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Michigan Needs Zak Irvin To Play Better To Get Back On Track

The Wolverines have struggled in their last few games and suffered shocking home defeats against Eastern Michigan University and New Jersey Institute of Technology. Michigan needs Zak Irvin to help reverse this trend.

Zak Irvin needs to play better for Michigan to improve.
Zak Irvin needs to play better for Michigan to improve.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Across the country, college basketball fans have been discussing one thing.  Surprisingly, that thing isn't the red hot start of high profile teams like Duke or Kentucky, but rather, the struggles of the Michigan Wolverines.  Despite sitting at an unremarkable 6-3, Michigan is what everyone is talking about right now.

Why have the Wolverines demanded such attention?  Well, Michigan has suffered two of the most shocking upsets of the season and one upset that could be one of the most amazing over the last few seasons.  Last Saturday, Michigan lost to the New Jersey Institute of Technology in a game that KenPom gave the Wolverines a 98% chance to win and on Tuesday, Michigan fell to Eastern Michigan, who had not beaten the Wolverines since 1997.  In fact, Michigan was projected to have just a 0.26% chance of losing to both EMU and NJIT.  To drop both of these games is not only astounding, but disheartening to virtually all Michigan fans.

There are, of course, some things to keep in mind for these upsets.  For one thing, these were non-conference games in December.  Simply with those factors, the impact of these games is limited.  Many also think that EMU could be a pretty good team this year.  It's just hard to place what these upsets will mean by the end of the season.  Still, our own Joshua Stern recently asked whether it was time for Michigan fans to "hit the panic button" for this team.  That might be a little dramatic, but these are the kind of things that happen when you lose to EMU and NJIT.

So where does Michigan go next?  How can the Wolverines move on from these losses?  Unfortunately for Michigan, they have an incredibly tough game this weekend on the road against Arizona.  On paper, this could be the most difficult game to win for Michigan all season and they get it after the program's worst two losses in at least the last few seasons.  Still, even with the game against Arizona, there has to be something Michigan can do going forward.

Obviously, there are always the traditional responses to these kind of upsets like "learning from your mistakes" and "working to improve," but one player to focus on in these two games has been Zak Irvin.  No team ever lost or won a game due to one player alone, but Irvin played an interesting role in the last two losses.

Coming into Michigan's game against NJIT, Zak Irvin was playing very well.  In fact, he was playing so well that some thought he could work his way into an All-Big Ten selection and be a guy that could push Michigan back to the level they played at last season.  Unfortunately for the Wolverines, he hit a wall in his last 2 games.  Just take a look at his basic offensive numbers.

Zak Irvin 2014-15 Stats:

2014-15

First 7 Games

NJIT & EMU

Minutes Per Game

34.4

38.5

Average Offense Rating

125.1

69.0

Points Per Game

17.7

7.5

Shooting Percentage

47.3%

21.7%

3PT %

42.5%

18.75%

Those numbers are not necessarily surprising, but they are still eye-grabbing.  We're talking about a player virtually cutting his offensive numbers in half while playing against arguably weaker teams.  Again, we cannot be sure on where EMU and NJIT will end up this season, but it seems unlikely they will be better than teams like Oregon, Syracuse, and Villanova - all three teams appeared in Michigan's first 7 games.

The other thing to note here is Irvin's impact on Michigan's team outside of his own struggles.  It would be one thing if Irvin simply could not play and sat on the bench for extended minutes, but Irvin has been playing.  He just has not been as effective when playing.  In fact, Irvin's minutes increased, his 3PT attempts tied for his 2nd highest all season at 8 per game, and his overall attempts were right around his season average.  Irvin has been a huge part of Michigan's rotation in the last 2 games, but only yielded 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 assist in the last 2 games against EMU and NJIT.  That's simply not going to cut it.

Irvin's struggles could be a slump or a sign of things to come, but it will be imperative for Irvin to improve his game as the season continues.  Michigan has a ton of youth upfront and needs the "Big Three" to contribute in the backcourt and on the wing.  Irvin can certainly have underwhelming games now and again, but if he is going to remain as the team's shooting threat he cannot do things like 3-16 from 3PT range in games against EMU and NJIT.  If he had simply converted anywhere close to his normal rate, Michigan has a good shot at winning at least one of those games.

Zak Irvin has the potential to be a great player for Michigan if he can improve his consistency.  He has been crucial to many victories for the Wolverines already in his young career, but his struggles over the last 2 games have been a huge piece in Michigan's back-to-back losses.  If he can get out of his shooting slump or become more active in other parts of the game, it would go a long way toward getting Michigan back on track.