Five takeaways from Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament run

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan made it four wins in four days in Washington D.C. with a statement victory over Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon. The Wolverines knocked off the Badgers with critical late game execution, but the focus quickly shifted to Oklahoma State when the brackets were revealed.

We’ll get to Oklahoma State in time, but this was also a week that taught us a lot about what kind of team Michigan really is. Here’s a look back at the most important takeaways from Washington D.C:

This wasn’t that unexpected

Michigan is the lowest-seeded team to ever win the Big Ten Tournament, and top-four seeds have won all but one since 1998, but this wasn’t quite as unexpected as the seed may have indicated. The Wolverines’ seed was also a product of tiebreakers and an unbalanced schedule which doesn’t provide the most accurate picture.

Michigan was the second-best team in the conference to the efficiency metrics and those tend to be the most important predictor for success on a neutral floor. The Wolverines are now 6-0 on neutral sites and of those six wins five of them have come against NCAA Tournament teams.

Another impressive stat that was emphasized this weekend is that Michigan has won every game against a team that it has faced for the second or third time.

DJ Wilson at the five is here to stay

DJ Wilson has started to play more and more minutes at the five and he asked to guard Wisconsin big man Ethan Happ in the second half. Read that back, Wilson asked to guard one of the league’s best big men one-on-one in the second half. That would have sounded insane maybe just a couple of weeks ago.

“We thought we might have to double Happ,” Beilein explained after the game.”DJ Wilson, at halftime, said ‘I want Happ.’ That wasn’t me. What a difference he made. I made the point in the last couple of days with DJ and Mark (Donnal) that Zak (Irvin) and DJ are better post defenders at a smaller size because they use their feet better. Mark and Moe had to use their feet better and be quicker against the big giants — the Haases and Swanigans. DJ did that.”

In the middle of a second half in a critical NCAA Tournament game, Beilein isn’t going to hesitate to roll out Wilson at the five instead of Mark Donnal. It gives Michigan more offense and better mismatches, but he also now trusts the redshirt sophomore to make plays defensively.

Wilson had himself a game after he had struggled in Michigan’s previous meetings against Wisconsin and finished with 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, a block and a steal. Happ was just 2-of-8 from the floor in the second half.

Derrick Walton is Kemba-ing

There’s no other way to put it. Walton has put Michigan on his back. He’s been carrying the Wolverines and kept on carrying them on Sunday. He casually poured in a 22 point, 7 assists and 6 rebound game while icing it away at the free throw line.

Walton was named the Big Ten Tournament MVP and for good reason as he averaged 20.5 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per contest.

“We’ve had it with other players, but it came easier to them. He’s such an unselfish young man that he just wanted to have other people score the points. He would just facilitate things and we weren’t going to win if that was the situation. We kept preaching it to him and preaching it to him and right now he’s running this team. The game has slowed down for him really.”

Watching Walton bury stepback jumper after stepback jumper is impressive, but what’s most impressive is that he isn’t just shooting more shots, he’s also making them at a ridiculously impressive clip.

Zak Irvin is back

Irvin is averaging 14.8 points per game over the last five and his shooting splits are impressive at 22-of-31 on twos (71%) and 9 of 22 on threes (41%). He’s attacking the rim with confidence, but he’s also knocking in the jumpshots that he was struggling to make.

He hit some huge shots late against Wisconsin including a curling three-pointer late in the shot clock that helped extend Michigan’s lead after a Wisconsin run.

“He’s really just relaxed and let the game come to him,” Beilein explained. “But he’s worked really hard. He’s in the gym extra, when I want these guys off their feet… him and Duncan listen to me a lot, but they don’t listen to me about that. He’s in the gym making another hundred shots. He was very disappointed with some games where we needed him to make big shots and he didn’t. I think he heard the people that doubted him and I knew at some point he would make some big plays. That lob play to DJ Wilson was a great play for us.”

Irvin won the Purdue game down the stretch, but it wasn’t just one game. This has been an impressive stretch for the senior wing who has also emerged as Michigan’s best defender.

Defensive improvement is legit

Michigan played 265 defensive possessions in Washington D.C. and allowed 258 points. That’s just .97 points per possession and that’s a hell of an effort for a team that looked so defensively challenged a couple of months ago.

There have been signs of that defensive improvement over the last month, but they were sort of taken with a “yeah, but” and hard to believe. The truth is that Michigan’s defense has been closer to what we saw in D.C. than what we saw in Janaury for a while now, but this was the sort of stage that makes it feel legit.

“This team’s learning curve… With Billy’s defense, I think that was a big thing,” Beilein said.

The game is slowing down on both sides of the floor for Michigan and the defensive effort was obvious against Wisconsin, which managed just .93 points per possession against the Wolverines.

“Everybody just really worked hard,” Beilein said of the defensive performance. “Our defense was really good and this is Billy Donlon, Billy Donlon, Billy Donlon. He has great thought on some things that are not schematic, it’s just let’s emphasize this little thing here. Let’s do this a little bit more and it will work out.”

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  • Wayman Britt

    I like the idea of playing more of DJ at the five and less Donnal. DJ just has more to his overall game. UM can shorten the bench and go with X and Duncan as the subs, especially if they make it past the first game.

    • rlcBlue

      It’s going to depend on the matchups. The small ball lineup with Wilson at the 5 has been highly effective, especially for the offensive advantage Michigan gains; the keys are Wilson being able to defend the 5, Irvin the 4, and Robinson the 3. By now I hope every Michigan fan realizes how important Irvin’s defensive versatility has been, but Robinson’s defensive improvement is also significant: he’s not necessarily a glaring weakness now. However, it does still depend on the matchup. He’s proven he can hold his own against the Zak Showalters and Ryan Clines of the world, but we won’t want to see him against teams with real slashers at the 3.

  • MortimerOH

    What a great week, especially after the near-disaster…now I don’t want to fill out a bracket because I don’t want to jinx them!

  • Stephen Chang

    Massive win for this team!

  • Fab 5 Legends

    Fantastic week for Michigan basketball…#RevengeTour – no matter how far we go in the NCAA tourny…this will end up being a successful year for the team/Beilein – winning the BigTen tourny was huge! Add that to accomplishments of Beilein era…Walton/Irvin both playing up to potential we saw as seniors…Wagner/Wilson next 2 stars of UM…Rahkman, Robinson, X, Donnal have all contributed in their own way…we have the toughest bracket imo…seems like they had the bracket done before BigTen title game was over…we can definitely bust this bracket open…our momentum is at an all season high…Our Defense has stepped up, seniors are leading us and Beilein has been here before! Go Blue! Team of destiny? After airplane accident – what a story, and an exciting end to the season

  • MGoTweeter

    Truly special what this team has done. Hope the players realize the joy they have given to us fans. No matter what else happens this team, these players and coaches will always be remembered for what they overcame and accomplished.

    Very special thanks to Dylan and the whole staff for the amazing work they did this week. You guys add so much to the Michigan basketball experience.

    And lastly, I just want to apologize for a couple of my posts during the selection show. No excuse for me to hurt the image of this blog and Michigan fanbase.

    • ChathaM

      Yes, big thanks to Dylan and Co. for the coverage this weekend. You guys added a ton to the already great fan experience of watching this team overcome extreme adversity to become B1G champs.

  • Ernie Silverthorn

    Thanks, Dylan great article! I appreciate, as always, your ability to break down the statistics. It’s great to know that “Michigan was the second best team in the conference (according) to the efficiency metrics.” Even more important, it’s good to know the truth analytically in what are eyes have told us recently, that Michigan is becoming a very good defensive team. .97 points per possession certainly is a very nice improvement. I also appreciate that Coach B has given well deserved credit to Billy Donlan and our kids. I’m so pleased that Derrick and Zac are finally getting credit for the terrific job they are doing. They really have put this team on their backs. I’m so proud of those kids as I am of our entire team and coaching staff. Finally, DJ! “I want Happ!” I LOVE it! Again, thanks for a great article. I’m looking forward to more game previews, game summaries, and analytics as our season CONTINUES!

  • jakelam2116

    Living in DC, it was absolutely glorious being in Verizon Center for four straight wins and experiencing the championship. What an incredible journey for this team from the plane incident to confetti. What others have said is right – regardless of what happens going forward, this team gave us something special. Now dancing time.

  • bobohle

    Dylan: I too would like to thank you and your crew for the great job of reporting.

  • Barth Applefeld

    Fantastic job this year! Dylan playing the 5 was almost unimaginable, but this is his first true year playing. Same for Mo. Mark does the best he can, but his physical limits and lack of aggression are too limiting at times. It’s almost impossible to leave any of the 8 out: MAARs improvement offensively has been fantastic and DR’s improvement on defense has been significant if ultimately limited by quickness. It’s takes time with a new scheme: offensive or defensive.