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.
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.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Michigan 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 Irvin: Irvin 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 Dakich: Michigan 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 Doyle: Just 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.