Throughout last season, Michigan fans were learning about a massive contingent of new players, forced to fill in due to injuries while others were simply freshmen learning on the fly. Fast-forward nearly one year, and the 2015-16 version of Michigan has already surpassed the win total from last season. Oh, and they've gone 6-2 the last eight games without superstar Caris LeVert.
This past week, Michigan played two of the bottom tier Big Ten teams, with games against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Penn State Nittany Lions. Rutgers has been dreadful this season, with their best RPI win coming against Farleigh Dickinson, who's RPI at 260 is only 40 spots below Rutgers.
The point is, Rutgers is bad. Wednesday night didn't help their cause, as they coughed up 14 turnovers and made consistently awful errors. The Scarlet Knights somehow led for the majority of the first half, but an Aubrey Dawkins 3-pointer and Mark Donnal free throws gave Michigan the lead they would never relinquish.
For Michigan, a few bright spots have been standing out in nearly every game during this stretch. On Wednesday, it was the veterans Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. taking command, as Walton finished with 14 points, four assists and three rebounds and Irvin had eight points, eight assists and twelve rebounds. Both players knew this was a game Michigan had to win, and while neither was perfect by any stretch, both provided an added level of confidence to this Michigan team.
Mark Donnal, Aubrey Dawkins and Duncan Robinson all finished in double figures, with Robinson going 4-9 on 3-pointers but a disappointing 5-14 overall including two airballs. Ricky Doyle played seven solid minutes, but the rotation without LeVert mostly remains the starting five, Dawkins off the bench and a big man to play spot minutes for Donnal.
The script remained the same on Saturday, as Michigan traveled to the friendly confines of Madison Square Garden to play a "road" game against Penn State. As a native New Yorker, I'm all for the Big Ten's eastern expansion to play games at MSG, but it does seem unfair that some teams are losing a home game to play on a neutral site. My suggestion would be to pick one of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge games to play on a neutral site, like the United Center in Chicago or the aforementioned MSG.
Michigan came out of the gate hot, with Zak Irvin playing the aggressor early. The Fishers, Indiana native wasn't phased by the bright lights, finishing with 20 points, two rebounds and an assist on 7-12 shooting. Irvin appears to be thriving as the alpha offensive player, and when LeVert comes back and needs rest, Irvin is more than capable of orchestrating the offense crisply.
When Irvin wasn't scoring, it was the Pennsylvania native Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman who took matters into his own hands. MAAR made tough shots all afternoon, hitting crafty floaters in the lane, making hard drives to the basket and finishing nearly everything he shot. The sophomore had 15 points and five rebounds in 35 minutes, and has been the biggest surprise since LeVert went down.
Mark Donnal finished with ten points and six rebounds, and Ricky Doyle played solid minutes off the bench to finish with five points and three rebounds. John Beilein always asks for 15 and 10 from his big guys, and these guys came just one rebound short but played extremely hard against the seven-footer Jordan Dickerson.
Late in the second half, Penn State had a stretch of three 3-pointers in a row, but despite that flurry, Michigan appeared to be in command of this one the entire time. In the past two weeks, Michigan had four games that they absolutely needed to win (and did) to stake their claim for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and to have a shot at winning the Big Ten. At 17-5 overall and 7-2 in the Big Ten, they're well on their way for both.
To improve seeding and their chances of winning the Big Ten, this is the week that really counts. On Tuesday night, professional arguer Tom Crean brings his Indiana Hoosiers to town to play the Wolverines. Michigan and Indiana have battled the last few seasons in the Big Ten, with Indiana generally getting the better of the Wolverines.
This version, however, features a lot of new faces. Michigan's biggest pain in the ass will be 6'10", 240 pound man-child Thomas Bryant. The freshman has been dominant this season when he gets his touches, shooting 72% from the floor while averaging 11 points and five rebounds. Bryant has a few post moves, but he's most lethal when he catches, turns over either shoulder and dunks. He's done that many times this season, and I wouldn't not be surprised to see Bryant throw down a dunk or two on Tuesday.
Alongside Bryant in the frontcourt is Troy Williams, a springy 6'7" junior who has been a tough matchup for Michigan in the past given his phenomenal athleticism. Collin Hartman and Robert Johnson also start for Indiana and have the ability to score, but Indiana's best player is Yogi Ferrell. The point guard is dynamite with the basketball and has become one of the best players in the Big Ten over his four years in Bloomington despite his diminutive stature.
The last guy who could pose a problem for Michigan is Max Bielfeldt, a former Michigan player who knows the Wolverines extremely well, and has been averaging eight points and five rebounds in over 17 minutes per game. Bielfeldt will be jacked up to be playing at Crisler Center against his former team that didn't want him to return for his graduate year.
For Michigan to win this game, they need to hit outside shots. Duncan Robinson has remained in a bit of a shooting slump, especially from 3-point range, and Michigan will likely need him to hit three or four to help spread the defense and get the crowd involved. Robinson's effectiveness helps free up Zak Irvin, who has been on a tear recently and will likely be guarded by Williams. Irvin is quicker, but Williams' length could pose a problem.
Inside, the Wolverines need an answer to stop Thomas Bryant. Bryant finished with 23 points on 11-13 shooting and eight rebounds against Minnesota. Sure, Minnesota is pretty bad and doesn't have a real inside presence, but Bryant has been doing that all season. Mark Donnal will have his hands full with Bryant early, but if the Wolverines can force him into foul trouble, it could be a big factor in the game.
Overall, Michigan has a phenomenal test Tuesday night against Indiana with a chance to move up even further in the Big Ten standings. This will be another gauge to see how good this Michigan team really is, regardless of whether Caris LeVert suits up or not. Having LeVert off the bench for 15 or 20 minutes could be a serious boost to Walton and MAAR, but even if he doesn't play, this team is fully prepared for the upper echelon of the Big Ten.