Game 4: Michigan vs. SMU Recap

Dylan Burkhardt

A month and a half ago Michigan players and coaches sat through an hour of questions about their toughness and whether they would be any better than last year’s team given that they return so many of the same players. Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton sat there and answered questions about embarrassing losses, bad defense, inconsistency and everything else.

They talked a good game and promised this year would be different, but it never felt like there was any real reason to believe them. Sort of like John Beilein saying that he wants DJ Wilson to play like Troy Williams in a summer radio interview — an idea that seemed so far disconnected from anything that DJ Wilson had shown in two years in a Michigan uniform that it sounded insane.

Turns out that Michigan’s offseason talk wasn’t as cheap as it sounded.

On Friday night in Madison Square Garden, Michigan’s seniors sat at the podium smiling and were asked how it felt to beat SMU to win the 2K Classic given some past results.

“It feels great,” Zak Irvin said with a knowing laugh of satisfaction.

Michigan didn’t just win two games in New York City this weekend, it put together back-to-back dominant performances. Both games were, for all intents and purposes, decided by half time. This wasn’t just the best stretch of basketball that Michigan has played in two years, the second win was against the same team that provided two of the lowest moments of the last two seasons.

Derrick Walton shot the Wolverines into an early lead, finishing with a career-high 7 triples on the night, and the new-and-improved Wolverine defense handled the rest. Senior big man Mark Donnal had 9 first half points and two drawn charges while DJ Wilson was all over the floor and held SMU star Semi Ojeleye to 13 points on 16 shots.

Michigan extended its lead to 19 points by half time and the only questions left to answer were when John Beilein would empty his bench and whether the Wolverines would win by 20 or 30.


Michigan’s offense was lethally efficient, scoring 1.31 points per possession (a mark Michigan hasn’t reached against a high-major opponent since 2014) and the offensive approach was more along the lines of traditional Beilein ball. The Wolverines shot 13-of-31 from three-point range and then made easy looks around the basket (14-of-20). Michigan assisted on 16 of 27 baskets and turned the ball over only four times.

The offense was led by its seniors as Walton and Irvin were 13-of-26 from the floor for 39 points and tallied 11 assists to just 1 turnover — they were responsible for 24 of 27 made baskets on the night.

The Wolverines held SMU to .93 points per possession for the game and .8 points per possession in the first half when the game was decided. Michigan’s first half defensive rebounding was as good (2 SMU offensive rebounds) as it was bad in the second half (16 SMU offensive rebounds). Perhaps the most telling statistic about Michigan’s defense was that SMU shot just 37% inside the arc. The Wolverines have legitimate options to defend the rim — namely DJ Wilson — and they are getting the job done.

Last year the Mustangs dunked all over Michigan — this year the Wolverines had three dunks and SMU didn’t make a single dunk. Buckets are buckets, but that had to be a point of pride for a Wolverine team that was flat out embarrassed in Dallas last season.

What now? Michigan played so well in New York City that it’s almost impossible not to readjust expectations. They say that a team is never as good or bad as it looks on any given day, but this was the best two-game performance from Michigan since 2014 — the sort that I wasn’t sure this team even had in it. The Wolverines are almost certain to jump into the top 25 — they are now ranked 15th by KenPom — and next up is a trip to face South Carolina (4-0).

Player Bullets:

  • Derrick Walton: Walton wasn’t going to be held scoreless again and hit three triples before the first TV timeout. He’s already made 14-of-28 threes this season (and 1-of-8 twos) and an aggressive Derrick Walton is the best thing for Michigan. The senior point guard also dished 6 assists and played some terrific defense against Shake Milton (9 points on 11 shots).
  • Zak Irvin: Irvin struggled to find his jump shot early on, but he didn’t let it throw his game out of whack as he would have in past seasons. He started being more aggressive and attacking the rim, making 4-of-6 two-point attempts and handing out 5 assists to 1 turnover. Irvin scored time and again on scoop shots at the basket and finally knocked in a couple of threes en route to a 2K Classic MVP honor.
  • DJ Wilson: Wilson led Michigan in minutes played (36) — something I wouldn’t have imagined writing two weeks ago. His stat line looked innocuous with 6 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal and an assist, but he was all over the floor and has transformed Michigan’s defense. He defended countless shots at the rim, he rebounded, he threw down a pair of big dunks. SMU went right at Wilson on the opening possession with Semi Ojeleye and Wilson blocked his shot and scored on the other end, that set the ton for the next 39 minutes.
  • Mark Donnal: Donnal outplayed Wagner off the bench for the second straight game. He was the rock of Michigan’s defense, drawing back to back charges and blocking a shot. He scored on the offensive glass, in the ball screen game, buried a three and even threw down a transition dunk. He played with as much confidence as I’ve seen him play with in the first half, even attempting an early in the shot clock baseline turnaround.
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-RahkmanAbdur-Rahkman made all three two-point attempts — his standard floating circus shots in the lane — and finally knocked in a three late in the first half and another in the second. He was really battling the three and had missed three, but making his last two should help him gain some confidence from long distance.
  • Moritz WagnerWagner’s bad defensive habits caught up with him as he was whistled for an immediate foul to start the game and could only stay on the floor for 11 minutes. He hit a three-pointer, but the match-up with Ben Moore made it tough to exploit his face-up abilities.
  • Xavier SimpsonSimpson only played 6 minutes off the bench and Beilein admitted that he probably needs to trust his freshman guards more. Simpson still appears to be lagging behind offensively, but his defensive abilities continue to impress.
  • Jon TeskeWith Wagner picking up two fouls in the first half, Teske saw a couple key minutes in the first half. He got to the free throw line and knocked down a pair thanks to a nice roll to the hoop and was also credited with a block and a steal in just 3 minutes. Teske needs to improve on the defensive glass, but his ability to move his feet at his size is impressive.
  • Ibi WatsonWatson knocked down a nice baseline jumper in garbage time late, but was limited to only 3 minutes.
  • Duncan Robinson: Robinson never got going in 16 minutes off the bench and looked shaky with the ball when he got caught in in-between areas.

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  • Champswest

    These were a fun two games to watch. If they can keep this going, UM has a lot of weapons, including defense, to throw at teams. Looking forward to a fun season.

    • Dr.B

      I think Robinsons problem is in how he is holdingeases. If you look at video’s of the ball when he releases the ball he held the basketball totally differently when he was at William’s college.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    Great start to the season! Wilson looks great, never expected him to make this jump this year…but I’m glad he did as a redshirt soph, he can develop into a vital part of our future frontcourt…I’m glad Walton/Irvin are also playing well – their senior leadership will determine how far we go and how well we do. Donnal, Wilson, Wagner will make for a competitive front court! Hoping Robinson gets his shot back for the Big Ten season…Rahkman been solid, my favorite UM player last couple seasons…Top 25 here we come! Go Blue!

  • nexttimedown

    I was at the game tonight sitting a few rows behind the SMU bench. First off, DJ Wilson’s play is a game changer for Michigan basketball. So much so that I think this is the best defensive team I have seen in the Michigan-Beilien era. When they have either Wagner or Donnal at the 5, and DJ at the 4, you have a lot of size and physicality that Michigan teams typically don’t have. It also allows Irvin to play the 3, which enables him to focus on his strengths and guard a player more his own size.

    I think the key for this team going forward is keeping Walton and Irvin healthy, primarily by developing some depth in the rotation. Duncan Robinson looks lost. He needs to bounce back by playing more aggressively and be able to drive the ball into the paint and score or facilitate. The scouting report is out, and he needs to adjust if he expects to be an effective player. Wagner shows great promise, but needs to eliminate the defensive lapses. Freshmen Watson and Simpson will hopefully be able to develop and get more opportunities in the remaining non conference schedule so that they be a part of the rotation when conference play begins in January.

    I came into this season with fairly low expectations, but I find myself excited about Michigan basketball after these last two games. While Walton and Irvin played well and are the undeniable leaders on this team, the stellar play of Donnal, Wagner and especially DJ Wilson, are probably the biggest reasons I am feeling so positive.

    • Stephen Chang

      DJ Wilson has been huge for this team so far, his length and size is going to be a factor and I have to admit, I am really surprised and pleased with him. The defensive credit has to go Billy Dolan because it has caused teams like SMU a lot of problems so far and if it keeps going like this for the rest of the year, I would not be surprised if the defense wins some key games like Purdue, Maryland, MSU, Wisconsin, etc. It takes a lot of pressure off of Beilein so that he can focus on the offense and go from there. I have not seeing anything like this in a long time and I certainly did not see that when Gary, Morgan along with Horford were at Michigan. I would not be surprise if Michigan beats Texas and UCLA as well.

      • andygoblue

        Billy Donlon, FYI

  • Stephen Chang

    Really happy with how the team is playing right now and give Dolan a lot of credit for the defense because it has been outstanding so far. Love the way Beilein is using his bench and the way he is using the bigs especially at the 4 and the 5 is great to see. Irvin still takes some bad shots, but when he is on, he is on. I am glad that he is able to guard someone his own size at the 3 and does not have to worry about guarding the 4. My question is, can this team potentially do even better than the 2012-13 squad? I know it is still a long way to go, but right now I feel pretty good about this team and the way they are playing right now.

    • gobluemd16

      The 2012-2013 team made the championship game. To do even better would be winning it all.. We looked great the last two games, don’t get me wrong, but to jump that far is extremely premature.

      • Stephen Chang

        True! It is early and certainly premature to think and compare this year’s team’s potential and ceiling to the 2012-13 squad right now. But, what I do like is that this team is off to a 4-0 start and hopefully it builds their confidence when they face harder teams especially teams like Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc.

        • A2MIKE

          I think the model for this team should be 2012. Win the Big Ten and make the second week of the tournament. As great as the last 2 games were, it would probably be a stretch to make the final four. Definitely a possibility for next year.

  • gobluemd16

    Talk about surpassing expectations.. Who’d have thought we would beat Marquette and SMU by more than Howard and IUPUI? I mean, wow. Also, can Mark please get a 5th year. I know it seems unlikely with all the bigs on the roster, but man, he deserves it. At this point, I think my main concern with the team is who gets you a bucket one on one late in a close game. I know Zak can get a shot, but still not super confident in his shooting from deep. Overall, a fantastic tournament. Super excited for this year!

    • A2MIKE

      RAHK… nobody is talking about him, but when we get in a dog fight I want that guy on my side. He can get to the rim on anyone.

      • Chazer

        Agreed…he can get to the rack. Really like the kick out on his drives. I think he found Walton twice for a three.

        Wow…what a great start to the season.

  • rlcBlue

    Very, very impressive. I’m left wondering if this team can play any better.

    There’s not much more Irvin, Walton, Donnal, and Rahk can do. Slightly better 3 point shooting from Irvin and Rahk, slightly better finishing from Walton. Mostly just hope for all four to maintain this level of play.

    Wilson can improve, but I wouldn’t look for a whole lot more in season – one thing I’d love to see is for him to develop a reliable post move so we can punish teams that try to cover him with a small 4.

    Robinson could do better on taking guys who close out wildly, but he’s just never going to be that great a driver (or defender).

    The youngsters – Wagner and the three frosh – are the ones who have the most potential for in-season improvement. I have trouble imagining that both Wagner and Teske will get enough time on the court to develop – I expect Teske will just have to keep working on stuff in practice while Mo gets every opportunity to shine during games. I would love to see X and Ibi getting more run in the non-conference schedule, both to rest Walton and Irvin, and to figure out the college game. Not sure if that’s going to happen soon, though, with four of the next six being against major conference competition, including two on the road.

  • John

    The introduction of the pack-line defense by Donlon appears to be paying off. The hard hedging of ball screens seemed to often put the defense out of position. DJ’s development and the new defensive system have turned defense from a glaring weakness to a (n admittedly early) strength.

  • gpsimms

    I think you’re missing a ‘tho’ in the X. Simpson writeup:

    “Simpson still appears to be lagging behind offensively, but his defensive abilities [tho].”

  • Wayman Britt

    No doubt UM has exceeded expectations in the first four games, but better competition awaits. Looking forward to further development of Wagner, Wilson offensively, and the freshman. If this development continues then nice things will happen.

  • Champswest

    Donnal deserves credit for much of the early season success. He took a jump last year, but is even better this season. Wagner may have the higher ceiling, but Donnal is the better player right now at both ends of the court.
    In the case of Donnal and Wilson (Wagner & Robinson), I am happy to see Beilein reward the better defensive players with more playing time. Send the message.

  • Okemos56

    Yes, blame Wagner for fouls (but even the announcers said the second foul on him wasn’t a foul), but I think credit Donnal more at this moment. Maybe he wasn’t in the best shape of his life (per Beilein), but he looks much more capable on defense, which isn’t surprising because last year was his first extensive playing time. On offense, he looked good, even dunked the ball, but he could be more dynamic as shown by his passing off instead of dunking on one play where most players would have dunked because they caught the ball low and unguarded temporarily imo.