Game 29: Northwestern at Michigan Recap

Dylan Burkhardt

Whatever psychological reasoning you want to use — flat; nervous; up-tight; feeling the pressure — Michigan was awful in the opening stretches of both halves on Wednesday night at the Crisler Center.

The Wolverines were outscored 18-0 combined in the first 8 possessions of the first half and the first 5 possessions of the second half. In a game that everyone knew Michigan couldn’t lose as much as it had to win, it managed to create a little extra pressure with such an underwhelming start.

But as Wednesday’s game wore on, we saw a familiar script when the Wolverines have been matched up against an average opponent. Michigan handled business. Outside of those 13 possessions, this was a game that Michigan controlled, outscoring the Wildcats 72-45 in the other 50 possessions of play — an efficiency margin of .54 points per possession.

The more interesting story line was how the Wolverines won: with free throws, isolation drives and interior scoring rather than three-point shooting.

nw four

Chris Collins pitched a curve ball when he went strictly man-to-man after playing primarily matchup zone throughout the Big Ten season. A full week to prepare gave the Wildcats a bit of extra flexibility and it took Michigan a while to adjust, but eventually they figured out enough answers offensively.

There were plenty of open three-point attempts, but no one other than Aubrey Dawkins could connect. Dawkins made all three of his attempts as his teammates made 1-of-11 from long range. Michigan still managed to score 1.17 points per possession despite the woeful perimeter shooting, because it was scoring inside reliably.

The Wolverines outscored Northwestern 32-18 in the paint and made 14-of-18 shot attempts at the rim for the game. This wasn’t the typical pass-heavy roll to the basket interior offense either, this was a game where the Wolverine guards put their heads down and attacked the rim. Only 8 of Michigan’s 24 makes were assisted and eventually it forced forced the Wildcats to start fouling.

Michigan made 20-of-25 free throw attempts to Northwestern’s 5-of-9 shooting at the charity stripe. Fouling has been an issue for the Wildcats this season and Michigan’s determination to attack the basket paid off in the end.

The oft-maligned Wolverine bench also made game-saving contributions. The bench scored 19 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and all posted plus-minus ratings of zero or better in 39 minutes of playing time.

Defensively, it’s hard to peg this performance. There were more than a few painful defensive possessions where the Wolverines let Alex Olah get loose or lost Aaron Falzon on the perimeter, but 1.02 points per possession allowed is also one of U-M’s better defensive performances and right around the Wildcats’ offensive average. The Wolverines were focused on taking the ball out of Bryant McIntosh’s hands in the pick-and-roll game which they did — McIntosh had just 4 points, but 7 assists — but the ball screen hedging left the U-M defense in scatter mode from there.

On the positive side of the ledger defensively, Michigan continued to do a great job on the defensive glass. Northwestern only rebounded 19% of its missed shots against the Wolverines, who are now ranked 3rd in the conference in defensive rebounding.

There was no secret how badly Michigan needed this game and it got the job done, almost right on cue with KenPom’s 72-65 projection. Now the challenge gets more difficult. Wisconsin is a really tough matchup with post options at multiple possessions and Iowa will likely be playing for a Big Ten title. Win one of those games and the Wolverines are headed to the dance, lose both and it’ll be a long couple of weeks.

Player Bullets:

  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-RahkmanMichigan doesn’t win this game without Abdur-Rahkman and I don’t know where it would be this season without him. MAAR has had strong performances in the past, but this was one of the rare games where Michigan was running almost all of its offense through the 6-foot-3 sophomore. When the Wolverines needed a bucket, the ball was going to be in Abdur-Rahkman’s hands. Considering the degree of difficulty of many of his drives, converting 8-of-10 two-point attempts is impressive.
  • Aubrey Dawkins: Dawkins still frustrates at times — blown defensive rotations; missing a highlight dunk and the ensuing two free throws — but Michigan needed someone to hit shots and that’s just what he does. The Wolverines don’t win this game without his three-point shooting (3-of-3 in the second half) and he also deserves some credit for a few tough rebounds in some extended playing time.
  • Derrick Walton: Walton did a good job defensively against Northwestern’s guards, grabbed six defensive rebounds, hit his critical late free throws (8-8) and finished with 16 points and three assists. Quietly it was a nice night for Walton who showed flashes of mastering the pick-and-roll more effectively than he has at others this year.
  • Zak IrvinIrvin had 6 points and more turnovers (3) than assists (2) in an underwhelming game. He seemed to get caught driving with his head down too often and teams are overplaying his baseline drive and pass badly.
  • Duncan Robinson: Robinson had a couple of wide open looks to start the game and missed them and it seemed to throw his whole game into a funk. He was also beaten defensively a few times during that stretch and was really one of the primary reasons that the Wolverines were down so big, so early. Kudos for bouncing back with a huge three to close the first half, but he eventually gave way to Dawkins in the second half and it was hard to argue the choice.
  • Andrew DakichMichigan was lifeless in the first half and Dakich came in and provided some energy, made some hustle plays on defense and helped turn the tide.
  • Kam Chatman: Get in the game and make the most of it, that’s all you can ask. Chatman looked a bit lost in the first half, but made some nice hustle plays on the glass in the second — missing a putback, getting his own miss and then getting fouled and making the free throws.
  • Ricky DoyleJust catch and finish, that’s all Michigan needs Doyle to do. He got the job done when he was on the floor, scoring 6 points on a pair of layups and two critical late free throws in 10 minutes. Donnal had a quiet, but effective 7 points and four rebounds in 30 minutes. He had a couple nice catches and finishes and a few nice deflections hedging against the ball screen. That hedging also got him into trouble with a few silly fouls away from the basket.
  • gobluemd16

    A win is a win is a win. I’ll take it, as ugly as it was again at home against an inferior opponent. One of MAAR’s best games — he was outstanding. Outside of our game, Wisconsin looks fantastic. They outplayed Iowa on the road and are 100% a tournament team. I would confidently say that they are playing the second best of any team in the conference right now. Not the team I want to play this weekend — they are on fire. Think we have a much, much better shot at suddenly vulnerable Iowa at home in the season finale.

    • Tony DeMaria

      Yeah at this point I think Iowa is the more winnable of the 2. Right now the way I look at it, Michigan has 3 chances to punch their ticket: Wisconsin, Iowa or 2nd game of BTT (likely against 1 or 2 seed). Win one of those 3 and were in, lose all 3 of them we are out

      • Mattski

        This is my sense of it, too. The announcers noted last night that only two Big Ten teams have ever been denied entry to the dance with 20 wins, so I’m not sure we absolutely need to beat Iowa or Wisconsin. Lose three in a row on the way in, though. . .

    • NorthernBlue

      Hopefully a bit of a let down game after the big Iowa win could occur. Michigan will probably need to land the first punch and really find a way to contain Wiscy’s inside out game.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    i agree, a win is a win…it was ugly for a bit…MAAR was great, love his game, love how he plays and he is an unsung hero on this team…he has been huge for this team, i think we would not be in the position we are in this year without MAAR specificially no offense to Walton/Irvin who are our leaders…MAAR has been consistent contributor night in night out….a win @ Wisco would be unbelieavable, but i also tend to agree that our season will come down to Iowa on senior night :) …it would be a great way to cap off the season and basically punch our ticket into the tournament…with the Big Ten tourny to just add to our resume

  • Daivd

    I don’t think the game was ugly, just the first 8 minutes of the 1st half…. and first 4 minutes of 2nd.

    Man, sometimes we can just break down a defense and score at will. Of course Rahk is usually at the center of this, or Derrick. Those are our only 2 real iso-playmakers without Caris around. Our patented 8 minute scoreless runs of only missed jumpshots really annoy me, it’s nice when we get aggressive.

    If we have any chance of overachieving (i.e. B1G tourney and a run in the dance) we are going to have to find a way to show the same aggression on offense and intensity on defense we did in the 2nd half of this game.

  • MrLG

    Dylan, in the bullet list, you forgot to put in the bullet for Donnal. Text is there, just not the bullet.

    The Wolverines were really diving for balls at the end of the game. It was great desire and toughness. Great to see!

  • GTFOmycourt

    I want to see the ball in MAAR’s hands a lot more moving forward. He gets to the paint *and rim* with ease. Does he see the court as well as Walton and Irvin? Not yet, but he has quickness and explosion that Irvin seems to lack and length that Walton seems to lack and most importantly he seems to make solid and in control decisions. Not flashy but very effective. If I was the coach I would be doing all I could to prepare MAAR. His ceiling as the primary playmaker is much higher than Irvin’s or Walton’s, in my opinion.

    • Jake

      I agree, he is WAY more effective around the rim than Irvin and Walton. He’s smooth and makes better decisions around the basket. I like Walton but honestly think Muhammad Ali is already a better all around player. Even if Levert comes back, which I don’t think he will, no way in hell would I take minutes from Ali. He’s too valuable obviously on offense but it’s his defense that doesn’t get talked about enough. He’s not great but I think definitely one of the best defenders on the team.

      • gobluemd16

        Don’t think Caris will play again, but if he were to play 10-15, I’d take his minutes from Duncan first over any other starter. MAAR is too important at this point.

    • It all comes down to passing for MAAR… You can’t run a whole offense through a guy that can’t distribute. Slowly but surely he’s starting to pass the ball much better. That’ll be the biggest area of growth for him over the next year.

      • MAZS

        Agreed. It is not a coincidence that MAAR is at his best when the rest of the team is struggling. His strengths are almost antithetical to what a Beilein offense does best when things are going as planned. But that is at least as much on Beilein–who at this point should be able to better integrate MAAR’s strengths into our offense.

  • Wayman Britt

    Good to get a win. Wow, Wisconsin went to the final four last year and lost a lot of talent to the NBA (sound familar) and they return without a let down in the conference. So it can be done.

    • Tony DeMaria

      Not only that but lost their long time coach!

    • Cory

      To be fair, their left over returning shooting guard leader has stayed healthy and played the entire season. The team has developed around him.

      • Yeah. Returning two (healthy) starters from a Final Four team isn’t usually a bad spot. The 2014 Michigan team basically had three and turned out okay.

        Last year’s team had basically zero (a half I guess if you include Walton/LeVert partial seasons). This year’s team has two guys healthy that have played in the NCAA tournament.

        Pretty crazy.

    • MAZS

      Happ (obviously), brown, hill and iverson have really stepped up for them–the latter two likely wouldn’t have seen the court if Bo was still coaching. That is the difference as, frankly, without last years supporting cast, both koenig and hayes have been somewhat disappointing—Hayes shot selection often leaves something to be desired.

      That said, MSU spanked them just last week, and Wiscy looked bad in that one.

  • Champswest

    Excellent recap. I hate slow starts, but I love strong finishes. That is an encouraging sign. I keep hoping that this team is on the verge of putting it all together, but time is getting short.
    We can’t finish the rest of the season 0-3 or even 1-3. We need a win over Wisconsin or Iowa and that doesn’t look too promising right now. We seem to have two guys play well each game and we will need to have four.

    • ChathaM

      I don’t think Iowa is playing very well lately. A win would not surprise me at all.