In the first half of Michigan’s road test against Illinois on January 11th, Derrick Walton Jr. bounced the ball toward the basket in a demonstrative manner, receiving a technical foul that propelled the fighting Illini to a big lead going into halftime. Little did Michigan know, this technical would be the catalyst to turn their season around.
In their next eight games, the Wolverines finished 5-3, with two of the losses coming on the road to Michigan State and Wisconsin and one horrid loss to Ohio State sandwiched somewhere in the middle. The difference-maker, however, has been Walton. The senior has averaged over 20 points per game during that stretch, and has taken over as the leader both vocally and on the floor.
While Walton is playing the best basketball of his career, fellow senior Zak Irvin is arguably playing some of his worst. In the last four games, Irvin has scored a total of 13 points, connecting on only four field goals. Irvin appears to be entirely in his own head, and John Beilein has no choice to play the struggling senior as Ibi Watson and Sean Lonergan are not viable options behind him at this point in the season.
While the two seniors will garner most of the headlines in their final campaign, it’s the pair of sophomores in the front court who have been the real stars for Michigan the entire season. Moritz Wagner has turned into a very serviceable two-way Big Ten player, bringing his averages to 12 points and 4 rebounds per game on the season.
D.J. Wilson is his front court partner in crime, as the Sacramento native fills up the stat sheet on both sides of the ball. Perhaps Wilson’s best attributes are on the defensive side, as the his ability to guard opposing forwards has been a welcome change that the Wolverines haven’t had in recent years.
Off the bench, the three rotational players have all settled nicely into their roles. Duncan Robinson has become the gunner off the bench, only averaging around 20 minutes per game but playing extremely effectively in this role. Robinson’s ability to come into the game and knock down a few quick shots in limited minutes can either bring Michigan back into a game or propel a lead they already have.
Mark Donnal’s veteran presence and Xavier Simpson’s emergence have come in even smaller doses than Robinson’s. Simpson can spell both Walton and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman for 10 minutes a game, just enough to give the experienced guards a rest. Donnal does the same behind Wagner, his minutes a little more erratic depending on the German’s foul trouble.
After two consecutive wins, Michigan finds itself in the driver’s seat for the NCAA Tournament with six regular season games remaining. This starts with Thursday’s clash against #10 Wisconsin (7:00, ESPN), a solid but unspectacular Badger team that finds itself in a ton of close games.
Wisconsin is led by three All-Big Ten quality players: Ethan Happ, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. Happ does all his work around the basket, having made only two career field goals from outside the paint. Koenig is a gunslinger from deep, and has made a ton of big shots over his career. Hayes started off as more of a 3-point shooter, but has looked to drive and pass the ball much more this season than in previous years.
Glue guys Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter join them in the starting lineup, providing energy and defense as well as the occasional 3-pointer. Off the bench, Wisconsin’s rotation still remains a mystery. Jordan Hill and D’Mitrik Trice split minutes at the point guard spot, Brevin Pritzl is used mostly at the end of games, and some combination of Khalil Iverson, Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen will back up the forwards.
This Wisconsin teams is so hard to beat because they rarely make turnovers, play solid defense, and have crunch-time players like Happ, Hayes and Koenig to make big plays down the stretch. Michigan needs a hot start, and if they can get Happ into foul trouble (which he’s prone to get into), it will allow Wagner and Wilson to make more plays inside.
Thursday’s game starts the road for Michigan to the NCAA Tournament. The recipe seems pretty simple: 4-2 and you’re in, 3-3 and you’re sweating, 2-4 and you’ll need to make a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament. Wolverine fans would prefer if Michigan could handle four of their last six, with all six truly winnable games.
Can Michigan pull it off? Absolutely. But crunch time starts now.