Game 18: Northwestern at Michigan Recap

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan needed a bit of luck, but managed to escape with a 56-54 home victory over Northwestern on Saturday night.

The Wolverines were without Spike Albrecht, who missed the game with an upper respiratory infection, and big man Ricky Doyle was limited to 10 minutes battling illness symptoms of his own.

Despite being shorthanded, Michigan jumped out to a 25-11 lead in the first ten minutes of play. Everything was clicking for the Wolverines, who put together an 18-0 run during that stretch, and they looked to be ready to cruise to an easy win after one of the best stretches of basketball they’ve played all season. But then Michigan cooled off and Northwestern responded with a run of its own and went to the locker-room with a lead after outscoring the Wolverines 21-7 to finish the half.

The second half was and back and forth affair featuring three lead changes and three ties, and neither team led by more than five points. Both teams were far from perfect in the final 20 minutes and the game was up for grabs down the stretch.

It took a star performance from Caris LeVert, some big shots by Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, critical minutes from Max Bielfeldt, some 1-3-1 zone wizardry and a missed layup by star freshman Bryant McIntosh at the final buzzer, but Michigan survived with a two-point win.

“We got a W,” John Beilein said after the win. “I don’t know how, but we ended up getting it and we’ll take it.”


Michigan hasn’t won a game when it scored less than 1 point per possession since a 58-57 win over Michigan State two years ago. While Wolverine assistant coach Bacari Alexander loves the phrase ‘gritty not pretty’, the fact of the matter is that Michigan usually needs a strong offensive performance to win games. Michigan wasn’t pretty tonight and was just gritty enough to pull out a victory despite being outshot and outrebounded.

At this point, the Wolverines are simply unable to score the ball around the basket. Michigan shot just 31% on twos for the game and is now the second worst 2-point shooting team in the Big Ten at just 41.1% in league play. The Wolverines actually shot the ball better from three-point range (39%) which helped its effective field goal percentage to a meager 42.2%.

Turnovers were Michigan’s saving grace. Northwestern doesn’t force turnovers — Big Ten opponents have turned the ball over on just 9.5% of their possessions against the Wildcats — and Michigan rarely turns the ball over, as a result the Wolverines gave the ball away on only 5% of their offensive possessions. The extra possessions were critical for a Michigan offense that needed all of the help it could get.

In the second half, John Beilein looked for Caris LeVert to carry the offense. LeVert was just 2-of-9 from the floor, but he also had six second half assists, meaning he was responsible for eight of Michigan’s nine made field goals in the final 20 minutes of play.

Defensively, Michigan held Northwestern to .93 points per trip for the game, but it was far from a flawless performance. The Wolverines’ transition defense was dreadful in the first half – a damning assessment against one of the slowest and worst transition teams in the conference – and Wildcat big man Alex Olah was dominant in the paint. Olah finished with 22 points on 9 of 12 shooting with seven rebounds and two assists and he seemed like he could have had 30+ had Michigan kept with its man defense.

Northwestern only rebounded 29% of its misses, but Michigan’s defensive rebounding performance was far from inspiring. Wolverine centers didn’t record a defensive rebound and the Wildcats scored eight second chance points for the game.

The 1-3-1 zone bailed Michigan out once again. Michigan pulled out the 1-3-1 zone for at least half of its second half possessions – and even started running the zone off of misses late in the game – and Northwestern simply couldn’t produce. The Wildcats made some mistakes against the zone, but they also ran some pretty good offense and simply missed open shots from the corners. For Michigan, giving up (mostly open) threes was a better option that letting Alex Olah shoot layups, and the gamble paid off.

I’m still not sure the 1-3-1 zone is the ultimate answer for Michigan’s defense – even when it works, it usually gives up some open looks – but it’s tough to argue with the results. The zone seems to speed teams up just enough that they miss what would otherwise be routine looks. I loved the adjustment of moving Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to the top of the zone and shifting LeVert to the wing as that combination seemed to be even more disruptive.

A 56-54 win over Northwestern isn’t going to leave warm and fuzzy feelings, but Michigan sits at 4-2 with a chance at another win when it goes to Rutgers on Tuesday.  The Wolverines don’t have the sexiest wins in the league — its Big Ten wins are over teams with a combined 4-16 in conference play — but only three other teams have managed to win four games in conference play this season.

Michigan 56, Northwestern 54-11

Player Bullets:

  • Caris LeVert: Caris LeVert had a terrific game form the opening tip, he finished with 18 points on 7-of-19 shooting with seven assists and six rebounds. I loved his energy early on and while he missed some shots in the mid-range, he made everything happen down the stretch. Sooner or later those 10 to 15 foot jumpers are going to start falling and LeVert is going to string together a couple of big games in a row. Overall it was the sort of complete, well-balanced performance that Michigan needs from LeVert every night if it wants to compete.
  • Derrick Walton: Walton continues to struggle inside the arc (he’s now 22 of 66 on twos this season and 4 of 27 in Big Ten games) and he didn’t record an assist, but he hit a career-high four triples, grabbed five rebounds and had three steals. Walton also did a terrific job of staying out of foul trouble without any cover from Spike Albrecht.
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: John Beilein’s most-recent catch phrase has been the importance of ‘outliers’ and Abdur-Rahkman answered the call as an outlier tonight. Getting his first career start, MAAR tallied 9 points, five rebounds, an assist and a steal in 25 minutes. He hit a huge three down with a minute left to extend Michigan’s lead to four and despite a few questionable decisions (one-legged step backs are probably not necessary), he played the best game of his career.
  • Max Bielfeldt: Bielfeldt was huge for Michigan in the second half. With Doyle sidelined and Donnal struggling, Bielfeldt stepped in and battled against Olah, despite about a 6 inch height disadvantage. Bielfeldt hit a three (and then started to fall in love with the shot), but more importantly he was physical enough to battle Olah and disrupt things around the hoop. This team lacks a lot of upperclassmen leadership, but Bielfeldt played like a senior is supposed to off the bench in the win.
  • Zak Irvin: Irvin is in a complete mental rut. He has no confidence with his shot and doesn’t seem to remember what’s a good shot or a bad shot at this point. He was just 1 of 6 on the night, with four rebounds and two assists, but did redeem himself with a critical three down the stretch. Michigan needs a lot more from Irvin – on both ends of the floor – if it wants to improve down the stretch this year.
  • Mark Donnal:  Donnal didn’t grab a defensive rebound in 11 minutes of play and was completely overmatched by Alex Olah inside. He was 0 of 2 from the floor and played with a complete lack of confidence as he was pushed around down low. The lone highlight of his performance was a nice drawn charge midway through the first half.
  • Ricky Doyle: Doyle was sick and it was obvious that he simply couldn’t keep up. He’s struggled to run the floor with big men at times this year, but Alex Olah isn’t the most fleet of foot and he was schooling Doyle up and down the floor.
  • Aubrey Dawkins: Dawkins could never get his shot going (0 of 2) and played just 10 minutes in the win.
  • Kameron Chatman: Chatman was 1 of 3 from the floor with a pair of missed layups. He continues to struggle to finish at the rim because of his inability to get above the rim and his over-reliance on his left hand.
  • Under The Bridge

    Look at the sunny side! It took MSU overtime to beat Northwestern at home. We beat them in regulation at home! I hereby invoke the Transitive Property of Basketball in future contests against MSU.

  • jemblue

    Do we know any more about Caris’s ankle?

  • David Remmler

    Ugly win but it’s a win. We were shorthanded but this game showed more of our weaknesses, namely a lack of any inside presence and less than spectacular offense overall. Donnal, although skilled, has little or no interior game and plays more like a perimeter player. So we have an inexperienced Doyle who is a work in progress backed up by a severely undersized Bielfeldt. And elsewhere, Irvin has regressed offensively. And the gem of this year’s recruiting class, Chatman, has all but disappeared. So we have Levert trying to create on his own and Walton chipping in unevenly.

    On the positive side, we did get some good minutes from Rahkman and Dawkins. It’s a good sign for our depth on the wing and in the backcourt.

    If we’re lucky and win more of these against the lower tier teams, we might slip into the NIT.

    Without more success on the recruiting trail, it’s hard to see this team at an elite level any time soon.

  • Madrox

    At this point this team just needs to take any wins they can get. Northwestern isn’t great, but they have played some close games with other teams and Michigan just beat them without essentially two starters.

    This team is young and not as good as we hoped they would be right now. If Michigan wants to contend for Final Fours again we really need to see Beilein and co. close the deal on some of those big time 2016 recruits.

    • Wayman Britt

      I great start would be closing on Brown for 2015.

      • Madrox

        That would be nice, but I remain skeptical that Michigan has much of a shot. 2016 is where they have put in a lot of work and seem to be in it for a lot of big time talent. But if Brown wants to start the great recruiting a year early I am OK with that.

  • Wayman Britt

    Ugly win, but better than an L. Caris carried the team, I hope he is not hurt or could be a long game at Rutgers.

    I am starting to wonder if Donnal is ever going to be a useful player. He was billed as a good shooter, but definitely not shooting well. If he cannot shoot, what does he have to bring to the team? Even though this is his first year playing, I beginning to wonder if he will ever be serviceable.

    • Chris De Sana

      I am not as worries about his shooting as I am his emotional state, he simply looks like he is going through the motions. In addition maybe he is never going to be a great or even good 3 pt shooter, so try and get him some shots in the 10 to 15 ft range? This would of course mean he set picks for curl cuts not at the top of the key.

    • Madrox

      I still think its to early to consider writing off Donnal. There are major causes for concern but he is still only a redshirt freshman. I think he looks soft and tentative out there, he looked timid around Olah, whereas Max came in and wasn’t afraid to get physical. I am hoping that can be taught or comes with experience.

      He may never be the focal point of anything, but I still hope he can be a quality rotation piece down the line with Doyle being the starter.

      • MAZS

        I too was hoping that Donnal’s lack of physicality was an inexperience thing that would get better over time. But he is no more physical today than he was day 1 (less if possible), so I am very concerned that it will ever come. That said, he is a redshirt freshman and he might still contribute at the 4 with time.

  • Chris De Sana

    This team is tough to watch. As tough at it is at times we have to continue to look for the few bright spots (I struggle with this at times as well) win or lose. Expectations and reality rarely meet, we have had Freshman and Soph. in years past that played at a far higher level than their recruiting status which helped the team far exceeded everyone’s expectations.

    Six true Freshman and one Redshirt along with two Soph., two Jr. and a Sr are going to have more nights like last night and NJIT not fewer.

    As for last night it was nice to see MAAR get some run and Max to step up. The most disturbing is Donnal and his emotionless effort, Irvin’s continued struggles on both ends of the court and Chatman’s lack of athleticism.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    Its been a tough year to watch…but as long as players step up and we get w’s over the bottom half of the conference we should be in the bubble team conversation…we need to get a win in Rutgers…this team is developing and yes it may only be next year when we see it pay off…especially if Levert returns

  • gobluemd16

    It just is not fun to watch Michigan basketball this year; although I will obviously continue to watch every game :). The offense just is not fluid and can’t create any of the looks it has in the past few years. Every possession eventually resorts to: let’s give the ball to Caris and clear out or set a ball screen and see what happens. And the sad thing is, that is our best (and only) offense. I guess Irvin may be sick, but he literally provides nothing when he isn’t knocking down his shot. I wish he showed some improvements, but it affects the other aspects of his game when he doesn’t shoot well. Derrick is likely still hurt, he got stuffed twice last night, but at least he was shooting well from outside. I literally shutter at the thought of watching Donnal or Kam play. They are downright awful this year. I don’t think I have ever watched a top 100 recruit softer than Donnal. He is basically useless. And, I can’t fathom how Kam got a top 25 ranking; I will give him more time since he is a true freshman, but he is very weak on offense and defense and has lost any semblance of confidence. Both are majorly hurting this team any time they step onto the court. This is a highly negative post, I know, and expectations should clearly be lowered, but this team needs a serious talent upgrade. Caris has been better, but we have to pray his injury is not serious; we cannot win a game without him. He and spike are the only ones who can get into the lane. Bright spots were clearly MAAR and Bielfeldt last night. I love Bielfeldt’s fight, even with his limitations at 6’6. We would not have won last night without him. I wish Donnal could play with half that level of effort. Sorry for the essay, but even in that win, we were maddening to watch. All here should watch Big Ten Elite, about the 2013 Championship-game team. It was really awesome. You can find it on youtube if you did not remember to DVR.

  • gobluemd16

    Down to 95 on KenPom.. Eeek