For Michigan, it was a rollercoaster last seven days. With John Beilein continuing to be tight-lipped about Caris LeVert's injury, Wolverine players, coaches and fans continue to expect the senior to be sidelined until he can string together two or three consecutive practices without pain. As the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure, and Michigan's players seemed to respond in a big way.
On Thursday, Michigan faced one of their toughest opponents of the season in traveling to West Lafayette to play a monstrous Purdue team. It started off shockingly well, with the Wolverines playing poorly but still keeping Purdue at bay. A 23-19 Michigan lead with five minutes left in the first half crumbled to a 35-28 Purdue lead at the end of the half. As hard as they tried, too much Purdue interior play cost them the lead.
In the second half, the Boilermakers found their groove. A.J. Hammons was every bit as dominant as advertised, finishing with 17 points on 7-10 shooting, five rebounds, three assists and four blocks. Michigan's Achilles all season is interior play. For fans asking for John Beilein to recruit an A.J. Hammons or Isaac Haas type of player is just not his recruiting style, as Beilein opts for players who can stretch the floor and make the opponent have to guard the perimeter at all five positions. Against teams like Purdue, the motto becomes "make 15+ 3s or we can't win." Michigan hit 11; it wasn't enough.
While the loss turned into a humiliating 17-point defeat, there were some bright spots for Michigan along the way. Most importantly, the play of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was brilliant. MAAR was the only Michigan player who brought his hard hat against Purdue, knifing to the basket and making unbelievably difficult shots en route to 10-16 shooting and 25 points. His confidence has never wavered in his year and a half in Ann Arbor, and his tough-mindedness off the bench when LeVert comes back could elevate this Michigan team to the next level.
While Thursday provided a brutal test in the desolate farms of rural western Indiana, Tuesday gave Michigan a chance to play in front of their fans in the cozy confines of Crisler Center. Students were amped about the game since the schedule came out, as it gave them a first look at their beloved Wolverines during second semester. A 7:00 A.M. student section lineup to receive a number, followed by a 5:30 P.M. final lineup for a 9:00 P.M. tip was a cakewalk for the Maize Rage diehards. 12,000+ fans packed into Crisler, and they were ready for anything the #3 Maryland Terrapins could throw at them.
Let's be clear: Maryland is a phenomenal team. With the exception of Damonte Dodd and the inclusion of Diamond Stone, Maryland's top five performers are all potential NBA players with an array of skill and talent. They're long, active, play exciting basketball, and have been a cohesive unit all season. But Michigan didn't care, and came out of the gate firing.
A Zak Irvin jumper, Derrick Walton Jr. 3-pointer, Irvin 3-pointer and Duncan Robinson 3-pointer gave Michigan an 11-6 lead heading into the media timeout, with three of the Wolverines' best long range shooters already connecting.
Maryland battled in the first half, but Michigan was sizzling hot from the outside. Robinson knocked down four, Walton had one, Irvin added another and Abdur-Rahkman hit en route to eight first half three pointers. Despite the barrage, Maryland only trailed by eight.
As the Terps have done all season, they battled back. Stone, Robert Carter and Jake Layman were brilliant. Stone finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds, Layman had 18 and 10 and Carter finished with 15 and 3, with all three players making at least seven field goals. Perhaps most frustrating for Michigan fans was the pure dominance by Stone, muscling Michigan's bigs out of the way and finishing around the basket with a foul.
What matters though, all that matters, is how Michigan was able to close down the stretch. After the under-4 media timeout, the Wolverines scrambled during their final possessions. Irvin hit a wild, contested step-back three pointer, Walton hit a tough contested jumper, and after a mad scramble and a Mark Donnal offensive rebound, he stepped to the line and went 1-2. 3-point game, 14 seconds left. Rasheed Sulaimon found himself with enough space behind the arc, fired and came up just short. Michigan offensive rebound, ballgame, 70-67 victory.
There are so many things to dissect from this game that Michigan did extremely well and some things that were plain awful. Starting with the negatives, Maryland's frontcourt had their way with Michigan's. Stone, Carter and Layman finished 21-34 or 62% shooting, and their combined rebounds were just three less than Michigan's entire team (27 to 24). On three of their first possessions, the Terps snagged offensive rebounds on long jumpers and turned them into points, an area that Michigan has struggled with all season.
On the positive side for Michigan, you have start with Maryland's backcourt. Sulaimon finished only 3-10 with eight points, five rebounds and three turnovers, and arguably one of the best players in the country, Melo Trimble, only scored two points on 1-7 shooting to go along with three assists and four turnovers. Michigan must have realized they were going to get battered inside, and did a phenomenal job at stopping the Terrapin backcourt, especially Trimble.
Within Maryland's backcourt, I could not figure out why Mark Turgeon insisted on playing Varun Ram for 14 minutes, especially during crunch time. Ram was awful, finishing 0-2 with two fouls and an assist. With Jaylen Brantley at his disposal, it's mind-boggling to think that Turgeon opted for a 5'9" guard who has played in forty minutes total this season. Beilein kept attacking Ram when Walton had the ball, and not having a taller, better player like Brantley in the game seemed to be a horrible decision, especially down the stretch.
Looking at Michigan, the 3-pointer did wonders for the men in Maize and Blue again tonight. They connected on 12, but only four in the second half, and I think this caused the offense to become incredibly stagnant. The only real positive to come out of the missed 3s was Duncan Robinson making a great move to finish on a reverse layup, another wrinkle in his game he continues to showcase.
While Robinson was the long-range bomber in the first half, the two players of the game are the two juniors, Walton and Irvin. Starting with Irvin, he realized this was the game he had to offensively take over, and did so in a major way. Struggling with his long-range jumper all season, Irvin looked smooth finishing with 22 points on 8-14 shooting. It's bizarre that it took Irvin this long to find his stroke, especially against Maryland, but his offensive play is going to be key going forward.
While Irvin was the marksmen, Walton was the catalyst. He kept the Maryland guards in check all game, hit a monster jumper down the stretch and grabbed ten rebounds. Walton seemed to be in the right places throughout the game, and it's clear that his toe injury from last year is a thing of the past. LeVert is the quiet leader, Irvin is the gifted scorer, Robinson is the shooter, but Walton provides grittiness and brass balls that Michigan desperately needs. Without Walton, Michigan loses this game by double digits.
Overall, it was quite a last seven days for Michigan. I expected Michigan to finish 1-1 even without LeVert, and that's just what they did, but they proved to fans around the country that they mean business. The 3-pointer continues to be the great equalizer, but on Tuesday night, it was ultimately defense down the stretch that won them the game.
Sunday provides another phenomenal test against a scorching hot Iowa team. But beating Maryland, the #3 team in the country with only one loss coming into the game, the Iowa game doesn't become "must-win". At the very least, it will give Michigan another great gauge to see where they are even if LeVert doesn't play. At 13-4, Michigan is finally starting to find their groove. Just wait until Caris comes back.