Michigan handled business to knock off the Penn State on Saturday afternoon, winning a rare Big Ten game at Madison Square Garden.
The Wolverines led from wire-to-wire, extending their lead to as much as 17 points in the second half, but the Nittany Lions brought the game to two possessions in the final five minutes — finally bringing the Garden to life with some hot shooting down the stretch. Michigan had to sweat out the win, but in the end the Wolverines moved to 7-2 in the Big Ten season and remain firmly in the thick of the conference race.
Zak Irvin led the Wolverines with 20 points in the victory, but Derrick Walton came close to recording his second triple-double of the season, finishing the night with 13 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. For the Nittany Lions, Shep Garner and Brandon Taylor combined for 46 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists in a losing effort.
Michigan’s offense hummed along to the tune of 1.19 points per possession despite making only one three-point shot in the second half. This game hinged on the Wolverines ability to get to the basket and score at the free throw line. Michigan attempted 31 free throws, knocking in 23 of them, and made 19-of-35 two-point attempts. For a team that attempts 46 percent of its field goals from three-point range, the Wolverines had a rare game where they attempted nearly two-thirds of their field goals inside the arc and attempted over 50% as many free throws as threes.
One notable adjustment to the offensive game plan, the Wolverines looked to push more often than normal. Derrick Walton had a couple terrific transition feeds and Michigan even pushed off of made baskets at times, stealing some cheap layups. Perhaps the tweak was due to something the Wolverines saw on film against Penn State, but it could also be a new adjustment to get into offensive sets earlier with the 30 second shot clock.
Defensively, Michigan was great in the first half as it held the Nittany Lions to .88 points per possession, but struggled at times in the second. Michigan’s zone defense looks were the most important factor in the game. In the first half and early in the second, the Wolverines relied heavily on the 2-3 zone and were able to force the Nittany Lions, a team without many three-point threats, into a long range heavy approach.
Pat Chambers adjusted to the 2-3 zone in the second half, but John Beilein went to the 1-3-1 zone midway through the period and threw the Nittany Lions on their heels. Although Chambers stressed that Penn State had seen the 1-3-1 and practice against it this week, they were flummoxed and went four straight possessions without scoring a basket which allowed Michigan to open a 17-point lead.
The zone effectiveness masked the fact that the Nittany Lions scored the ball very well in the other second half possessions. Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner both went over 20 points on efficient shooting and they nearly shot Penn State right back into the game late.
If you’re Michigan, it’s hard not to feel good about yourself after winning 6 of 8 conference games without Caris LeVert. The schedule hasn’t been very difficult, but 7-2 is 7-2 especially with such a critical injury. Essentially the entire rotation has grown up over the last month, but there are still legitimate questions to be answered. The wins are great, but this team hasn’t really blown anyone out either. The last four wins over Minnesota, Nebraska, Rutgers and Penn State were all fairly close and in question late in the second half. That’s good for a team that wants to improve its ability to win close games, but it also lends some doubt to whether the Wolverines are ready to be accepted as one of the conference’s top teams.
With a recent win under Maryland in the bag, Michigan gets two more chances to build on its resume this week as it hosts Indiana and Michigan State. As for Caris LeVert, John Beilein reported that there’s a chance the 6-foot-7 senior returns to action this week.
- Derrick Walton: Walton is growing up quickly as a leader of this team. Beilein has no hesitation about running clock and setting up Walton for late game pick-and-roll isolations and he’s getting the job done when it counts. He also had another double-digit rebounding performance, finishing with 13 points, 10 boards and 7 assists (over half of Michigan’s dimes on the night) in another thorough performance. There was a very real stretch where Walton really struggled early on in Big Ten play after Caris LeVert’s injury, but he’s been named the KenPom ‘MVP’ of the Wolverines’ last four wins and has improved by leaps and bounds.
- Zak Irvin: This performance was all about Zak Irvin the pick-and-roll slasher. Penn State switched so many screens on the perimeter that Irvin was able to find comfortable matchups to drive on and he continually produced at the rim, making 5-of-8 two-point attempts and getting to the free throw line 7 times. He knocked down half of his threes for good measure and played another very good offensive game, leading the Wolverines with 20 points.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: This was a vintage Abdur-Rahkman performance that even included him gathering his own miss twice and scoring on the putback. He just knows how to score around the basket and there’s obviously a little extra motivation against the Nittany Lions — two of his three double-digit Big Ten performances came against the in-state school that didn’t offer him. The vision and passing still lags behind at times and I thought he missed a few drop-offs and kick-outs that were available, but his head-down ability is still a rare commodity on this team.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson was just 1-of-5 from three-point range, only his third game this season without multiple three-point makes. Foul trouble threw his first half performance off track, but after failing to make much of an impact for the middle 30 minutes of the game, he came up with a critical driving layup after Penn State had seized the momentum of the game.
- Mark Donnal: 10 points and six rebounds in another solid showing from Michigan’s now reliable big man. Donnal was active on the glass on both ends and got to the free throw line 8 times while making 2-of-4 field goals. He’s not always doing anything spectacular down low, but he’s the most reliable option that Beilein has had since Jordan Morgan.
- Aubrey Dawkins: Dawkins stepped up in the first half with a pair of three-point makes while Duncan Robinson was sidelined with two early fouls. Dawkins is now shooting 55% from three-point range in Big Ten play and has really emerged as a quality option as sixth man despite missing two potential highlight dunks on the night.
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle received the backup big man minutes ahead of Moritz Wagner, who did not play, and made a few nice plays before a few of his old habits set in with a few bobbles and blocked shots around the rim.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson has one of the highest usage rates on the team, shooting the ball on 30 percent of the Michigan possessions while he’s on the floor, but his efficiency has been lacking. He was 0-2 from the field with a turnover in just 4 minutes today. Michigan needs an extra option off the bench, but both Kam Chatman in previous games and Wilson tonight have failed to impress in their opportunities.