Michigan picked up one of its most impressive wins of the season on Wednesday night, walking out of the Bryce Jordan Center with a 72-63 victory over Penn State.
The Nittany Lions had been playing some of the best basketball in the conference in recent weeks and needed a win over Michigan on Senior Night to keep their realistic NCAA Tournament hopes alive. But the Wolverines had all of the answers in a hostile environment, even when it didn’t feel like they should.
Michigan’s starting wing players didn’t make a basket. The Wolverines turned the ball over five of the first eight times they had the ball. Michigan blew its 8-point halftime lead in only 228 seconds of second half action. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was credited with more turnovers than made field goals.
There were plenty of reasons that Michigan should have lost this game, but they figured out a way to win it. Most importantly, they responded to the inevitable Penn State run early in the second half and then held on down the stretch.
The win came down to good coaching, key shot making, and — for once — a solid performance at the free throw line.
Michigan’s offense checked in at 1.10 points per possession, slightly above its conference average and right on par with its two previous performances.
It never felt like a great offensive performance, but Michigan got just enough out of the things that do work. A few key transition layups, critical pick-and-pop threes for Moritz Wagner, and Duncan Robinson and Jordan Poole combining to score 32 points off the bench. Most importantly, this was a reminder that everything is easier when free throws and 3-pointers go in.
The Wolverines made free throws (16-of-19) and 3-pointers (10-of-21) in the win and that was masked an otherwise underwhelming shooting day inside the arc (43%). Michigan turned the ball over 5 times its first 8 possessions, but only gave the ball away 7 times in the next 58 possessions.
The Wolverines were great defensively for probably 30 of 40 minutes. The first half was a stellar man-to-man effort as Penn State insisted on throwing the ball into the post, where Michigan held up surprisingly well, and the Wolverines utilized a nice double-team scheme on Tony Carr. The Nittany Lions adjusted early in the second half and started to heat up before John Beilein went to a 2-3 zone defense which got the job done late.
The key to Michigan’s defensive performance was its ability to force tough twos. The Nittany Lions only made 44% of their 2-point attempts, their worst 2-point shooting performance since a game in East Lansing on January 31st. Earlier this year, Michigan was forcing lots of twos but struggling to force missed twos. Over the last two games, it has managed to do both.
Star sophomores Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens eventually got their points, but their 40 points came on 37 shot attempts and 4 turnovers. Their teammates were just 8-of-22 from the floor in the loss. Isolation ball was not enough to beat Michigan’s defense.
It has been something of a slow burn, but quietly this season is starting to pick up momentum at just the right time. Michigan has won 6 of its last 7 games including four straight games. The Wolverines still need a bit of help if they want to earn a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament as they’ll need to beat Maryland on Saturday and hope that Penn State can win Sunday at Nebraska.
- Duncan Robinson: This was easily one of the best two-way games of Duncan Robinson’s career. Robinson was 3-of-3 inside the arc and 3-of-6 from deep to finish with a team-high 19 points. He also had two huge contests at the rim in the second half and was credited with 3 blocks (he had blocked 8 shots previously this year) and a steal. Robinson also added the dagger three to put the game away for good measure. Robinson has made 13 of his last 24 3-pointers and if he can stay hot, this Michigan offense is capable of reaching another level.
- Moritz Wagner: I wrote in the preview that Penn State wasn’t very well-equipped to deal with Wagner in the pick-and-pop game and he was able to exploit those mismatches by making 4-of-5 3-pointers. An injury to Mike Watkins didn’t hurt, but Watkins had some of the same issues checking Wagner on the perimeter. Wagner struggled to finish at the rim (1-of-4 on twos) but he grabbed 8 rebounds and hit two of the biggest threes of the game to give Michigan the lead back in the second half.
- Jordan Poole: The Jordan Poole experience is a roller coaster, but when it peaks it looks down at Michigan’s other offensive options. Poole’s offensive ceiling is quite obviously through the roof and the Wolverines don’t have a surplus of halfcourt offensive weapons. Poole played 26 minutes (the most action he’s seen since a December win over Indiana) and started the second half (playing 14 of 20 minutes), finishing with 13 points on 4-of-8 (2-2 3pt) shooting. I’m starting to get the sense that Beilein has molded Poole as much as he can and might need to just throw him into the fire down the stretch and see what comes out the other side. As Beilein said after the game, “we can teach the other stuff, we can’t teach his DNA”
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson was in Tony Carr’s shorts for most of the first half and took him out of his comfort zone with a great individual effort. Carr was more effective in the second half (16 points on 6-of-11 shooting) but that was more because the Nittany Lions did a better job of getting him isolated against other Michigan defenders. Simpson missed all three triples that he attempted, but he was 4-of-7 inside the arc including some transition layups and creative half court finishes.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: The Josh Reaves defensive x-factor is a real thing and it is no coincidence that Abdur-Rahkman struggled with Reaves glued to him. Abdur-Rahkman was credited with four turnovers in the loss, that’s as many as he’s recorded in Michigan’s previous nine games combined. Despite struggling through most of the game, Abdur-Rahkman still had one of the biggest buckets with a beautiful driving layup over Reaves to push Michigan’s lead to 6 and end a drought.
- Charles Matthews: It is no secret that Charles Matthews is struggling. He was 0-of-5 from the floor and turned the ball over 3 times in 17 minutes and lacked any confidence at the rim or with the ball in his hands. Yes, the book is out on him and teams know how to defend him, but he’s trending quickly in the wrong direction. It isn’t that Matthews doesn’t have confidence to try to do something with the ball, it is that there’s a split second delay where he tries to adjust to what he should be doing with the ball.
- Jon Teske: Teske played 12 minutes, blocked as hot and grabbed four rebounds. He got stuffed at the rim, but his defensive effort off the bench in the first half was very good and bought Wagner some first half rest.
- Isaiah Livers: Livers just seemed to be a step slow in many defensive rotations today and only played a quiet 9 minutes.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons only played 4 minutes and was whistled for 2 fouls. Michigan went with an Abdur-Rahkman-Poole after Simmons threw an errant pass to Duncan Robinson in the second half.
- Eli Brooks: Brooks saw a bit of homecoming playing time and picked up a layup driving to the basket.