There was no sugar coating just how desperate Michigan was for a win on Tuesday night, and there’s no sugar coating just how emphatically it took care of business. The Wolverines ran the Spartans out of the Crisler Center en route to a 86-57 victory, their largest margin-of-victory in the rivalry since 1996.

It’s hard to play a perfect basketball game, but Michigan has now come close to doing just that in two of its last four games. Unfortunately the two games sandwiched in between were about as frustrating as the wins were impressive.

Playing in what could be the last game of his career against the Spartans, Derrick Walton — the only Michigan native in the Wolverine rotation — played one of the best games of his career with 20 points, 8 assists and five rebounds. He was excellent in East Lansing, but this time he finished the job by halftime.

Walton made big shot after big shot and when he needed a blow, true freshman Xavier Simpson checked in and played the best game of his career. The Wolverine point guards were the difference and they held Michigan State’s point guards to as many points (6) as turnovers (6) on just 2-of-9 shooting.

The barometer for whether Michigan’s offense is clicking is 2-point shooting percentage. The Wolverines don’t attempt many twos, but the ones that they take are usually easy baskets. Those easy twos were missing on Saturday, but they kept on flowing against the Spartans. Back cuts, transition layups, pick-and-roll drop offs, point guards driving to the rim — it was all there as the Wolverines went 22-of-32 inside the arc (69%).

Hot three-point shooting (10-of-21) helped open up the Spartan defense, but the early aggressiveness seemed to be contagious as the lead grew. Not much else mattered with Michigan making so many shots, but the low turnovers were nice to see after there had been a spike in silly giveaways in 3 of the last 4 games.

Scoring 1.29 points per possession is a great day, but this was arguably the best defensive game that Michigan has played all season. The Wolverines held the Spartans to just .86 points per possession and brought a different intensity than we’ve seen all season from the opening tip.

Michigan State turned the ball over on almost a third of its possessions and yes there were some ugly ones, but it was clear from early on that the Spartans weren’t comfortable against the U-M defense. Michigan’s help was active and aggressive, causing deflections, and it forced 4 shot clock violations — a sign of great defense. The Wolverines drew several offensive fouls, held their own on the defensive glass and did a great job of being prepared for Michigan State’s set actions.

The peripheral stats in this one are particularly telling: 34-34 points in the paint, 30-7 points off turnovers (30 points off of turnovers was the most in a Michigan game in 5 years), 22-16 points off the bench.

The NCAA Tournament situation hasn’t changed much for this group. Whether they are in, out, or directly on the bubble at any given time over the next month is moot, they just need to wing games — at least four and potentially five. If they manage that, they’ll find themselves in the NCAA Tournament.

Five of the final seven games are away from home and the two home games are against the league’s best teams. That’s no easy task, but if Michigan has proven it has the ceiling — now it needs to bring that effort a few more times.

Player Bullets:

  • Derrick Walton: The clock is ticking on Derrick Walton’s career, but he’s starting to put everything together in the nick of time. Walton’s performance was essentially flawless: 20 points, 4-of-7 on twos, 3-of-3 on threes, 3-of-3 at the line, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 turnover. Have yourself a night and take a bow, Derrick. At this moment in time, I’m not sure there’s a point guard in the Big Ten playing better basketball than Walton over the last four or five games, really since he picked up the first half technical at Illinois. Defensively, Walton did a great job of pressuring Winston, but also playing off of Nairn like a free safety to help in the lane.
  • Xavier Simpson: Simpson played easily the best 12 minutes of his young career and it was no secret who was lining up across from him. Simpson attacked the basket and was aggressive defensively, finishing with 7 points on 3-of-4 shooting (1-1 3pt) with 2 assists and a turnover. Beilein said the offense was simplified a bit when he was on the floor and the move paid off. I loved the Walton/Simpson lineups and if Simpson can give Michigan closer to 15 good minutes minutes per game rather than 5 average ones that would be a huge lift.
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-RahkmanHe hit a couple of early threes and started to fall in love with the shot, but there were stretches where he seemed to remember what he was all about and attacked the rim. He finished 4-of-4 inside the arc, made a couple of free throws and handed out 3 assists in easily one of his best Big Ten games of the season.
  • Moritz WagnerWatching Wagner play touches on just about every emotion. He gives you just about everything — good, bad and ridiculous. Michigan did a terrific job of getting him in positions where he could attack down hill whether it was off of cuts, rolls or face up drives and he finished with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting with 6 rebounds, two steals and three turnovers. The turnovers are a growing problem, the silly fouls (and ensuing reactions) are still frustrating, , and he has very little vision out of the post or when he’s driving. But Wagner just needs touches because he can make a game like this look routine. He also did a much better job against Ward defensively this time around and clearly got into his head based on the tripping incident.
  • Zak IrvinThere was a lot to like in Michigan’s win, but Zak Irvin’s disappearing act continued. Part of Irvin’s slump is the fact that Michigan is running almost everything through Walton at this point (a decision that should stick) and Irvin used only 8% of available possession tonight. But Irvin just doesn’t look himself as he scored 3 points on 1-of-5 shooting with 3 rebounds and a steal. His Big Ten numbers are ugly: 45% on twos, 26% on threes and Michigan is going to need him to find his way sooner than later.
  • DJ WilsonWilson started the game in a bit of a fog, but had a couple of emphatic dunks and started to bring more energy. I have no problem with the technical after dunking on Kenny Goins, but I’m also sure that transition defense after a big play was emphasized all weekend and that Beilein was upset.
  • Duncan Robinson: Robinson made 2-of-4 threes, but it was his two layups at the rim on great cuts that stood out. People are going to overplay him and those are the kind of baskets that he needs to score to make them pay. He played 21 minutes and also handed out an assist while not looking out of place with some tough defensive match ups.
  • Mark DonnalDonnal played 8 solid minutes for Michigan. He scored on a roll to the basket through contact and missed another one and also had a turnover on a post-up (those should probably be saved for when Wagner is on the floor). It wasn’t a great showing, but it was a step in the right direction.
  • Jon TeskeTeske earned some first half burn (4 minutes for the game) and didn’t look out of place. He grabbed a rebound and a steal late in garbage time as well.
  • One tidbit…. After tonight’s win, Michigan’s defense has moved up to 13th in the Big Ten. Out of the cellar.

    • AC1997

      Here’s something that I think got understated about the defense in the first half last night. When the game was close early, MSU got most of their points on dumb Michigan turnovers that lead to fast break points. You knew that wasn’t going to be sustainable. They also got two baskets early on crazy good plays by Bridges – something that also wasn’t a recipe for sustained offense. Otherwise they were taking long 2s and late clock threes.

      I did think MSU got some good looks in the second half and it was a good thing Michigan built a big lead or else it would have been tough.

  • jlustig22

    Unbelievable performance. Guess that’s what’s so frustrating about this team. They have destroyed pretty good teams in Marquette, SMU, Indiana and now MSU but then have quite a few stinkers in there too. The shots aren’t always going to fall like they did tonight but games like OSU and VT shouldn’t happen and that could what keeps us out of the tourney.

    Regardless, tonight was great. Can’t say enough about Walton. He’s been amazing lately. Great to see Simpson play so well. Hopefully that gives him a lot more confidence. Speaking of confidence, I think Irvin has lost his. We didn’t need him tonight but if we are going to make a run, we will need him to play a lot better.

    Mo was great tonight. He too is a frustrating player because he has so much ability but is pretty inconsistent. No question, he has a high ceiling though.

    As for MSU, the one guy on their team I don’t get is Langford. He is one of the more invisible players I’ve seen. Check his line tonight. All zeroes across the board except for one steal. That’s pretty hard to do in 16 minutes.

  • Wayman Britt

    Great win tonight. This team is capable. The challenge is to get them to play like this consistently. If they played defense like they did tonight all season long, we would all be arguing on this board about what seed they should be in the NCAA tourney.

  • rlcBlue

    Although Irvin did little offensively, I appreciated his defensive effort; each time Wilson fouled himself off the floor, I was worried that Bridges was going to explode and get Sparty back into the game. Zak didn’t let that happen.

    • Jack Simms

      i agree with ricblue’s comment—–looked to me like irvin put forth tremendous defensive effort against an on-the-verge-of-awesome bridges. [did you see that alley-oop/dunk in the second half?]

  • Barth Applefeld

    Developing consistency is very difficult for most (especially young and inexperienced) players. The biggest development is that Walton is becoming the star we hoped for when he was recruited and we have a go-to player (8 turnovers though). Zak should get a medal (MVP) for his willingness to be whatever his team needs. He is a very impressive young man.

    • GTFOmycourt

      I appreciate this comment. I hope Zak feels good about what he is contributing to the team because it is a real contribution…. He seems to be taking on a different role, perhaps because he is facing realities: Walton, MAAR, DJ, Wagner, Robinson and Donnal are all more efficient scorers than Zak. SO, in the future maybe Zak should shoot less? Time will tell but we might be best if ZAk is more of a role player….

      I have been impressed with MAAR’s improved 3 point shot….

      • A2MIKE

        Agree, but I think Zak will have one more stretch of great ball, just hope it isn’t too late.

  • AC1997

    What a strange team. Last season the team was basically perfectly predictable. They had no bad losses but would get beat up against good teams. This season they have looked as good as any team in 3 years in multiple games, and blown incredibly winnable games when they seem to forget how to run the offense or hustle on D.

    • Tony DeMaria

      It does give you some hope that they have a high ceiling. I could totally see them getting that spark that theyve shown more consistently and go 5-2 plus a couple of BTT wins to find themselves safe on Selection Sunday. I could also see them falling apart, going 2-5 and not even being on the bubble. Anything is possible.

  • Champswest

    I can’t figure this team out. When I think they are finally starting to play well, they play a terrible game. When I think they are going to get blown out, they blow the other team out. They sure keep it interesting.
    Am I the only one that did a fist pump when X made that first shot or yelled YES, when he hit the three? So glad to see him have some success.

    • A2MIKE

      I got up and fist pumped on the and one layup.

  • A2MIKE

    Looking forward… I wanted to post this. Beilein’s record on the road against B1G opponents (worst to best): Maryland 0-2; Ohio State 1-8; Wisconsin 1-7; Indiana 1-6; Michigan State 2-6; Purdue 3-5; Iowa 3-5; Illinois 4-5; Northwestern 4-3; Penn State 5-3; Minnesota 6-1; Rutgers 1-0; Nebraska 3-0.

    We have Indiana, Minnesota, Rutgers, Northwestern and Nebraska remaining. I know historical records don’t matter but 15-10 against those opponents on the road (and that includes 1-6 against Indiana). Just have to find 2-3 wins. I feel like Rutgers and Nebraska are must haves as Nebraska is probably going to slip out of the Kenpom top 100. I think we find a way, but what does everyone else think?

    • Good stats on the road records. The Barn has been good to U-M under Beilein. Tough games/opponents, but gotta get the job done eventually.

    • Tony DeMaria

      Gonna have to do better than 2 wins IMO. I definitely think we can beat Wisconsin or Purdue at home but by no means locks, so you should probably win 3 of the 5 road games. Although Michigan hasn’t won a true road game, we have 2 neutral court blowout wins against high majors, had to have some very unfortunate bounces to lose at Iowa and were very competitive at Wisconsin and MSU and could have won either. Now obviously the difference between good road teams and poor ones is the ability to close out games in a hostile environment and that’s been worryingly bad for a team led by seniors, but the only 2 road games I felt like we had ‘deer in the headlights’ look to us was at South Carolina and Illinois. UCLA we played fearless, but were at our defensive worst at that point. Wisconsin most people expected us to get destroyed but we were in that game to the very end, etc.

      Either way this is a really really weird team. Just when you think that you’ve figured them out they surprise you, sometimes in a good way sometimes in a bad way. I really can’t get a handle on how this team will finish. They have enough talent to go 4-3 or 5-2 but am just not convinced that they will at this point.

  • Chris De Sana

    Great win especially with so much on the line. The goods are numerous but they start with what seems to be a team that actually looked like they were having fun out there and that has to help. The shot clock violations are something we have not seen in a very long time, and how they elevated this team early in the game was great to see. As for the offense, well yes there were some late in the shot clock hero shots made but for the most part (in the first half) the ball never stopped and players were in constant motion. When that happens JB’s offense is a thing of beauty.

    A couple of items to clean for sure; low post turnovers by Moe. Stopped running the offense late in the second half. And of course Zak getting back on track would be helpful as they will need him.

  • MrLG

    My random comments:

    1. We catch a schedule break with Indiana. They have a big rivalry game with Purdue on Thursday, so they might be a little flat when they play us. Let’s hope for a triple overtime.

    2. Although UM is wildly inconsistent, they actually have a decent shot to win the B10 tournament. When they’re on, they’re good!

    3. Agree that Irving was VG defensively and I shouted out for X’s 3!

    • AA7596

      The B1G tournament is a fascinating proposition with this team. On the one hand, Beilein generally doesn’t fare well there—one finals appearance and I think only one other occasion (last year) where we won more than one game. When you ride starters like he does, it’s hard to get strong performances on back-to-backs.

      But on the other, this team clearly is capable of playing at a high level when motivated and confident. If the ball starts rolling, it might not stop.

      • Yeah the Big Ten Tourney has usually been one win and out other than 2014 and 2016 as far as I can remember. I would think Beilein’s record on day 1 is very good though.

        • jemblue

          Yeah, I think we’re perfect, or have just one loss, on day 1 of the BTT.

  • NbobBis

    If Irvins state of mind ever changes, he could go on a tear…. i’m not discounting it ….he’s motivated….
    but at some point he has to prove it to the coaches in practice i guess that things are now different.

  • bobohle

    I too leaped for joy at X’s play last night. I said before the season that I thought X would have a great career at Michigan. I still stand by that statement. The Tweeter said last night that the team did not look like they were having fun during warm ups. I replied that maybe they were really focused. I guess I was right this time. Anyway great team effort and let’s keep the ball rolling against IU on Sunday. IT’S GREAT TO BE A MICHIGAN WOLVERINE!