Photo: Dustin Johnston
There are more than enough college basketball teams that can rack up wins when they play their best. Great college teams figure out ways to win games when they play poorly and that’s exactly what Michigan did last night in Evanston. The Wolverines shot themselves in the foot with early foul trouble, missed free throws and layups and attempted a seemingly endless number of three pointers. Somehow, when all was said and done Michigan had escaped with a victory.
Northwestern appeared to have finally seized the game with a four point lead and under three minutes to play as Michigan’s comedy of errors appeared to have finally proven too much to overcome. But there was just enough time for a last ditch Wolverine effort. Backs against the wall yet again, Michigan responded. The Wolverines would hit five of their final eight three point attempts to send the game into overtime and win comfortably in the extra period.
John Beilein mentioned in his post game that Northwestern was just a couple of bounces away from being a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament – notably in both overtime games against Michigan. He meant it as a compliment. In actuality those couple bounces and extra possessions are the reason why Michigan is 11-4 and Northwestern is 6-9. Whether it’s senior leadership, mental fortitude or moxie, this Michigan team has thrived in late game situations. Six of Michigan’s 11 Big Ten wins have come in overtime or been decided by five points or less.
The four factors chart doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact it’s hard to explain how the numbers add up. There aren’t many teams that get out-rebounded by Northwestern in Evanston and end up celebrating in the locker room after the game. The only way to look at the game is by breaking it into segments.
Northwestern scored three points on its first six possessions of the game – it also took just six possessions for Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz to accumulate two fouls each. With Blake McLimans and Colton Christian manning the five position, the Wildcats would rattle off 28 points in the next 25 possessions.
Michigan’s defensive effort for the 31 minutes that McLimans and Christian weren’t on the floor was phenomenal. Michigan outscored Northwestern 53-27 in the 40 possessions that Morgan or Smotrycz were on the floor, that’s 1.3 points scored per trip to just .68 allowed. The Wolverine defense looked like a well oiled machine as it switched every screen and held Northwestern to just 3-of-16 three point shooting. With Morgan or Smotrycz in the game, Michigan was more than adequate on the defensive glass as well. Despite the rollercoaster first half defensive performance, Michigan was the first team to hold the Wildcats to under a point per possession for an entire game in the last month.
Those other 14 minutes happened, and they almost cost Michigan the game. Morgan and Smotrycz were both called for just one additional foul in the second half and overtime and neither were limited due to fouls. Of course their effective play in the second half without worrying about fouls can also be an endorsement of the strategy. Both players pick up cheap fouls and I tend to be ok with the two-and-sit strategy but with three minutes remaining in the first half, down five with McLimans understandably gassed, you simply have to go back to Jordan Morgan or Evan Smotrycz. Smotrycz might be the smarter move, to protect your actual starter, but Colton Christian at the five position is just not the answer in that scenario.
The Michigan offense was rescued by hitting five of its last eight three point shots. The number of three point attempts 18 twos to 38 threes was as appalling as the fact that the Wolverines only converted 39% of their two point looks against Northwestern’s porous interior defense. The 1-3-1 zone certainly slowed Michigan’s offense, daring the Wolverines too shoot threes, but it wasn’t successful in forcing turnovers. Firing up 68% of your shots from three point becomes a more viable strategy if you can crash the offensive glass (Michigan did in the second half) and eliminate turnovers (12.1% turnover rate). Both paid off as Michigan attempted five more shots and four more free throws for the game.
The Wolverines are a legitimate Big Ten title contender. Michigan has to play Purdue on Saturday before traveling to Illinois and Penn State. Two of the games are on the road but the Wolverines are 3-0 against that group this season. In mid-January there were some questions about where this team was heading but right now the Wolverines have a realistic shot to finish 14-4 in Big Ten play.
Photos: Dustin Johnston
- Trey Burke: I’m not sure that Michigan needs Burke shooting 12 threes (he made four) but Michigan does need Burke making plays. He did both. Burke finished with 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two turnovers. He wasn’t flawless but he hit big shots and went the distance playing 45 minutes.
- Stu Douglass: Douglass played a complete game and, we’ve been saying this a lot lately, it was one of the best of his career. 12 points on 4-of-9 (4-7 3pt) shooting with five assists, one steal and one turnover. Douglass hit huge threes, including the dagger, but also was patient with the basketball and did a great job working the ball against the 1-3-1 zone. He took some deep threes and but he was also instrumental defensively, slowing Crawford, Shurna, whoever he was matched-up with. He’s not Zack Novak style of leader but his calming leadership is a perfect complement to Novak’s emotion and has a positive effective in the backcourt on both ends of the floor.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: Hardaway had a great start to the game: he took a charge, had an assist on Michigan’s first basket, grabbed a strong rebound and picked up a foul attacking the basket. Then his problems at the free throw line seemed to get the best of him and he made just 4-of-10 freebies. His shooting stroke was a bit inconsistent but the fact that he got to the line 10 times reinforces that he was aggressive offensively and he hit the huge three late to tie the game.
- Jordan Morgan: The fouls were maddening and the second one was a very cheap one to giveaway. However, Morgan really battled on the glass while corralling seven rebounds although he struggled to finish around the hoop.
- Evan Smotrycz: Smotrycz made a positive impact in his 15 minutes without even attempting a three. He bobbled a catch early and missed a layup but he also had a strong take in the second half and seemed to be assertive against the 1-3-1 zone. He grabbed five rebounds and blocked a shot as well.
- Zack Novak: Novak did not play well for the first 40 minutes of this game. He had a pair of frustrating turnovers, he missed shots and got beat man-to-man several times by Reggie Hearn. Without overtime, Novak would have had the most disappointing performance on the U-M roster. Then he won the game in overtime. An offensive rebound that somehow caromed back to him turned into an assist before he knocked down a three on the ensuing possession – the only shot he made in 31 minutes suddenly stretched the lead to six.
- Matt Vogrich: It sounds crazy to say that the junior guard who averages 2.5 points per game could be the key to a Michigan tournament run but when Vogrich can come off the bench and hit shots it changes the dynamic of the Michigan offense. Michigan is 7-0 when Vogrich hits a three and he’s now made 8 of his last 12 three point attempts after hitting just seven of his first 33 this season.
- Blake McLimans & Colton Christian: Both players struggled but they played 14 minutes in the first half and Michigan was down only seven. The Wolverines had two days to prep for Northwestern and the amount of time that was spent prepping Blake or Colton for guarding the Wildcats was probably little to none.