it was a step in the right direction.
- Jon Teske: Teske earned some first half burn (4 minutes for the game) and didn’t look out of place. He grabbed a rebound and a steal late in garbage time as well.