Michigan lets another road game slip away

Andrew Kahn

EVANSTON, Ill. — Some of the things that went wrong for Michigan down the stretch against Northwestern weren’t mistakes.

Derrick Walton drove to the hoop on Michigan’s second-to-last possession and wound up taking an off-balance shot, but he’d carried the team in the second half and had success getting in the lane. He didn’t settle for a contested jumper.

On the next trip, with the game still tied, Zak Irvin attempted a three, releasing the shot with under five seconds left. He could have drove, but he was open, had been making his jumpers, and had two teammates crashing the glass.

Some of the things that went wrong for Michigan down the stretch against Northwestern were mistakes.

They shot 11 for 17 from the line (65 percent), the third time in the last four games they’ve been well under their season average. The free throw numbers could have been improved by Moritz Wagner was denied the front end of a one-and-one with 2:10 remaining after Walton was called for a lane violation. While Northwestern’s final play was executed to perfection, defensive miscommunication didn’t help.

And so, the Wolverines found themselves on the wrong side of the greatest game in Northwestern basketball history. Whether they end up on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble is unknown.

So what could Michigan have done differently? Let’s go chronologically through the aforementioned plays. First, the lane violation. Michigan had no potential rebounders lined up as Wagner prepared to take the shot, which was fine by John Beilein. The coach was talking to Walton in front of the bench about how to handle the ensuing defensive possession.

“It was just odd because (the refs) kind of looked at me like they wanted us to have someone at the line,” Walton said. “The ref kind of gave me eye contact. Once I ran in to get on the line he threw the ball.”

“I thought (the ref) would at least hold the game,” Walton said when asked again about the violation. “Moe even looked at us like, ‘Why is no one at the line?'”

The violation occurred as soon as Walton stepped inside the three-point line after Wagner had received the ball. “That was a tough break,” Beilein said, “That’s a first.” While not the exact scenario, Notre Dame lost a 2012 NCAA Tournament game on a lane violation from someone not established on the block.

The way Welsh-Ryan Arena is set up, Beilein had a relatively long walk from his post-game press conference back to the locker room area. On the way, he was trying to make sense of the loss, and eventually ran into official Gene Steratore, who called the violation. Beilein asked for clarification and received it, offering no argument, if a little incredulity.

Next up: Irvin’s three. The senior had been playing really well, settling into a role where he doesn’t force anything but still contributes. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had grabbed the rebound at the other end with 10 seconds left. As he crossed half court, there were two defenders in front of him, and he hit Irvin on the left wing.

“I had an opening to take the shot,” Irvin said. “Thinking back on it, I didn’t realize there was that much time left on the clock. I wish I would have just drove the ball. … We were in the bonus, you never know what can happen.”

Beilein was fine with the play. “I wish Muhammad would have maybe kept going to the basket because they don’t want to foul at that point. I thought (Irvin) had a pretty good look at the basket. … I loved having Muhammad with the ball. We did get a good shot. It would have been fantastic if Zak could have made that; it didn’t happen.”

It was a good look, and perhaps should be left at that. The uncertainty of a ref’s whistle in the final seconds makes the choice difficult. Yes, as Beilein noted, Northwestern would be hesitant to foul and lose the game on free throws. But some coaches feel a player would have to get mugged in order for a foul to be called in the closing seconds, as refs are hesitant to “decide the game.”

Northwestern fans will recall forever that Irvin’s miss left 1.7 seconds on the clock. Each team used a timeout before the inbounds. Beilein was most concerned about Bryant McIntosh getting loose for a jumper.

“They ran a screen,” Walton said, describing the game-winning play. “We were supposed to be switching everything but I didn’t think we needed to switch. Me and DJ (Wilson) kind of looked at each other in the middle of the play, we hesitated, and that was all the difference. The ball went over my head and they had a layup.”

That the 6’1″ Walton was left to contend with 6’8″ Dererk Pardon was, well, not ideal. Walton is a good leaper with a nose for the ball (his defensive rebounding numbers support that), but he was scrambling towards Pardon as the ball was in flight and off balance. Sure, Beilein wishes he’d used an extra defender under the basket instead of guarding the passer, Nathan Taphorn, but that’s only with the benefit of hindsight.

“It was just a fantastic pass,” Beilein said. “Sometimes you just can’t—it reminded me of Christian Laettner’s shot. There are some things, you try to do everything you can. … But it was a perfect play.”

Remember, Northwestern was fighting for its NCAA Tournament life, too, having lost three of four and five of seven entering the game. The Wildcats gave Michigan some gifts, shooting just 8 of 13 from the line including three misses on the front ends of one-and-one tries down the stretch. While Walton’s lane violation was unfortunate, earlier he’d missed the front end of a one-and-one, only to have the refs incorrectly stop play, thinking a second shot was coming. As a result, Michigan was awarded possession and got a layup.

Beilein said his players were “devastated,” and they did appear stunned in post-game interviews, but no team is ever happy after a loss, especially one like this, in March. “That was just a tough one to swallow,” Irvin said.

And yet, Michigan must regroup for Sunday’s regular season finale at Nebraska. Michigan has two overtime road losses (Iowa, Minnesota), plus a three-point loss to Virginia Tech. Don’t forget the three-point wins over Texas and Penn State, though, or the nail-biting victory over Rutgers.

“We’ve got a lot of steel in our spine already,” Beilein said. “We don’t need any more. These kids will keep working on it. We’ve got to find positives out of this game.”

  • ChathaM

    “We were supposed to be switching everything but I didn’t think we needed to switch.” That’s a recipe for confusion. Whether or not you trust the strategy, doing your own thing, if even for a split second, can screw up the other 4 guys out there.

    • robpollard

      Beilein, who I like very much overall, is so atrocious at last second(s) defense it is inexplicable.

      – WTF was Zak Irvin giving two craps about the guy who would have received the ball 80 feet from the basket? UM should have been 100% fine with that person getting the ball. If NU can hit a one-dribble, 55-65 footer to win the game, so be it.
      – WTF is UM playing man and focused on “switching”? That is rock stupid.
      – This is essentially a football play. You should be playing a 1-2-2 zone (or something similar): 1 guy on the ball; 2 guys at half court; 2 guys around NU’s free throw line (one of these guys should be Wilson, your biggest “athlete” who can jump & jostle for a long pass that comes in the air).
      – There was zero freakin’ reason for Wilson to be anywhere past NU’s 3-point line. Zero.
      – The half court line area should have been defended by Irvin (instead of him wandering in no man’s land, guarding no one of consequence) and MAAR.
      – This isn’t the biggest thing, but you put your tallest guy on the ball (i.e., not Donnal). WTH wasn’t Wagner or Teske in there? Donnal has no hops and while taller than average, gives up at least a foot (in ultimate reach) to 7-footers.

      Beilein is like the Andy Reid of college basketball coaches. Just like Reid can not manage the clock at the end of close games, Beilein needs to task Donlan or someone to map out much smarter set of plans of 5 second or less situations.

      • MaizeBlue10

        “This isn’t the biggest thing, but you put your tallest guy on the ball
        (i.e., not Donnal). WTH wasn’t Wagner or Teske in there? Donnal has no
        hops and while taller than average, gives up at least a foot (in
        ultimate reach) to 7-footers.”


        It goes unnoticed, especially because the inbounder was far back. BUT, to me it speaks to not having a strategy or being prepared well for that last play. I legitimately don’t understand why Donnal was there versus Moe or Teske. One of those nobody will ask anymore but if anybody here has a reason why, I’d love to know! (And I love Beilein as our coach so I’m not a Beilein hater guy whatsoever)

        • rlcBlue

          I wondered where Teske was, too.

        • ChathaM

          I’ve been trying for a day to think of why he’d have seen Donnal as a better option than either of those taller guys, and I haven’t been able to dream up anything.

          • MaizeBlue10

            Unless I’m missing something on substitution rules, I completely agree there’s no reason he should’ve been out there. The ONLY thing I can think of, and it’s a huge stretch that doesn’t make sense, is for whatever reason they forgot it wasn’t after a score. Maybe they thought the inbounder could move along the baseline and Donnal is the quickest big.

  • ChipperFliet

    WHAT!? “Michigan had no potential Rebounder’s on a 1 & 1, and John Beilein was OK with that.”. C’mon man. Own up to it JB. He must have thought Moe was shooting 2.

    The official did look like he baited the M players though. Somebody ought to look into that. NW alumni, or Chi town resident I presume. I have seen it many times where an official will wait and let the team get into position.

  • robpollard

    There were many reasons for the loss, but I am so over a senior (Irvin) making dumb end of game decisions. “I didn’t realize there was that much time left on the clock” — what?? I just don’t think he really cared — he shot that, in rhythm, even though he was guarded and 3-feet behind the line. He, still, thinks those are good shots for him.

    C’mon man. As I (and many others) have said, deep threes are decidedly *not* your game. Quit doing it.

    (And another ding to Beilein: him saying that MAAR should have taken it to the hoop. Why? There were literally 3 defenders in front of him, and the other 2 were just off the side. It’s not a good play at the end of the game to try and dribble through basically the entire team unless you are a Harlem Globetrotter. I can’t believe Beilein didn’t see that and get the time out).

    • Coltrane

      MAAR didn’t push the ball aggressively, he slowed down and let the defense set up high. I would have liked to have seen him go harder or find Wagner cutting toward the basket.

      • robpollard

        Right. But I’m not sure MAAR has the confidence at this point. So as soon as Beilein saw MAAR was not pushing it, he should have been screaming for his players’ to call a timeout.

        But in the end, considering there was no timeout, Irvin should have simply rotated the ball to Robinson for three.
        – Robinson was just as open as Irvin (if not more), was closer, is a much better 3 point shooter, and it would have taken more time off the clock. And it’s sad our senior can’t see all those reasons at this point in his career.

        • ChathaM

          It’s fun, in a sick sort of way, to Zapruder that last UM possession. The main reason that Irvin got the ball, and took the shot, is that he was the only player who was not immediately picked up by the defence in transition. Law and one other defender (can’t tell who he is) were conscious of stopping the ball, and both did that, so MAAR didn’t have a one-on-one opportunity to drive. He spotted the open player (Irvin) immediately, and Irvin did get a good look while the NW defender was closing out. Robinson was not open (nor was he closer), as McIntosh stayed with him the entire way down the floor to the left corner. I believe that MAAR made the correct decision based on how the defence reacted. Irvin definitely had time to shot fake and drive for a pull-up jumper, but he didn’t realize it. I believe his only two realistic options were to shoot it, or shot fake and drive, as he only had one defender run at him. Everyone else stayed connected.

          • ChathaM

            OK, I’m now replying to myself, so I know I’m way too into this. I watched that sequence, and we had no timeouts left, so it was a pure flow play. My memory was telling me that Morris’ shot was about a 15 footer, but it wasn’t. It was more like an 8 footer, and it was incredibly makeable. And Novak was still wide open.

    • ChathaM

      I agree that an aggressive drive by MAAR wasn’t a good option, given the transition defence.

  • Indiana_Matt

    I just noticed that NW, MSU, Iowa and the Wolverines could all finish 10-8 in the conference (tied for 5th). Illini rallied to have a great shot at 9-9. I would like to see Groce get a chance to coach the good recruiting class he has coming next year.

  • A2MIKE

    So now we are locked into an 8 seed in the BTT. Probably play Illinois. Sunday just became must win.

    • What changed in terms of Sunday being a must win?

    • rlcBlue

      I don’t think so – if we beat Nebraska and Penn State beats Iowa, we’d get the 7 seed. I’d much rather we play Wisconsin in the quarterfinals than Purdue.