Michigan marched on to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, where the Spartans await, with a 77-58 win over Nebraska on Friday afternoon. Here are five takeaways.
Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman provide scoring punch
Unhindered by the foul trouble that kept them off the floor for large portions of Thursday’s game, Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman finished as Michigan’s two leading scorers. Wagner scored Michigan’s first eight points — six off the pick-and-pop 3-pointers Nebraska shut down with ease back in January.
Wagner bested his point total from Thursday in the first half alone, going into the break with 12, along with eight rebounds. He did everything from drive the baseline for a highlight-reel dunk to protect the rim, notching two blocks in the opening period.
In the second half, Wagner had his double-double locked up by the 14-minute mark. Against the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, the fans taunted him by chanting his last name over and over again as he scored all of two points. On Friday, Wagner got the last laugh.
“That two (points) turned into a 20,” Livers said. “He did more spacing after he slips (screens), he did more spacing. Like last time, he’d slip, but he’d be too close to the ball-handler and all they gotta do (was) scramble out.”
As for Abdur-Rahkman, he put up 21 points and shot perfectly — 5-of-5 — from beyond the arc. He was dominant scoring-wise, continuing what has been an ascension in that category over the past month.
“Muhammad and Moe really stepped up,” said Duncan Robinson. “Two of the big-time leaders on this team.”
With those Abdur-Rahkman and Wagner on the floor for 36 and 33 minutes, respectively, Michigan’s offense went from struggling to score against Iowa — which ranks 248th in adjusted defensive efficiency — to putting up 1.19 points per possession against Nebraska, which stifled the Wolverines in Lincoln back in January. It’s no secret that those two are the motor behind Michigan’s offense, but never has it been more evident than the last two days.
Wolverines’ defense stifles Nebraska
The Cornhuskers had no answer for Michigan’s defense all game long. The Wolverines forced turnovers, protected the rim and held Nebraska to an abysmal 30.2 percent shooting from the field. That translated to .91 points per possession.
It was largely the same defensive gameplan as the prior matchup in Lincoln, according to Isaiah Livers. James Palmer dropped 19 on Michigan in that game, doing so on 3-of-5 shooting from 2 and 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, and earned KenPom MVP. On Friday, he still got 16 points, but the Wolverines held him to 3-of-9 shooting from the field.
“Last time we let (Palmer) do whatever he wanted,” Livers said. “… We did a better job on weaking him, make him go to his left. He can use both (ways), he’s just not as good (as) going right. We did our best to try to make him go to his left.”
“… We didn’t switch a lot of stuff. We kept our matchups. We wanted Zavier Simpson to stay on Watson. We didn’t want him to come off. We wanted Charles (Matthews) to stay on Palmer. That worked perfectly. Obviously me and Moe can guard Roby or Copeland, so just try to keep our matchups the same.”
The Wolverines have held opponents under a point per possession in six straight games now, all of them wins. Their defense — good all year — is getting better and with Michigan State lying in wait, it couldn’t be a better time.
“It’s definitely gonna be physical,” Simpson said.
Back in East Lansing, Simpson held Cassius Winston to just 11 points and two assists, encompassing a mere 90 offensive rating.
” … I remember I was winning (last time),” Simpson said. “Played good, played smart, that’s my goal.”
Michigan’s 3-point stroke returns
Michigan’s struggles from beyond the arc nearly brought forth its downfall yesterday. Duncan Robinson was the only player to make a 3-pointer against Iowa, as the Wolverines shot 3-of-19 from beyond the arc.
Likewise, they were disastrously bad against Nebraska in January, shooting 4-of-18 from beyond the arc as the Cornhuskers befuddled them by switching ball-screens. There were no such issues today. Michigan was 11-of-23 shooting triples — an Ibi Watson garbage time miss away from an even 50 percent. Abdur-Rahkman was 5-of-5, Wagner was 2-of-4, Robinson 4-of-7.
“We actually watched film on (the last game against Nebraska) today,” Livers said. “(John Beilein) kept saying — even though we were watching, we were just still learning just to refresh our minds. We’ve been a totally different team since then, but today we had more sets, people were spaced out more so they couldn’t gap and help their big men on the ISOs.”
Added Duncan Robinson: “We all thought yesterday was a little bit of an anomaly. We gotta come in and have not played here, you know, we had a quick shootaround yesterday but, you know, it’s gonna take some time to get our feet under us. We were able to make some today which really opens it up for us offensively.”
There’s an extent to which the fluctuations in 3-point shooting from game to game are just statistical noise. But there does seem to be a trend of improvement — saving Thursday — over the past three weeks. If it holds over to Saturday, an upset could be in the cards.
Duncan Robinson continues to shoot like Duncan Robinson
Much of that upward trend in 3-point shooting has simply been the fifth-year senior finding his stroke.
Robinson is shooting 55 percent from 3 since February 11. Prior to that, he had shot 35.4 percent on the year. Not much changed on Friday — Robinson was 4-of-7 from downtown, giving Nebraska’s zone fits and even pulling up off the dribble at one point.
“I think a lot of (the turnaround) was just mental,” Robinson said. “Found myself in a situation where my time in a Michigan uniform is running out. You heighten your sense of urgency when you realize that. And I think it’s just been my mental approach and just trying to be aggressive.”
The Wolverines are a different offensive team when Robinson shoots like this. It’s what Michigan was missing all year long, as it shot just 36.4 percent on 3-pointers as a team. With Robinson leading the charge, the Wolverines have gone over 45 percent in three of their last four.
“Every time he shoots it I swear it’s going in,” Livers said.
Right now, that might as well be the case.
Ibi Watson contributes off the bench
The last time Ibi Watson played at all in a game that wasn’t a blowout was nearly a month ago, when he was on the court for five minutes at Wisconsin. So of course, Watson picked up six minutes in the first half alone at Madison Square Garden, in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal on Friday.
Despite having largely fallen out of the rotation, he played well. Watson was active on the offensive glass, grabbing a board that led to a Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman 3-pointer on his first possession in the game. A few minutes later, he picked up another, then drew a foul.
“I don’t really expect to get in all the time,” Watson said, “I just make sure I’m always prepared just in case it does happen.
“… My main focus coming into the game was, ‘What are the little things I can do to help the team out today?’ So, I just try to come in, be physical, play some defense and just go get rebounds.”
Defensively, Watson made a difference. He was on the floor during the Cornhuskers’ seven-minute field goal drought in the first half and guarded well.
He didn’t play at all in the second half, saving for the game’s last minute of garbage time, but that doesn’t make his first half contributions any less important.
“That’s our guy,” Isaiah Livers said. “I kept telling him, ‘Be ready, be ready.’ … I’m proud of him.”