Zak Irvin showcases improved ‘acumen for the game’ in breakthrough performance

Alejandro Zúñiga

The final play was supposed to go through Zak Irvin, because he was the reason Michigan was in a position to force overtime in the first place.

The sophomore forward had finally lived up to his offensive potential, tallying 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting in 39 minutes. His scoring output tied a season-high, and it included a deep three-pointer with 19 seconds left to bring the Wolverines within a possession against Indiana at Assembly Hall.

But when Irvin bobbled the ball on an apparent pick-and-pop play with the game clock in single digits and Michigan down three, the sophomore was forced to dump the ball off to Mark Donnal, who passed to Aubrey Dawkins, who found Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman open in the corner at the buzzer.

And that slight mishandle by Irvin was how the Wolverines’ biggest offensive threat didn’t get the last shot as Michigan fell to the Hoosiers, 70-67.

“We tried to give him the first look,” explained coach John Beilein, who also praised Dawkins’ dish to Abdur-Rahkman. “You’re looking for Zak, but they’re not going to get Zak too open. So we found the next option.”

Indiana certainly seemed keyed in on Irvin on the final play — perhaps it had learned its lesson from only moments prior, when the forward had received a handoff from Spike Albrecht and dribbled around the perimeter until he got enough separation from James Blackmon Jr. to hit the trey.

“He made some really tough outside shots,” Beilein said.

But Irvin’s night began with a defensive highlight, when he got back in transition to force a steal midway through the first half. He began to establish himself on the offensive end almost immediately afterward, though, with a eurostep drive for a layup through contact.

Later in the period, Irvin orchestrated the pick-and-roll with Ricky Doyle, feeding the center for a layup with 90 seconds left until the break.

“His acumen for the game is growing every day,” Beilein said.

“He’s doing much better at just picking his spots”

The sophomore scored 18 points in the second half, beginning with a feed in the paint from Dawkins as Michigan took advantage of Irvin’s size advantage over Kevin Yogi Ferrell. He later hit a runner in the lane and also got free on an inbounds play for an easy bucket.

“He’s doing much better at just picking his spots,” Beilein said. “We even saw a shot fake or two today, which was really big. He’s learning those things. I’ve given him a lot of latitude to explore these different options, to be so more than just a shooter. He showed some of those things today.”

But if there was one nagging frustration with Irvin on Sunday, it was his struggles to finish at the rim. With eight minutes left and Michigan down nine, the forward missed a fairly routine layup. A minute later, he went up for a layup with his right hand despite being on the left side of the rim, and the shot was blocked as a result.

“He’s got his head on right, and he knows that everybody has parts of their game they need to work on,” Beilein said. “He realizes what some of those are, and he’s working on them.”

While Irvin hit a few bumps in the road, he also continued to make positive plays after making a mistake. He didn’t let any mistakes affect him defensively and played one of his most consistent games of the season.

“It’s something he’s really been working at — the mental aspect of the game,” Spike Albrecht said after the game. “He really stepped up today as a leader. He was more vocal and encouraging teammates, things like that.”

Sunday’s display was an encouraging performance from a player who has struggled heavily with his jumper and with being aggressive to the rim.

But Irvin and the Wolverines finished one shot short.