On Monday afternoon, John Beilein spoke about how five or six possessions can change a season.
Flip five or six plays in each Michigan’s past three seasons and the Wolverines are probably a program that was almost good enough rather than one that won two Big Ten titles and made a Final Four. There are moments in a season that don’t always make the most sense, but they have a lasting impact.
Today it was six possessions from Aubrey Dawkins that seemed to change everything. Dawkins — the same player that had made just 6-of-18 shots all season — came off the bench and made six of seven three-point attempts for a career-high 20 points. The Wolverines needed every single one of them as they came back from a 13 point deficit in the final 11 minutes of the second half to escape with an overtime win over Illinois.
Dawkins’ scoring barrage was reminiscent of the way the Wolverines started last year’s Big Ten season, when Zak Irvin knocked in five threes off the bench in a win at Minnesota.
It’s too early to say if Dawkins’ three-point barrage will alter the course of Michigan’s season, or even whether Dawkins can emerge as a consistent rotation player. But they won this game for Michigan and they definitely earned him a chance to make a bigger impact going forward.
Michigan’s offense still has major issues to figure out. The Wolverines continue to fall into long, painful scoring droughts where they can’t figure out what shots are too early, too difficult or just plain bad. This isn’t last year’s offense and it’s not going to be close. The Wolverines entered this game with an adjusted offensive efficiency rank of 100 and while they scraped and clawed their way to a win – points are going to come at a premium for this team.
Michigan scored only 35 points in its first 45 possessions – a meager .78 points per trip – and found itself trailing by 13 with 11 minutes to play. The first 29 minutes of the game should have felt like an unthinkably bad outing on offense, but they were about on pace with Michigan’s last three offensive games.
Then over the game’s final 16 minutes, everything clicked.
Michigan exploded for a ridiculous 38 points in the final 22 possessions of regulation and overtime, equivalent to 1.73 points per possession.
During that stretch, 11 of the Wolverines’ final 12 baskets were assisted after only four of its first 15 makes were assisted. The ball screen game started clicking as Ricky Doyle continuously found himself open rolling around the hoop, there were transition threes, drive-and-kicks and for 15 minutes it was the Michigan offense that we know and love.
Is this group capable of playing that way consistently? The easy answer right now is probably not, but for 16 minutes they proved they are at least capable of clicking for short bursts.
Defensively, Michigan reached into the bag of tricks and pulled out both the 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones.
If you look solely at the result of the zone possessions, the zone probably grades out okay. But while I’m ready to buy into zone defense being necessary for Michigan’s long-term success, I’m not ready to buy that it’s a great zone defense right now. Illinois seemed to get what it wanted against both zones – ball screen penetration at the right elbow against the 2-3 and kick-out threes against the 1-3-1. Michigan deserves credit for digging in and getting some big stops, but there’s plenty of work to be done.
That’s not to say there aren’t positives to take from Michigan’s defensive performance. The Wolverines buckled down and cleaned up the defensive glass and they made some critical stops late in the game. The stop on the final shot was impressive, but there’s no doubt that Rayvonte Rice should have passed the ball to Malcolm Hill (Illinois’ best player on the day) (H/T @WorldOfIsaac).
Michigan is going to have to scratch and claw for 17 more Big Ten games, but it can do that with the confidence of having one win under its belt. This team isn’t ready to compete for a league title or even discuss the NCAA tournament, but one win is in the books and next up is a trip to West Lafayette and a chance for another.
- Aubrey Dawkins: Take a bow, Aubrey. In the game preview I wrote that whichever team can ‘find something else’ would win the game. Michigan found Aubrey Dawkins. His stroke has always looked pretty good and today it finally started to fall. Dawkins has bounce, he can rebound (5 today) and seems to play hard. Michigan has been badly searching for depth and the wing combination of Irvin and Dawkins looked really good today.
- Caris LeVert: The hand brace was gone and LeVert was back. This was the best LeVert has played since he kept Michigan in the game against NJIT and there’s no doubt that the Wolverines need this from Caris in every game. He finished with 19 points and five dimes (to one turnover) and he was 8-of-14 on two-point attempts. LeVert also finally seemed to make a breakthrough in figuring out how to find Doyle in the pick-and-roll, but part of that could have been because Dawkins finally stretched out Illinois’ packed in defense. His three-point shot (1-5) was still a bit missing in action, but his confidence and swagger was back. His shot to ice the game in overtime was a great make and the sort of close five-footer that he’s really struggled to convert lately.
- Derrick Walton: Walton simply isn’t right. He started the game with a nice little assist and then went 0-8 from the floor over the rest of the game. He was benched for long stretches in the second half and I don’t think there’s any doubt that his toe injury is affecting him more than anyone wants to admit.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin finished 4-of-15 and (3-of-10) from the floor which was worse than I expected, but he grabbed five rebounds and hit some huge shots down the stretch. I thought he did a good job late in the game defensively against Malcolm Hill, who still made some incredible mid-range jumpers. As for that breakaway missed dunk? Just lay it in Zak, we promise we know your vertical has improved.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht has been in a slump and didn’t really look for his three-point shot, but he hit a big layup early in the game and then handed out five assists, all in the second half and overtime.
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle knows how to make himself a target and finished with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, but he should have produced even more considering he was just 3-of-6 at the stripe and missed a couple of chances for big and-one baskets. He still has some warts (trying to block shots he can’t reach and giving up second chances), but I’m not sure why he played equivalent minutes to Donnal today.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal had a rough first half performance. He was beaten several times defensively, missed a layup in transition and gave up a brutal and-one at the tail end of the first half. Give him some credit for a little better play down the stretch, but his jumper wasn’t working and he didn’t look comfortable out there today.
- Kameron Chatman: I thought Chatman really hung in there and battled today. He made mistakes, but he also made plays right after his mistakes that often made up for them. That being said, he’s still not ready and the possibility of Dawkins emerging could be a blessing for him as it relieves some of the pressure and gives Michigan another option.