Michigan used a rope-a-dope effort to knock off No. 18 Purdue on Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines had Caris LeVert back in the lineup for limited minutes, but he wasn’t the story. The story was that Michigan beat Purdue at its own game.
Purdue grinds teams up in the post and overwhelms them on the backboard. Michigan has been beaten up in the post and dominated on the glass in most of its losses this season. The outcome of this game felt inevitable, in part because we’d already seen it once after the Boilermakers gashed the Wolverines for 1.29 points per possession in the first meeting.
But the Wolverines flipped the script and were able to control the glass on both ends of the floor and outscore Purdue in the paint. Despite that accomplishment, for 37 minutes it appeared that the spirited defensive and rebounding effort would be for naught.
The Wolverine offense had stumbled over itself for most of the game, missing 18 of 20 shots during one stretch, and when AJ Hammons hit an 18-footer with 3:13 to play stretched Purdue’s lead to six points the margin felt almost out of reach.
Michigan had one more answer as its junior guards took over in winning time. Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton (who hadn’t made a shot before the late run) combined to score the last 11 points of the game, turning a likely loss into a gutty victory.
This Michigan team (without a full-strength Caris LeVert) tends to come down to Zak Irvin. I’ve mentioned Irvin as a key in almost every game preview, but especially in both Purdue games. Caleb Swanigan defending him should be just as big of a mismatch as Irvin defending Swanigan. For the first 50 minutes or so that these two teams played this season — it wasn’t. Irvin was awful in the first meeting and awful for most of the first half today. In the second half, he took over the game.
Irvin’s teammates were just 1-of-12 from three-point range as he made 4-of-8 triples. Michigan’s 41 effective field goal percentage was among its worst shooting nights this season as it shot just 43% on twos and 25% on threes.
There’s not a lot to love about Michigan’s offensive performance, but it figured out a way to get just enough from the rest of the roster. While only Irvin reached double figures, so many players off the bench came in and gave just enough including Ricky Doyle, DJ Wilson, Kameron Chatman and Aubrey Dawkins. The Wolverines also rebounded 28% of their misses and while that number isn’t huge, they scored 11 critical second chance points.
Defensively, I loved the decision not to double-team Purdue’s bigs. There were some wrinkles, but they had more to do with playing sagging defense in some other spots rather than a hard double teaming. Purdue’s trio of bigs got their points at times — 35 points on 30 shots — but the single coverage kept the rest of Michigan’s defense in shape rather than chasing around recovering to help after doubling down. That decision limited Purdue’s three-point attempts (6-of-12) and also played a big part in Michigan’s ability to contain Purdue’s offensive rebounding — Purdue’s 20% offensive rebounding rate was its worst of the season.
Holding Purdue to .92 points per possession on 37% two-point shooting with just a 20% offensive rebounding rate is an incredible effort for this Michigan defense. That’s a dramatic turnaround from the first meeting in West Lafayette, Michigan’s worst defensive performance of the season, when Purdue made 21-of-36 twos and scored 1.29 points per trip.
As the game ended, I could just imagine Bacari Alexander running into the lockerroom to tweet ‘gritty not pretty’. That was, unsurprisingly, the buzzword in the post-game media room. The bottom line is that this team just hasn’t been very gritty this season, so to win a game in this fashion feels like quite an accomplishment. Michigan withstood Purdue’s runs, kept within striking distance and then was able to steal a win down the stretch.
It becomes harder and harder to define this team and season. On one hand, the Wolverines are painfully close to the NCAA tournament bubble, on the other hand they are two games out of first place in the Big Ten and in play for a Big Ten Tournament double-bye. Tuesday’s trip to Columbus could be pivotal toward both goals as Michigan heads down the stretch in February.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin’s roller coaster of emotions is becoming nearly impossible to project, but when he’s on he can just take over a game. He was fantastic in the second half, but he was seemingly just as bad for much of the first half. A couple of late baskets got him going to close out the opening half and he was able to build on that momentum into the second. Irvin has now played two of the best games of his season in Michigan’s two biggest victories (Purdue, Maryland).
- Derrick Walton: Walton just couldn’t buy a bucket, despite some pretty open looks, but deserves all of the credit in the world for hanging in there and finishing arguably his most difficult shot of the night on a driving and-one layup in traffic. Up until the final three minutes, this probably would have been Walton’s worst game of the season, but his play down the stretch was just enough to save the Wolverines.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman played a great game on both ends of the floor. His hands and anticipation (3 steals) were disruptive defensive and he had a few strong takes to the rim for layups or assists while knocking down his lone three-point attempt. His early production forced Purdue to shift Rapheal Davis onto him for much of the game, which helped open up the offense for his teammates.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert returned, but he looked rusty to say the least. He didn’t make a shot and turned the ball over once, but he did grab five rebounds in 11 minutes. His presence during the first half was still critical, especially with Duncan Robinson picking up a couple of early fouls, because it gives Beilein so many more options lineup wise.
- Duncan Robinson: Two early fouls took Robinson out of his rhythm and held him to a Big Ten-low 21 minutes of action. He also failed to make a three for the second time in three games. Robinson did score on a pair of nice drives, but it was a quiet night for him overall.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal missed a couple of shots around the rim and was just 2-of-6 from the floor, but he was pretty solid defensively as he hung in there against Purdue’s bigs. While he didn’t actually grab a defensive rebound, the fact that Hammons, Haas and Swanigan combined to have one offensive rebound is a pretty good endorsement of the job Donnal and Doyle did boxing out.
- Aubrey Dawkins: Dawkins strong offensive rebound and free throws with 5:23 to play in the second half will probably be lost in the shuffle, but they gave Michigan some real life. The Wolverines had been missing bad shots after bad shot and had been stuck on 48 points for three minutes.
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle scored 4 points in 14 minutes and, like Donnal, acquitted himself much better against Purdue’s bigs. He played physically and made Hammons and Haas work for their offense.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson was forced into action late in the first half after Donnal and Doyle were sidelined with two fouls and chipped in a nice layup off of a pick and roll feed.
- Kameron Chatman: Chatman earned some surprising second half playing time and managed to get to the free throw line on an offensive rebound.