Game 31: Michigan at Nebraska Recap

Dylan Burkhardt

Lincoln, Nebraska has been pretty kind to Derrick Walton over the years. He’s never lost a game against the Cornhuskers and scored the game-winning layup four years ago in the first Big Ten game of his career. Tonight, he played the last regular season game of his career and made it count with a record-setting performance and a blowout victory.

Walton dominated the game from the opening tip, leading his team to a 93-57 win, and set Michigan’s single-game assist record with 16 dimes. The 18 point, 16 rebound and 5 steal performance was just another notch in the belt for the senior point guard who has carried the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament over the last month.

Michigan left no doubt as it handed yet another team its worst loss of the season with the 36-point win. The Wolverines have accomplished that feat against 7 teams this season (H/T: Mark Snyder), and as I wrote earlier this week, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that they have as much upside as anyone in the Big Ten.

Michigan might be tied for 5th place in the final standings and have to play as an 8-seed this week in Washington D.C., but it outscored its opponents by more points per possession than everyone in the league other than Purdue.

That final efficiency margin table is the best endorsement that there is of just how high this team’s ceiling is in the postseason.

It’s easy to be awed by Michigan’s eye-popping offensive efficiency, but we’ve seen that plenty of times before. Holding Nebraska to .88 points per possession on the road is impressive and it is even more impressive when you consider how terribly the Wolverines defended Nebraska in the first meeting.

Tai Webster and Glynn Watson combined for 40 points on 21-of-35 shooting in that January shootout. They had 13 points on 5-of-17 shooting on Sunday night. Michigan’s pick-and-roll coverage has improved exponentially since those early ugly moments and this performance illustrated that improvement as well as any game yet. The Wolverines hedged, recovered and helped in the ball screen game and lived in the passing lane all night, forcing giveaways on 25% of Nebraska’s possessions.

Easy stops and turnovers are like kerosene for Michigan’s offense. It’s hard enough to stop the Wolverines in the half court, if you give them too many transition opportunities it becomes almost impossible. The Wolverines shot 74% on twos and 52% on threes for a nearly flawless 75.9 eFG%. Most of Michigan’s shot attempts were threes (14-of-27) or layups and dunks (12-of-14) and that is a recipe for easy offense and a reminder that the point guard might be pretty good.

Beating one of the league’s worst teams in a game that means very little isn’t worth getting too excited about, but this was also a coveted road win that all but cemented Michigan’s NCAA Tournament spot. And the Wolverines won it with style to prove that they had bounced back from the disappointment in Evanston earlier this week.

Michigan will open the Big Ten Tournament against Illinois on Thursday at noon, which is a match-up that many might not have hoped for when there was at one time the potential for a two-day bye, but it is also one that Michigan should be able to handle.

Player Bullets:

  • Derrick Walton: If Derrick Walton isn’t an All-Big Ten First Teamer (yes, ballots were due by 9 p.m. on Sunday night), there should be an investigation. John Beilein called him ‘Trey Burke-like’ in his post game and it is hard to argue. He was absolutely incredible down the stretch this year and this was a fitting ending. 18 points, 16 assists and 5 steals is an incredible stat line and he was dominant all night. He started the game with his passing, but quickly stretched Michigan’s lead in the second half by hitting an array of tough pull-up jumpers.
  • Zak IrvinIrvin made his first three of the night and made a big step toward righting the ship after his brutal recent slump. He had 15 points on an efficient 6-of-9 (3-5 3pt) shooting night and he looked as smooth and comfortable as he has in weeks. The jumper was pure and confident and he also grabbed four rebounds in a solid performance.
  • Moritz WagnerWagner only played 22 minutes due to some foul trouble, but he knocked in 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting and was confident with his three-point stroke (3-of-4) which opened up Nebraska’s defense in the pick-and-pop game. Wagner might not have had as many ISO looks, but his threat and ability to stretch the floor forces teams to make all sorts of tough decisions about how to defend the Wolverines.
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-RahkmanAbdur-Rahkman had a monster dunk in transition for the second game in a row and he continues to be a lethally efficient offensive option: 13 points on 5-of-7 (2-3 pt) shooting with with 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 assists while doing a terrific job defensively against Tai Webster.
  • DJ WilsonWilson was kind of sleepwalking in the first half and missed a couple of shots at the rim, but it was nice to see him knock in a few shots and score 7 points in the second half. He had some great help rotations in the pick-and-roll game, but Michigan is going to need some more from him down the stretch.
  • Duncan Robinson: Robinson will wrap up Big Ten play with the best offensive rating in the conference (131.1 points per 100 possessions) and shot 45% from three in league games. He knocked in 2-of-3 tonight, but also scored on a backcut and a really nice pull-up jumper.
  • Xavier SimpsonSimpson had 6 points, 2 rebounds and an assist in 10 minutes and it was pretty jarring to see the confidence that he played with when the backups were in the game late compared to what we saw early on this year. His confidence is clearly growing by the day and that bodes very well for the future.
  • Mark DonnalDonnal checked in and botched a couple of possessions, then he hit a three and turned his whole performance around. He had 9 points, 2 rebounds, a block and two steals in 14 minutes and was active on both ends of the floor.
  • We at least know that Miles voted Walton All-Big Ten first team

    • A2MIKE

      very odd press conference….

    • ChathaM

      Miles seems like such a good guy. I hope he keeps his job.

  • Champswest

    We won the game by 36 points.
    I saw posted elsewhere, that we have given 9 teams their worse loss of the season. Not sure which is true.
    Really glad to see us bounce back with a strong game. Pretty good effort by just about everyone.

    • Whoops, typo there on the margin.

      I was going off of Mark’s tweet

      I believe these are the teams:
      Maryland Eastern Shore
      Michigan State

      • MH_20

        Two additional worst loss of the season:

        – Central Arkansas by 44 points
        – Kennesaw State by 27 points

        • There ya go, make it 9.

          • Champswest

            That is really an amazing stat. I wonder how it compares to some of the all time great or dominant teams of all time, like the Indiana and Kentucky undefeated teams. I don’t imagine that this is a stat that has been captured.

  • Barth Applefeld

    Incredible growth in all areas from all the players both offensively and offensively! Only Zak struggles with his shooting some. If they all bring it for the rest of the year, they have a shot at winning B10 and making some noise in the NCAAs! Go Blue!

    • Ernie Silverthorn

      I truly believe, and was intending to post several weeks ago but didn’t, that I think the flu Zac suffered from midway through the B1G season really took it’s toll on him and contributed greatly to his slump. I’m just now recovering, after a three week stint with the flu, and while I”m a lot older and much less athletic than Zac, I can’t imagine going out and having to play at the level expected of Zac if he felt anywhere near as badly or as tired as I have felt. Last night he looked to be 100%. I continue to admire our seniors as young men and as MICHIGAN basketball players! Keep up the great work fellas!

      • Barth Applefeld

        Thanks for reminding me. The flu I had this year took two weeks for me to recover and I’m not playing basketball at a high level–not that I ever did.

  • Wayman Britt

    Great game and a good win. If this team hits their threes, they sure have potential.

  • AC1997

    I never thought Walton had this level of performance in him. Watching this offense with a star lead guard is really fun. I’m guessing it takes a step back next year despite the potential of the returning players.

    Two quick thoughts on your comments Dylan:

    1 – When Wagner’s first three goes in, watch out. But, I still wish he would remember that he’s 6’10” with post moves and not a spot-up jump shooter. They need to punish teams that switch by having Wagner take the guard to the post. They need to have him attack plodding big guys. Settling for threes isn’t a bad thing when you’re making over 42% of them, but it opens the doors for those rough games where his shot isn’t falling and he checks out a little.

    2 – Their defense was indeed very improved the entire game and especially on the ball screen. And that was with Donnal blowing about 3-4 possessions on defense where he was slow to recover, got out of position, or hacked the guy. If Wagner can stay on the court for 30 minutes, their D should be even better as he’s started to master the hedge.

  • Ernie Silverthorn

    I was particularly pleased with Dylan’s comment that Duncan Robinson “wrap(ped) up Big Ten play with the best offensive rating in the conference (131.1 points per 100 possessions) and shot 45% from three in league games.” I remember a few years ago when people on the forum questioned JB for taking a DIII player rather than another player we were recruiting at the time, one who, by the way had been given plenty of time to commit to Michigan. Some of those folks have continued to criticize this terrific young man saying he wouldn’t be able to get his shot off against elite competition, or he can’t put the ball on the floor, or all he can do is catch and shoot. He has most definitely improved in other areas of offense besides catching and shooting. Of course his defense has been, quite fairly, criticized. He is not an elite athlete but he has improved on defense dramatically as a result of hard work and basketball IQ. So, I really appreciate the vindication that I believe Duncan has EARNED.

    • Coltrane

      Robinson’s improvement has been really intriguing. Everything from his defense, to his court awareness, to how quickly he’s shown he can get his shot off. I think he’s going to be a vital part next season.

      • Ernie Silverthorn

        I agree with you, Coltrane!

    • Champswest

      Duncan for Sixth Man of the Year!

      • bobohle

        I second that!

      • mikey_mac

        If Robinson wins any “sixth man” type awards, he should give half of it to DJ Wilson. This is not meant to take anything away from Duncan’s season and improvement, which have both been impressive, but this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Wilson’s emergence and takeover of the starting role was huge for Robinson. This has given Robinson so much freedom offensively and massively lowered his burden defensively.

    • Harry Huntoon

      Well said, This guy is about one thing, winning. He could always shoot…he just doesn’t get that many shots in the current flow of things. A case can be made that he has earned more opportunities. As you point out, he is learning how to play defense at this level and has more than held his own during the last half of the Big Ten season.

  • gobluemd16

    Based on our efficiency margin and KenPom #’s, this team really should be the 2nd or 3rd best team in the conference — and at this point I truly think we are. Tonight was awesome and shows how great this team can be. The defense has REALLY improved. I believe we were ranked around 150 in defensive efficiency after the first 6 conference games. Since then, we have improved about 70 places. If only we had won one *or more* of those close road games (N’Western, Iowa, or Minnesota), we would be a top 4-5 seed in the BTT. I feel confident in us beating any team in the conference on a neutral court, except Purdue. Unfortunately, that is who we will have to go thru to get deep into the weekend. Hopefully, the additional game under our belts helps us early against them, if we are fortunate enough to beat Illinois.

    • ChathaM

      I would be fairly confident about a Purdue matchup. They’re probably the best team in the league, but we are at least as tough a matchup for them as they are for us. They really can’t play Haas if they want to defend our action the way they want to defend it (ie.- switching everything). If we get them on Friday, and we defend them the way we did in Ann Arbor, then that game would be a battle right to the buzzer.

    • AC1997

      It is difficult to quantify the difference between luck and skill in sports, but it is pretty easy to make an argument that Michigan was very unlucky this season in conference. They went 0-3 in games that were decided on the last possession of regulation (Iowa, Minn, Northwestern). They also lost the OSU game and fell to a Troll-center classic. That’s 0-5 in those games. If they go 3-2 they’re the #2 seed. If they go 4-1 they won the conference.

      In some ways that shows you their limitations and erratic behavior as a team. It also shows you that they’re capable of beating anyone, any time……including themselves.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    Great performance, and bounce back – end the season with a convincing performance – Walton has been the MVP in the last month and half…we have the ability to go on a nice run in the BigTen Tourny and NCAA tourny…we are a dangerous team, with a senior point guard…Vegas bookmakers has loved us all year, with their spreads – they saw something we didn’t early on in some disappointing losses lol would not be shocked if we win our goto the finals of BigTenTourny…go Blue!

  • Ernie Silverthorn

    I am so very happy for Derrick Walton. Again, like all of our players he is such an outstanding young man! He, too, has suffered criticism this year from some of our “fans”, who have said this team has no leader, this team has no “dog.” JB summed it up best last night, “Trey Burke like performance!” If Derrick Walton doesn’t have “dog” well, I guess I’ve never seen “dog.” So proud of you, young man, as I know your dad, and your coach, and the great, great majority of our fans are. Thanks! Now, let’s keep it going. This is your team, and Zac’s emerging to be right there with you! Leaders and Best! Go Blue!!!

    • ChathaM

      It’s great to see him having fun on the court. Even in that tough NW game, he looked like he was having a great time out there.

    • JimC_UM

      Yes and great to see Zak have such a great night too

  • bobohle

    IMO this team can pounce on you at anytime and put up fifteen points almost in the blink of an eye. It was also really intriguing to watch them make their switches defensively with crispness and speed throughout. No team is going to want to see us in the tourneys where there’s not much time to prepare. AHHHHHHH! Isn’t it GREAT TO BE A MICHIGAN WOLVERINE?

  • ChipperFliet

    Nice to see someone playing with a little swagger on this team finally. Better late than never. Go get ’em D Walt.

  • malcolm bolt

    Dylan, have you ever traveled on the same flight that the team has been on? If you have, how has that experience been en route to or from a game?