With 8 minutes left in Saturday's game between Michigan and Minnesota, a bizarre thing happened at Crisler Center. Michigan was down by 9 points, but the crowd started to get loud. And then louder. Derrick Walton knocked down two free throws, Zak Irvin made a layup and Ricky Doyle finished with a layup plus the foul to bring it to a 49-47 Minnesota lead. The roof nearly blew off Crisler. Michigan wasn't going to lose.
Minnesota battled back to cut it to a one possession game, but Caris LeVert stole the ball and Michigan called timeout. With 58 seconds left on the clock, Michigan had arguably its most important possession of the season. Score and seal the crucial victory, or miss or turn the ball over and give Minnesota a chance to steal the game. John Beilein, a man known for practicality and wisdom, called the gutsiest play of the season. Derrick Walton drove the ball, stopped just inside the free throw line, and Ricky Doyle jammed home the gorgeous feed from Walton. The most unlikely of heroes delivered the biggest play of the season.
After a few fouls and made free throws, Michigan was able to seal the victory, 62-57. The victory moved Michigan to 10-6 on the season and 3-1 in conference play, a huge turnaround given the disappointment of nonconference play. While Michigan should be thrilled with the victory, there are some keys that they can build off of and some areas for improvement for the rest of conference play.
The Big 3: It's not always the most effective, but the trio of Walton, Irvin and LeVert all must play well for Michigan to be competitive in any game. They scored 42 of Michigan's 62 yesterday, and all 3 played at least 35 minutes. LeVert is the leader of the team along with Spike Albrecht, but Walton and Irvin both hit pivotal shots to keep Michigan in the game down the stretch.
Ricky Doyle: Michigan needs a productive big man to stay relevant in the Big Ten. As we've seen with a team like Purdue, Michigan doesn't have the size or strength to be able to play with 7 footers like A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. However, Ricky Doyle seems to be the answer for now. Doyle had another strong game, finishing with 12 points and 6 rebounds in 26 great minutes of play. He finished the lob from Walton when it mattered most, and will be counted on to play in crunch time. The bad news? There's no help behind him. Mark Donnal played 11 minutes and had 4 rebounds, but did nothing offensively. Max Bielfeldt only played 3 minutes and was rendered essentially useless. Right now it's Doyle or bust.
The Bench: Speaking of lack of productivity, the Michigan bench yesterday was a non-factor. Donnal and Bielfeldt as mentioned above did very little. At the guard/wing spots, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Aubrey Dawkins and Kameron Chatman played 19 minutes total, grabbing 2 rebounds and shooting a combined 1-4 from the floor. While the big three are vital to Michigan, someone on the bench is going have to contribute more with Albrecht being inserted into the starting lineup.
Overall: Michigan should be thrilled with a win over a very talented Minnesota team. While they didn't shoot particularly well (4-18 on 3s, 40% overall), they forced Minnesota into 17 turnovers. Allowing 15 offensive rebounds is still a massive concern, and Minnesota gunner Joey King had space on nearly every possession in the short corner for an open 3. Coach Beilein will emphasize the importance of rotations and getting back on the weak side, but this is something that can be corrected.
Michigan has a quick turnaround for their next game, with a trip to Columbus to play Ohio State looming on Tuesday. The strength of this Buckeye team is in their backcourt, where freshman phenom D'Angelo Russell leads them. Russell was awful in their most recent game against Indiana, shooting 3-15 in a 69-66 loss. Regardless, Russell will keep shooting, averaging nearly 14 attempts a game, so Michigan is going to have to force Russell into bad shots. Whether Caris LeVert or Zak Irvin draws that assignment is yet to be seen, but Russell will be a tough cover for anyone as the southpaw averages 18 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Besides for Russell, backcourt mate Shannon Scott brings toughness and a high IQ at the point guard spot. Sophomore forward Marc Loving is developing into a great shooter and slasher, and Michigan could also have trouble with big man Amir Williams, as the Wolverines have had trouble with size all season. Off the bench, Kam Williams is averaging 8 points in 16 minutes of play, and Jae'Sean Tate averages 7 in 17 minutes. The key for Michigan will be limiting the effectiveness of Russell, Scott and Loving, not allowing Sam Thompson to have monster dunks to get the crowd into the game, and to not let Amir Williams get deep touches. If Michigan can do this, and it's a big if, they could find themselves in a position to leave Columbus with a victory. If not, it's back to the drawing board for Coach Beilein and company.