Can Michigan’s Flashes of Dominance Carry It to March?Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 9th, 2017
There are blowouts, and then there’s what Michigan did to Michigan State on Tuesday night. Not four days removed from a home loss to Ohio State, the Wolverines pummeled the Spartans 86-57, shooting 21-of-28 from the field in the first half, grabbing a quick 26-point lead and never looking back. The final margin tied Michigan State’s largest defeat in the rivalry’s long and illustrious history, a beatdown so thorough that Tom Izzo was hard-pressed to find any silver lining (“a complete meltdown,” he said). And it’s not the first time Michigan has crushed an NCAA Tournament-caliber opponent this season. On January 30, John Beilein’s club beat Indiana by 30 points; back in November, it toppled Marquette and SMU by 18 and 22 points, respectively. This team has proven capable of excellence when everything clicks. That “when,” though, has also been a major “if” this season, with the Wolverines just as prone to laying an egg as they are to winning by double-figures. With less than a month left in the regular season, the question now isn’t whether Michigan has the potential to do damage in the Big Dance; it’s whether it can remain consistent enough to get there.
For as superb as Michigan’s offense was earlier this week, its dominance was ignited and sustained on the defensive end. The Wolverines’ played with a clear sense of urgency on the perimeter, preventing Michigan State—a three-point-reliant team—from creating open looks behind the arc. The Spartans attempted just five threes in the first half and looked completely bewildered in their half-court sets, evidenced by three (and nearly five) shot-clock violations in the first 20 minutes alone. “We got late and lost. We just didn’t execute,” Izzo said afterward. All told, Michigan forced Izzo’s group into 21 turnovers at a whopping 31.8 percent turnover rate—by far the highest of any Wolverines’ opponent this season. Spartan super-freshman Miles Bridges alone accounted for five mishaps. The suffocating defensive effort was reminiscent of the Wolverines’ dominant performances against Illinois and Indiana in late January—and noticeably better than Saturday’s showing against the Buckeyes. “They understand there’s another level we can play at,” Beilein said, later adding, “When we show the video of this, it will be the defense that led to the fast break. The steals that led to the fast break.”
It’s that defensive ignition which enables the Wolverines to truly excel at the thing they do best: score points at an extremely high rate. On Tuesday, Michigan converted many of those 21 turnovers into made baskets,enabling its offense play with a confidence and ease that helped every other facet of its game thrive. “When you score in transition, everything’s easier,” point guard Derrick Walton noted. Michigan’s half-court sets were equally as sharp, with Walton and others using high ball-screens and dribble-penetration to consistently sink their teeth into the Spartans’ defense. Points near the basket and from the perimeter came in bunches: Wolverine forwards Mortiz Wagner and D.J. Wilson combined for 25 points on 9-of-11 2FG; from behind the arc, Michigan turned open kickouts into 11 made three-pointers, including eight in the first half. “The dribble-drives… we had some guys in there that couldn’t cover it,” Izzo lamented. What’s more, Walton—who has been outstanding in recent weeks—remained red-hot from the field and mistake-free with the ball in his hands. The senior finished with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, with eight assists and only one turnover. Against Ohio State, he tallied 25 points; in the team’s thrashing of Indiana, Walton had 20 points, five assists and zero turnovers. His shooting ability, aggressive penetration and sure-mindedness with the ball opened up much of Michigan’s offense in the opening stanza on Tuesday. “I think he’s playing the best basketball of his career,” Izzo said of the Detroit native. If Walton keeps it up, the Wolverines’ offense—already the Big Ten’s best (1.15 PPP)—will continue scorching the nets.
Michigan scored 1.53 and 1.30 points per possession against Indiana and Michigan State, respectively, simultaneously holding both the Hoosiers and Spartans to one of their worse offensive performances in conference play. Both efforts would have been good enough to beat, or at least contend with, nearly any team in college hoops. The problem, of course, is that the Wolverines haven’t been able to play like that consistently enough to establish a rock-solid NCAA Tournament resume. For every 30-point blowout against a quality team, there seems to be a clunker against an Ohio State or Illinois to match. Some of those clunkers are a testament to the difficulty of playing on the road (newsflash: road games are hard), but a lot of it seems simply to do with psychology. “We haven’t been happy with not taking the next step, pushing through the ceiling,” Beilein said of his team’s mindset in recent weeks. With Walton playing like an all-Big Ten point guard—win or lose—Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes may rest on its ability to generate inspired, urgent defensive efforts in non-rivalry games played outside of Ann Arbor. As of Wednesday, only 25 of the 105 brackets listed on The Bracket Project’s Bracket Matrix included the Wolverines in the field of 68. With home games left against the Big Ten’s best (Wisconsin and Purdue) and road games against several fellow bubble-dwellers (Indiana, Minnesota, and Northwestern) still on the schedule, though, Michigan has more than enough chances to play itself firmly into the field. “The chance for quality wins ahead of us—what an opportunity we have,” Beilein said. “These are great opportunities ahead of us.” Whether his team can make good on that opportunity depends on whether it can adhere to the coach’s most crucial statement of the night: “We just got to get that consistency.”