In a moment that has become common for the Michigan basketball team in the past two seasons, the Wolverines looked like a team heading in the wrong direction with six minutes to go the first half Sunday.
Down by 16 points at No. 6 Maryland, Michigan couldn’t make shots, couldn’t get stops and looked like it had no business playing the Terrapins, despite the two teams playing in the same conference.
Critics once again pulled out familiar concerns with Michigan coach John Beilein’s ability to recruit, or keep players healthy, or recreate the Wolverines’ success from 2011-2014. But just as the wheels appeared to be falling off, two players previously thrown out as disappointments reversed course, and put the critics’ qualms away.
The efforts of junior forward Mark Donnal and sophomore forward Kam Chatman weren’t enough to come away with a win over Maryland. But their improved play showed that Michigan still has a chance at reaching its goals.
After leading the Wolverines in scoring on Tuesday, Donnal was the star yet again Sunday, scoring 25 points, including 22 in the second half, on just 13 shots.
Donnal has thrived in Big Ten play, but after being at the bottom of the depth chart in November, Sunday’s performance was a big sign for Michigan.
“This is what we saw in the recruiting cycle with him,” Beilein said. “There’s another gear for Mark that you saw today. He’s not in second gear, he’s not in third, he’s in fourth gear a lot. And he’s got a fifth gear that can make him a really good college basketball player. There was a time today that he really got it done.”
Before Donnal took over, though, the Wolverines were struggling mightily against the Terrapins, spending much of the first half down double digits.
And despite playing almost exclusively garbage minutes this season, Chatman ended up being the catalyst for Michigan’s much-needed 19-8 run to end the half down just five points.
“That was really good. We just made a better decision that we flow better with him on the floor,” Beilein said. “It’s something we’ve seen in practice. We saw it in a game for the first time in a long time, so he’ll get more time moving forward.”
Beilein said that stoppages in play in the second half gave most players enough rest to make playing Chatman unnecessary, but that Chatman not only chipped in six points, two assists and rebound and a steal in his eight minutes, but energy.
And after coaches and players alike admitted energy was less than optimal against the Buckeyes, that boost was crucial in keeping the Wolverines in the game.
“Just knowing what happened Tuesday, we weren’t really satisfied with our energy, what happened with Ohio State,” Chatman said. “We didn’t want to make that mistake again.”
The game was not a positive step for Michigan on paper, but when two former top-flight recruits finally appear to be playing like it and nearly knock off one of the nation’s top teams on the road, the steps forward for the Wolverines are evident.
“It is a factor in our season to know that he’s capable of this,” Beilein said of Donnal. “When we can stretch teams with the five man, it changes everything. Because we have so many good big men (in the Big Ten), it’s hard to get the ball right at the rim. But when you can pick-and-pop with the five man or do different things with the five man, it changes the game.”
Even away from X’s and O’s, the presence of two more players that can bring improved basketball down the stretch as Michigan claws for a NCAA Tournament bid has an impact on the rest of the team.
“When you see a guy on your team that (can) score a lot of points, you kind of get excited for him,” said sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “You get up, you get a little more energy. You play harder.”