Last Wednesday night, I called Professor Thom's, a Michigan bar in Manhattan, to see if they would have coverage of the Michigan-UConn game. As luck would have it, they somehow carried AXS TV, Mark Cuban's nonsensical TV channel that is probably watched as often as TruTV. I got to the bar for the 9:30 tip off, but it turned out my two beers weren't enough to watch this game. Michigan was awful, missing open jumpers, allowing the Huskies to score at will, and getting destroyed on the offensive glass. It finished 78-60 to the Huskies, but it could have been more like a 25 or 30-point loss.
The performance overall was a disaster, but even worse was that Michigan's loss meant the final two games for Michigan would be shown on AXS and not ESPN like the winner's bracket. Maybe it was the lack of people watching or getting absolutely bullied by UConn, but something sparked the Wolverines to actually play real basketball. The next night, Michigan manhandled Charlotte, granted the worst team in the tournament. The Wolverines finished with 102 points, lit it up from the outside, and held the 49ers to 47 points. The 55-point victory and 102-point performance were both tournament records, and Michigan simply balled out.
Perhaps the best showing from this game was the emergence of German freshman Moritz Wagner, Michigan's enthusiastic Bavarian and my favorite player by a lot on this team. Wagner has been the catalyst on the bench this season, yelling and screaming, encouraging his teammates and just loving life as a freshman in America. On Thursday, he showed he meant business on the court too. Wagner started the game with two gorgeous dribble-drives from the top of the arc, finishing both with his left hand and getting fouled on both. As he normally does, he yelled, clapped his hands and drained both free throws. Wagner had a few more layups, drained a 3 and pranced around en route to a phenomenal 19-point performance. It was just what Michigan needed, and proved to both Michigan fans and basketball fans around the country that Wagner has real star potential.
On Friday night, while most Michigan fans snuck into bed early to wake up for "The Game", I found myself glued to my computer watching Michigan for the third day in a row, this time against Texas. The first half was a clinic in shooting, as Michigan hit 11 of 17 3's and finished with 13 overall. The first half was an offensive domination, as Michigan scored 44 points and then stumbled to 32 in the second half, escaping a late Texas run to win 78-72.
Michigan came away with a few awesome discoveries. It seems that Ricky Doyle will be Michigan's starting center as of now, but knowing that Moritz Wagner is an offensive stud off the bench and Mark Donnal can play spot minutes (as he did well against Texas) is a great sign. Duncan Robinson continues to display his offensive sorcery, as he's a knockdown shooter, is a great passer, and even rebounded well. As of now, Wagner and Robinson seem to be the best weapons off the bench, but knowing that D.J. Wilson and MAAR can play in a bind are good for Michigan and John Beilein.
While Michigan has these two shiny new toys off the bench, one key bench piece remains a question mark still. Senior guard Spike Albrecht seems to be hurting, and only played 4 minutes against UConn and 10 minutes against Charlotte (all in garbage time) before sitting out entirely against Texas. In the 49 minutes Albrecht has played this season, he only has 12 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. For a player that normally fills the stat sheet much more, it has to be concerning to Michigan that Albrecht is not back to full strength yet following his offseason surgery.
Albrecht has not gotten back in the fold just yet, but marksman Zak Irvin is rounding into form. Irvin played 20 minutes or more in every game in the Bahamas, including 32 minutes in a 5-8 performance for 13 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds against Texas. Irvin finally seems confident moving around the corner, and expect his dreadful 18% 3-point shooting to improve markedly as the season goes on.
Another player rounding into form for Michigan is Derrick Walton, as the junior continues to put up great numbers across the board. Against Texas, he dominated the game without forcing anything, finishing with 13 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals in 36 excellent minutes. Hopefully Spike's return can help limit some of Walton's minutes, but right now Walton seems to playing great basketball, including a wildly hot 14-22 on 3s for nearly 64%.
While every other Michigan player has struggled at some point this season, the one constant for Michigan is the star of the team, Caris LeVert. I'd be insane not to include LeVert somewhere in here, and LeVert kept the Michigan engine running. In a game against UConn where almost nothing went right, LeVert finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists. LeVert is shooting nearly 54% from the floor and 56% from 3 on 25 attempts. His confidence is back, his numbers are great, and he continues to lead Michigan.
While the Bahamas trip was a moderate success, Tuesday night's victory over NC State gave Michigan fans a glimpse into how tough and gritty this team can be in pulling out road victories. The team didn't shoot the ball particularly well, but the Wolverines got contributions from a variety of players.
Starting with LeVert, he was back to his usual self, finishing with 18 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, including 9-10 from the free throw line. LeVert seems to be settling into the role of running the team, especially given Derrick's Walton injury in the second half. He was the only starter to finish in double figures, and it could be argued that LeVert, Irvin and three bench pieces were the key to the victory.
Not missing a beat, Duncan Robinson continues to fire at a crazy rate. The Division III transfer made 5 of 7 3's again to finish with 17 points, and his defense and rebounding continue to improve as well. German freshman Moritz Wagner continues to impress as well, scoring 8 points, including a tough finish in the first half and a gorgeous ball fake leading into a vicious slam. It's unclear if Wagner will earn a start this season, but his energy off the bench is infectious. Lastly, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman came off the bench to replace Walton and was outstanding in the second half, finishing with a +/- of 27 in 25 minutes.
Overall, this Michigan team proved it could win on the road when its shooting let them down. Ricky Doyle seems to be the starting solution at center, with Wagner spelling him off the bench to play around 20 or 25 minutes, and Duncan Robinson is proving he can be one of the best shooters in the entire country. If this team can make its shots and steal some wins on the road, they have a shot to win the Big Ten.