Penn State isn’t the best the Big Ten has to offer and the venue wasn’t the most intimidating – the upper-bowl was curtained off the end-zones were empty – but Michigan doesn’t have room to be choosy. The Wolverines need wins and they need them anyway they can get them.
Michigan led for most of the game, even by as many as 10 points in the second half, but it was never able to completely pull away. It felt inevitable that Penn State would eventually get back into the game and they did, tying things up at 53-53 with around eight minutes to play.
But Michigan answered. Immediately after Penn State tied the game, Derrick Walton was fouled on a three-pointer, making all three free throws, and the Wolverines never gave their lead back. Caris LeVert took over in crunch time – scoring six straight points – while Zak Irvin finished the deal with a dagger of a mid-range jumper to extend Michigan’s lead to four and a breakaway slam dunk to push it to eight points with 40 seconds remaining.
Michigan has only shot better than this once this year (against Nicholls State) and the catalyst was the three-point shot. The Wolverines were 9-of-15 (60%) from long distance and six different players hit at least one triple. While it was nice to see Michigan hit some shots, the offense was far from perfect. Michigan gave the ball away nearly once every four possessions and that number would have been worse were it not for all of the late free throw possessions. Michigan’s unforced turnovers were uncharacteristic and widespread as all five starters gave the ball away at least twice.
Overall, Michigan’s offense was as good as we’ve seen in a long time. The Wolverines’ 1.16 points per possession were its fourth best offensive output of the season — trailing only NJIT, Hillsdale and Nicholls State.
Defensively, I’d give Michigan a bit of a mixed grade. The Wolverines improved their defensive rebounding as the game wore on – Penn State rebounded only 20% of its misses in the second half after dominating the glass – and were creative with their defenses. Michigan played man-to-man and 2-3 zone throughout most of the first 30 minutes and held every Nittany Lion other than DJ Newbill and John Johnson to 33% shooting.
Michigan had one terrific 1-3-1 defensive possession with 7:26 to play, but then fell in love with the zone for the rest of the game despite surrendering 7 (easy) points in the next 4 defensive possessions. The gamble eventually paid off as DJ Newbill turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions in the final minute, but this game was won by Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin making big shots – not Michigan’s defense.
Beilein benched Kameron Chatman in favor of Spike Albrecht, but I loved that he gave his young players more time overall. Chatman only played six minutes, but Aubrey Dawkins earned a deserved 16 minutes off the bench and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman also produced in six minutes of time. I’d rather have three guys playing fewer minutes, but trying harder with less pressure trying to make a play. There will still be mistakes, but give everyone a chance and hope they can bring something positive, if not then move onto the next one.
Michigan is going to have to battle in every game this season. Sometimes it’ll be a battle to hold off an opponent and other times it’ll be a battle just to hang around in games. The Wolverines aren’t going to blow people out and the margin of error is thin, but this is the kind of game that Michigan is going to have to get used to. Next up? A much-needed home game against a Minnesota team that has had a rough start to Big Ten play.
- Zak Irvin: This was the best game that Zak Irvin has played in a long time. He was efficient (6-of-9, 2-4 3pt)) and aggressive (nine rebounds). He played good defense (especially isolated one-on-one in the post) and he stepped up in big moments (scoring 7 straight when LeVert went to the bench in the first half, and hitting the biggest shot of the game late).
- Caris LeVert: The last time LeVert took a game over down the stretch like this was against NJIT, luckily the end-result was more favorable this time around. LeVert scored 18 points on 8 field goal attempts and was 2-of-2 from long range, even with three turnovers that’s his most efficient stat line in a long time. The key was a couple of open catch-and-shoot makes early on which started to give him the confidence to attack the basket and, finally, finish in the mid-range.
- Derrick Walton: Walton’s game was equal parts frustrating and clutch. He still has an inexcusable case of the yips around the basket and had four frustrating turnovers, but he also grabbed six rebounds, hit a couple of big shots and was fouled on a critical three-point shot after Penn State tied the game. I’m convinced that Walton’s struggles around the hoop are equal parts mental as physical, but he needs to recover from his toe injury in both departments.
- Ricky Doyle: Michigan needs Doyle on the floor and there’s no time to worry about his conditioning anymore. His career-high 33 minutes today prove that the staff realizes just how important he is becoming to this team’s success. I loved his little baseline hook shot and his composure in tight spaces is encouraging, even if a bit awkward. I’d still like to see him be more assertive and go straight into his move or straight up when he catches the ball, but it’s tough to argue with the results.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht shot the ball great at Purdue, but couldn’t find any space and went 0-of-4 from the floor. However, he did hand out six assists and kept the offense moving when he was on the floor.
- Aubrey Dawkins: Dawkins gave Michigan some very quality minutes and his athleticism is a real perk, even if he’s still learning on the job. I liked the way he bounced back from mistakes on the road. For example, Dawkins got backdoored for a layup midway through the second half and then answered with an alley-oop dunk on the other end. A couple of minutes later, he buried back-to-back threes. That’s the kind of offensive spark Michigan needs from Dawkins and they are 2-0 when he provides it.
- Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman: The Philly native earned some quality time playing back home in Pennsylvania and he played pretty well. He turned it over once (who didn’t), but he knocked down a three, handed out an assist and should have had another if Donnal didn’t bobble it.
- Kameron Chatman: Like Dawkins, I thought Kameron Chatman did a great job of battling through mistakes. He missed the easiest alley-oop layup he’ll have all year, but then knocked down a three on the next possession.
- Max Bielfeldt: Max finished a tough shot in the paint during a first half where it didn’t seem like anyone wanted anything to do with the rim and he felt more reliable than Donnal – and played the minutes to back that up.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal committed a foul, bobbled a pass and missed a layup in less than a minute of game time and never saw the floor again.