Penn State walked into the Crisler Center on Wednesday night and punked Michigan for 30 minutes.

Nittany Lion head coach Pat Chambers might have had the most energy on the floor, but his players were next and the Wolverines were a distance third. The Nittany Lions beat Michigan to loose balls, shot as well as they have all season and looked like the better team. They answered every U-M run and extended their lead to 14 points midway through the second half.

But after playing its worst 30 minutes of basketball all season, Michigan woke up just in time to muster a comeback. The Wolverines erased a 13-point deficit in the final 11 minutes of play, thanks to some timely play from their seniors, and escaped with a much needed home victory.

It was a painstakingly frustrating reminder of just how far this Michigan team still has to go, but it was also a win in the direst of circumstances and one that John Beilein and his team will hope can provide a bit of extra confidence moving forward.

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It’s rare for Michigan to win a game when it doesn’t out-shoot its opponent, but tonight was a case of just that. Turnovers kept the Wolverines just close enough to finally mount a comeback when the shots started falling down the stretch. Penn State gave the ball away 14 times in 65 possessions (21.5%) and Michigan converted those giveaways into 20 points. Michigan gave the ball away 5 times in 65 possessions (7.7%) which led to just 4 PSU points.

Michigan shot more twos than threes (38% of field goal attempts) and made 54% of its twos, but the three-pointer wasn’t falling (6-of-21) and that made for a long night for a struggling offense. There were a fair number of mid-range jumpers in that mix, but the two-point shooting saved what could have been a long night offensively. To score 1.11 points per possession on what felt like a disastrous offensive night is actually a pretty good performance, right now only three Big Ten teams have done better than that in league play.

Defensively, holding Penn State around a point per possession isn’t going to give anyone happy feelings. The Nittany Lions have failed to score a point per possession in half of their games this season and their 56 eFG% was their second best shooting performance of the season.

Michigan’s defense has been a problem in both of its first two Big Ten games and it is no secret that it was a problem last year as well. Can they improve? Sure, but it’s pretty clear that they haven’t improved by that much to this point.

Penn State has some talented newcomers, but those freshmen also gave the Wolverines a lifeline down the stretch with some classic freshmen mistakes. Lamar Stevens was dominant when he was on the floor, but fouled out of the game in 19 minutes (PSU was +10 while he was on the floor). Point guard Tony Carr struggled and had more turnovers (3) than made field goals (2) while settling for some questionable three-point attempts late.

Despite the fact that Michigan eventually came back, it’s worth pointing out that the Wolverines had a number of ugly mistakes as well. Penn State offensive rebounded two missed free throws, Zak Irvin missed a pair at the line late, and the Wolverines seemed to blow a number of layups that could have gotten them back into the game sooner. There will be plenty of teaching material in film session.

Basketball is a game played on the margins. The Wolverines dropped a game against Virginia Tech that they controlled throughout and just lost an overtime game at Iowa where they should have had a shot to win. If a couple of breaks go differently, maybe those are wins and this is a loss.

There are so many Big Ten teams that are pretty good, but far from great or dominant that I’d expect plenty more games just like this in conference play. Almost every game is winnable, but they might all be losable too.

To illustrate that phenomenon, the 85% chance that KenPom gave Michigan to win tonight was higher than any game remaining on the schedule. Conversely, KenPom gives U-M a 39% chance of better of winning all but two (at Indiana and at Wisconsin) of its final 16 games.

If Michigan gets in a habit of playing as flat and lifeless as it did for the first 30 minutes tonight, it’s going to lose enough games this season that a few close ones don’t matter. There are some clear mental hurdles with this team and it’s tough to ever know if they are fully corrected. This same group of players dominated Marquette and SMU at the Garden, collapsed against Virginia Tech and came back after a horrendous early performance against Penn State.

No, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin aren’t the best leaders to ever walk into the Crisler Center, but at this point all Michigan can do is hope that the light clicks on as their career winds down. The final 9 minutes tonight felt like they could be a big step in the right direction, but it’s anyone’s guess where this team goes from here.

Next up is Maryland at home on Saturday afternoon. The Terps are coming in off of a mid-week bye and split their opening games against Illinois and Nebraska. Expect another one to come down to the wire.

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Player Bullets:

  • Derrick Walton: Derrick Walton made a bunch of frustrating plays early on that you just don’t want to see from a senior point guar. He missed open shots and forced bad off the dribble jumpers early in the clock. He had a careless turnover and just looked completely out of sorts — like he was shooting bad shots to prove that he was confident rather than because he thought he’d make them. But give the senior credit, he hung in there and made a handful of big plays down the stretch to help Michigan pull away late. He scored 12 of his 14 points points, grabbed 4 of his 6 rebounds rebounds and handed out his only two assists in the final 9 minutes of the game.
  • Moritz WagnerWagner opened the game with a highlight dunk as he finally finished his nifty behind the back dribble from the top of the key. He gave Michigan a nice burst early in the second half as well, but also seemed to struggle with Penn State’s length around the rim (Mike Watkins is one of the best shot blockers in the country). He still had his bright spots offensively and was able to stay on the floor out of foul trouble and record 5 rebounds, 3 steals and an assist as well. He continues to gamble defensively in the pick and roll, but he also has 6 steals in two conference games.
  • Zak Irvin: This was an old school Zak Irvin game, with extreme moments on both ends of the spectrum. He hit a number of critical elbow jumpers late (not a bad shot for him despite the criticism) and led the team with 4 assists. The biggest problem with Irvin’s game right now is that he struggles to adjust to ball screen coverages fast enough. When Penn State would change its coverage, Irvin was usually a split second late on the read or forced a shot — notably his late turnover that gave the Nittany Lions a bit of life. When it defended the ball screen in a way that he expected, he usually knocked in a mid-range jumper. Give Chambers some credit for mixing it up and negating the roll man from Michigan’s offense.
  • Duncan Robinson: Robinson sparked Michigan’s comeback with a personal 5-0 run after the Wolverines trailed by 13. Without those two shots (one a very difficult pull-up jumper) I don’t think Michigan comes close in this game. While he was fine offensively, he couldn’t stay on the floor due to picking up 4 fouls in 15 minutes. He’s been far more aggressive chasing steals this season, something that worked at Iowa but got him into foul trouble tonight.
  • DJ WilsonI wouldn’t have imagined it before the season, but DJ Wilson is the one guy that Michigan almost always needs on the floor. He finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks and a steal in 38 minutes. He might not have filled up the stat sheet offensively, but his energy on both ends of the floor is absolutely critical to the Wolverines.
  • Xavier SimpsonXavier Simpson had a few bright moments in the first half. He tossed a no-look dime to DJ Wilson against Penn State’s zone and also scored in the lane with a little floater. He finished with 2 points, 2 assists and a steal in 11 minutes and gave Michigan a much-needed first half boost with Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson in foul trouble.
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-RahkmanAbdur-Rahkman had a few bright moments, but he was just 2-of-7 from the floor in 21 minutes. He had some rough moments defensive in the first half, but deserves some credit for providing solid minutes late after Robinson’s fourth foul. He
  • Mark DonnalThis wasn’t a good night for Donnal, who got overpowered down low by Mike Watkins and Julian Moore. Donnal did score a key basket on a putback in the second half, but didn’t grab a defensive rebound in 11 minutes.
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  • robpollard

    Well…it was a win.

    I’m going to make a New Year’s resolution to be positive, whenever possible. So I will keep this short. I give the team credit for not giving up; that is a good thing.

    Continuing with that, I’m glad X got a bit more time and showed a bit more game. It’s coming, slowly.

    DJ Wilson is our most important player — if he plays well, we have a chance; if he doesn’t, we basically don’t against any sort of a good team.

    The only negative thing I will mention is I never, ever want to see Zak Irvin wave a teammate away (X in this case) so Zak can take a one-on-one three (which he bricked). It was bad offense, and a bad look.

    Onto Maryland.

    • A2MIKE

      X needs to play. I think he holds the key to the entire season. He is already the best defensively among Walton and MAAR. I think his vision gives this team something they sorely miss and it allows Walton to play SG more, which he is clearly more suited to do.

      • MAZS

        While I don’t think X is anywhere close to the “key to the entire season”, I agree he needs at least as much court time as he got last night. He may be TumTum incarnate on offense, but, also like Nairns, he is the best ball-on guard defender already—and should be in for MAAR in defensive situations down the stretch.

      • robpollard

        Well, not quite the key…that’s the continued development & production of Wilson and Wagner (and how it fits with the plateaued games of Irvin and Walton). But I agree it is important, for this *and* next year. I am glad that there was some time, in a competitive game, with the lineup we had been told about earlier in the season — X as PG and Walton as SG. JB needs to keep doing it.

        I also like X’s defense, particularly on the dribble, but he has some real limitations, in significant part due to his size. BTN had some tech issues last night, and went to a court-level camera for awhile, and it did show a play where X got taken down to the box and the Penn State player just lollipopped a pass over X’s head to the taller Penn State player that X was guarding, and that player got a layup.

        Not sure how, say, Isaiah Thomas handles such situations, but it will be an area of development (one of many).

        • I ended up taking it out of the preview, but Carr (PSU freshman who scored on X there) is actually really good posting up, something you don’t see a lot from a freshman PG.

          What I love about X is that the next defensive possession after that he picked up a steal an assist.

        • A2MIKE

          I should have explained that more. I think this team has a ceiling of 11-7 in conference and being on the comfortable side of the bubble as it stands now (think 7-8-9 seed). I think if X were to develop into a guy that could play 20 minutes per game, that ceiling improves to 13-5, outside contender in the B1G and a 4-5-6 seed depending on other factors. The line between 4-5-6 and 7-8-9 is usually 1-2 games overall and 1-2 big wins over other sweet 16 teams. It is not that much.

          I agree that developing Wagner and Wilson is just as important, but X gives this team something that it doesn’t currently have with his defensive ability and vision. It’s like picking up a free agent at the trade deadline.

  • Wayman Britt

    Just like everybody else trying to stay positive. It was good to get a win, but I am not sure about this team.

    I would hope the coaches work with the players on driving to the basket. It’s a new game the last two years, with a shorter shot clock and tighter fouls being called, teams must have players who can drive to the basket and finish.

  • malcolm bolt

    Very good write up Dylan. I like your objectivity and detail to this one. You covered a lot more than normal here – from mental hurdles, quality of leadership, energy or lack thereof, margins of victory and defeat. Many great intangibles mentioned.

  • Chezaroo

    “Like he was shooting bad shots to prove he was confident.”

    Never has a statement about a game been truer.

    • Mattski

      Well, Dylan can confirm, but D Walt has a pretty decent percentage from three. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the coaches are encouraging him to take his shots when he has them. Sometimes you DO have to keep putting them up. We all have a tendency to catastrophize the cold spells; then you look and see the percentages evening out. . . and not being all that terrible. My beef is that Walton has pretty much ceased to be a penetrator, which really limits him as a point guard. He and Zak play so many minutes–and actually have a pretty big load on D, as well. I’m not sure it’s completely fair to harp on them too much, given the circumstances. We just gotta get more from X and MAAR, and find places where Teske can be useful.

      • robpollard

        “My beef is that Walton has pretty much ceased to be a penetrator”

        Exactly. There were at least two times when he beat his man off the dribble, and he pulled back. I don’t get it.

        I know they have a lot on their plate, but executing “If you beat your man, go in for the layup or a dish to DJ or Wagner for the dunk” should not require a big mental load for a senior PG.

        • Mattski

          It’s true–he just does pull up sometimes when you think that a dash to the hoop either gets him a bucket or frees someone up. Dunno whether he just grew skittish over time, really is hampered, what.

          • robpollard

            It’s baffling, but it’s how he clearly plays, so the team needs to adjust. Too late to change him.

            At this point, I just want him to focus on what he can do well — outside shooting, rebounding — and improve where he slipped some — decision-making, sloppy ball-handling/passing, rebounding.

            Some of his dribbling and passing last night was freshman-like. He can do better, and I expect he will.

      • ChathaM

        Walton’s inability to penetrate to the basket is definitely a limiter for him. But then, he’s never been much of a finisher when he has penetrated.

  • Mattski

    Appreciate this. I note that D Walt expresses a lot of fondness for his coach in the Detroit News coverage this morning. I also noted with interest how Coach B hinted that the team has tended to lack fire this year, how encouraged he was by some of the intensity in the huddle by Zak and others down the stretch. This team has had a lot on its plate this year with the additional emphasis on D when the offense already requires a lot of teaching, and when the scoring emphasis has shifted a great deal; maybe just maybe it’s a team still on its way to gelling.

  • umnyc

    Good recap, and I second everyone’s frustration here, but at the end of the day it was a solid comeback win, and hopefully something to build on. I’m genuinely worried about our lack of depth (along with a million other issues) and the minutes the rotation is logging. Not sure its sustainable for an entire season. X seems to be playing better which is great, but if Lonergan is getting in games, that means that Watson isn’t even close to being able to contribute. Its also slightly painful to watch Winston immediately contribute at a high level in EL knowing that we had him in the mix, but I guess I have to move on from that. Lets see if we can carry over the intensity from the last 10mins this weekend against Maryland. DWalt usually plays his best against Trimble.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    ill take this W, we all know the negatives about this team…but good teams find ways to win…it would be nice to go 2-1 at least in the next 3 (Maryland, Illinois, Nebraska) before we get a dose of big ten powerhouse play with Wisco, MichState, Indiana…DJ Wilson definitely needs to be on the court for most of the game, hes turning out to be our most consistent player this year…which is a pleasant surprise…Wagner has also impressed….our seniors are who they are – i dont expect them to do anything different, if Walton/Irvin minimize mistakes it should keep us in games

  • Champswest

    It was the defense and hustle in the last 10 minutes that turned this game around and it mostly came from Wilson and Wagner. When we get stops we can run and when we play up tempo, we are a much better team.
    Hope last night signals an up tic in Simpons game.

  • ChathaM

    I rarely accuse a team of simply not playing as hard as their opponent, but I agree that PSU outworked us over the first 28 minutes. Combine that with the fact that they have an athletic advantage (per Beilein; not sure I completely buy that), and you get a 14 point deficit. After the game, part of me wanted to re-watch that final 12 minutes, as I wasn’t even sure how we managed to come back to win. I loved hearing that it was the players who sparked everything in that timeout, as that shows true growth. That’s the type of moment that successful teams look back on after the season as a turning point. I was happy for Walton and Irvin, for making numerous big plays down the stretch.

    I think we all knew that Beilein was not going to foul at the end, with the 3 point lead. He said in the post-game that he has never seen evidence of it being a more valid strategy than not fouling. I’m sure I recall various TV guys (Bilas for sure) say that fouling makes sense within a certain window; with less than 8 seconds left, or something like that. Now, just because someone like Bilas says something doesn’t make it true (understatement of the new year, I know), but I’m sure he and others have cited studies that reached that conclusion. Does anyone know of any?

    It seems to me that players hit 3’s in DJ’s face more than any other Wolverine. I replayed a couple of those instances last night, and DJ’s closeouts look really bad. His hands are often down, which would explain him allowing a relatively high 3-point percentage. Has anyone else noticed that?

    • Beilein’s point about potentially giving up a FT rebound makes sense to me… Michigan does it far too often.

      DJ’s close outs are not good. Beilein ripped him after UCLA (indirectly I believe) for closing out wrong and fouling three-point shooters.

  • Chris De Sana

    Walton is essentially a catch and shoot 2 guard. He can rarely beat his man off the dribble and on the defensive side of the ball struggles with the same. If or when X can contribute more minutes sliding him to the 2 spot will help them both and the team.

    We can agree that Moe needs to get stronger but many of his misses around the rim came due to poor and often late entry passes. He needs more opportunity either on the PNR or when he sets up on the block.

    Zak is most effective on the mini curl – elbow jumper – more so going right but has hi a few big shots even going left. So more motion more motion more motion would help get him those shots he knocks down with regularity.

    Robinson came up big hen needed; but your point that he simply has to stop with the reach in fouls is true. This team needs him on the court.

    DJ played within himself last night for the most part; this game is probably what we should expect more nights than not.

    Nice to see X step it up a little; lets keep building on it with more minutes.

    MAAR just seems out of sorts; everything seems to come with a hesitation this year.

    As with my comments with DJ this is probably what we should expect from Mark more nights than not; so lets keep him in the rotation but find minutes for Teske some how.

    • ChathaM

      I’d be fine with Teske taking some minutes. For the good things that Donnal does that Teske probably couldn’t (eg.- will take a charge), his combination of lack of size and athleticism really shows a number of times per game around the basket.

  • AC1997

    I think your point about toss-up games is exactly accurate. Michigan isn’t good enough to win games when they play poorly but they are good enough to steal games when they play well. We’re going to see a lot of close games and in those situations luck means a lot. For example:

    — Early in the game when Michigan started slow there were several 50-50 plays that went against them. Good shots that rimmed out, bounces, etc.
    — Rahk took back-to-back threes early in the game (made one) and on both he was run into when he came down to land. No call at all. I know they rarely call those fouls (hence Wisconsin’s defensive success for the past decade) but those were frustrating. You have to let a player land clean and he got contact both times.
    — After Duncan made a terrible pass for a steal he took a text-book charge and it was called a blocking foul instead. No way that was not a charge. Not only did that change the points there, but it resulted in his second foul and a trip to the bench for most of the half. HUGE.
    — I don’t know what Walton has to do in order to get a call going to the rim. You see guys all the time that get that “assumed foul” called when they go up for a layup, draw contact, and don’t get the hoop. Walton could lose an arm and wouldn’t get the call.

    Finally, I know DJ has exceeded even his parents’ expectations for him this year, but he annoyed me last night for how many times he tried to grab a rebound with one hand and lost it. I think most of their offensive rebounds were the result of DJ not doing a good job with positioning, timing, and hands.

  • PeteM

    Interesting. I was surprised at the number of blocks inside. Even if Watkins is an elite shot blocker I would like to see us go stronger to the basketball in hopes of drawing a foul.

    I thought Xavier looked improved.

    On the turnover late in the game where Irvin try to hit Mo under the basket — was that clearly on Zak or was Wagner partially at fault (either for being in the wrong spot or not moving)? I was at the game and couldn’t tell.

    • The pass to Moe seemed late and way too high/fast as it careened off the bottom of the backboard. There was an earlier one that was a split second late and Wagner ended up getting blocked.

      Beilein made an interesting comment that he wished he hadn’t told the team Watkins was a good shot blocker because they started looking for him instead of finishing.

      • robpollard

        This is all very good info, and to my view, on point, particularly about Irvin’s passing.

        That’s very interesting about Beilein — I think he’s right. In the future, they (meaning Wilson and Wagner) need to channel old school Bill Walton commentary and “throw it down, big man.”

    • ChathaM

      I thought that late turnover was a brilliant coaching move by Chambers. He had a very good idea of what we would do there, given how often Irvin ends up with the ball late in the offence, and the success Irvin had had throughout the game with the deep elbow jumper. Crashing that set by forcing Irvin out of range, and putting Irvin in position to make a quick decision, was just great coaching.