When Caris LeVert went down with an injury last year, Michigan was unequipped to make up his production. Derrick Walton Jr.'s lingering injury followed, and Michigan's nightmare start turned into a pretty poor ending, with the Wolverines ending the season at 16-16 and no form of postseason play.
With LeVert sidelined again, this version of Michigan seems to realize they're good enough to compete with the upper echelon of the Big Ten even without their star. Sure, this past week didn't provide the most difficult tests, and this upcoming week shouldn't really either, but winning in the Big Ten is difficult enough on its own, especially without someone like LeVert.
It starts with the maturation of all the guys who still are playing, upping their game to produce quality offense, stalwart defense and all-out effort. It begins and ends with Walton, the player who continues to have solid outings every time he steps out on the floor. There's no flash and beauty to Walton's game, but he finds way to be extremely productive when Michigan needs him.
This was apparent on Saturday, when Michigan's offense was crisp and flowing at times and stalled and appeared to be hot garbage at others. Walton finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, flirting with a triple-double again while competing extremely hard at the defensive end as well. His four turnovers are a concern, especially when he gets caught in a full-court trap, but his confidence has been unwavering throughout this entire stretch.
Michigan also had a monster game from their sharpshooter Duncan Robinson. The redshirt sophomore was awful against Minnesota (and that's probably putting it nicely), but responded extremely well, shooting 6-12 from the floor and 3-7 from 3 en route to 21 points. Robinson delivered the backbreaker, a gorgeous backdoor cut and dunk on a perfect pass from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The 6'8 guard slammed it down, the Michigan bench lost their mind, and the Wolverines just about locked up a major victory in Lincoln.
While Robinson provided the shooting and Walton just about everything else, neither player quite delivered inside like Mark Donnal. The junior center continues to play out of his mind, finishing with 14 points and four rebounds in 26 minutes. John Beilein is giving chances to the other big men, as Moritz Wagner played eight minutes and Ricky Doyle played six, but neither is having the type of production that Donnal continues to give the Wolverines.
Saturday's win at Nebraska was a huge victory, but Wednesday night almost proved to be an enormous setback for Michigan. Minnesota came to town with a whopping 6-12 record, and played like it for most of the game. But so did Michigan. In a slugfest with missed shots, awful turnovers and mistakes galore, the Wolverines were only able to escape the Golden Gophers because Minnesota kept shooting themselves in the foot.
Michigan relied on one solid performance and one that was completely aided by late free throw shooting. Zak Irvin finally took the keys to the Michigan offense and ran with it, scoring 19 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Irvin was 3-5 from behind the arc, and 8-17 shooting is solid enough considering how flat Michigan looked.
Walton managed to pad his stat sheet with 22 points and six rebounds, but 11-12 from the free throw line was mostly Minnesota extending the game until the bitter end and Walton continuing to be clutch from the line. His 5-13 shooting left something to be desired, but his rebounding and toughness was the main reason Beilein played him a team high 39 minutes.
Michigan gets to do it all over again Wednesday when they welcome the Rutgers Scarlet Knights to town, arguably the worst team in major college basketball. Like Minnesota, Rutgers remains winless in the Big Ten, with their last six defeats coming by at least double digits including a 50(!) point home loss to Purdue. Ouch.
The Scarlet Knights have been ravaged by injuries, but still have a couple of players who have been producing decent numbers this season. It starts with Corey Sanders, a 6'2" freshman who is averaging 14 points, four assists and three rebounds. Sophomore Mike Williams is right behind him with 12 points and four rebounds, but no other active Rutgers player averages double figures.
Sophomore D.J. Foreman provides size inside at 6'8" and averages eight points and six rebounds, but shouldn't pose a real threat inside for Michigan. Jonathan Laurent adds depth off the bench, but the loss of Ibrahima Diallo is a major one for a Rutgers team that doesn't have a true center.
This is a home game that Michigan absolutely needs to win, as Rutgers has been wedged somewhere between terrible and awful all season. While Wednesday's game should be an easy victory, Saturday's trip to New York City is a little trickier. Michigan somehow got put in a neutral site "away" game that will count as a home game for Penn State, featured as part of a doubleheader for hockey and basketball at Madison Square Garden.
These Wolverines have already seen Penn State, the first game without Caris LeVert in which Michigan's blistering hot shooting led them to a 79-56 victory. The challenges of traveling to New York could be a problem, but there's a massive Michigan New York alumni base that will be sure to come out for this game. This would be a potential trap game at the Bryce Jordan Center, but Michigan should be able to put away Penn State in New York if they can shut down Shep Garner and Brandon Taylor.
Overall, Michigan has a pretty easy week in the Big Ten. The Rutgers game is one that Michigan needs to get hot early and put the Scarlet Knights away before they have a chance to gain any momentum or confidence, and then Saturday's trip to New York should provide Michigan with a chance at a solid win on a neutral court. If Michigan can win both games, and they should, they set themselves up nicely for a major week following that features two home games against Indiana and Michigan State. But as always in the Big Ten, you have to win the ones in front of you first.