With two regular season games left, Michigan has managed to turn its season from one in which the NCAA Tournament appeared to be a far-reaching thought into a legitimate late-season contender. The Wolverines have done it with a combination of shooting and defense, and this late season propel has been spurred by players in varying roles.
This Michigan team still starts with Derrick Walton Jr., a senior playing in his final games while adding new wrinkles every time he steps on the floor. Michigan’s leader did everything in the Wolverines’ last outing, finishing with 17 points, 11 rebounds and five assists against Purdue, one of the best 15 teams in the country. Walton’s impact g,moes beyond his statistical contributions, as the senior’s leadership and other intangible qualities have become the motivating force behind Michigan’s dramatic late season push.
While Walton stars in the backcourt, I’d be remiss not to discuss the theatrics of German sharpshooter Moritz Wagner. The kid is playing out of his mind right now, as he knocked down four 3-pointers and 10 shots overall en route to 24 points against a mammoth Purdue frontline. His ability to shoot and put the ball on the floor continue to make him one of the toughest big man covers in the Big Ten, but perhaps his defensive ability on Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas were ultimately more valuable than his scoring output for Michigan going forward.
ICYMI: @umichbball sent the seniors off right by knocking off No. 14 Purdue: https://t.co/j39ZRZ0BOj— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) February 26, 2017
The less-heralded stars? Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman continues to attack the basket with reckless abandon and is returning to his ability as a major scoring threat. D.J. Wilson is Michigan’s glue guy, grabbing rebounds, playing defense with his 7-foot plus wingspan, and knocking down occasional shots when Michigan needs it. Duncan Robinson seems to have found his role, perfecting the niche bench shooter job into something of a science. Even Xavier Simpson has found a bit of a groove, proving to be a viable option behind Walton and Abdur-Rahkman.
The big question mark, however, remains in the hands of Zak Irvin. On his senior day, Irvin was only 2-8 with four points, two rebounds and an assist. It’s unclear whether this is genuinely affecting Irvin, or if he’s finding other ways to contribute by moving the ball around and playing solid defense. If Michigan really wants to make a deep run, they’re probably going to need double-figure scoring from Irvin down the stretch.
Despite’s Irvin less-than-stellar play, Michigan finds itself in a great position to continue their torrid pace. They travel to Evanston tonight to play a Northwestern team that has been trending in exactly the opposite direction as the Wolverines. Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsay are all proven high-caliber players, and playing on their home floor should give the Wildcats major confidence in their quest to make their first ever NCAA Tournament.
What can Michigan do in the last week to keep this going? First and foremost, Walton needs to lead them tonight in what will be a raucous Welsh-Ryan Arena (I’m not sure if Welsh-Ryan has ever been called that, but I can only imagine how insane it will be tonight.) Wagner needs to keep getting a large number of touches, but should look to drive the ball more instead of settling for 3-pointers, as the big man hoisted eight in the last game.
For this Michigan club though, it ultimately comes down to defense. Against Purdue, the Wolverines were at their best when the defense was leading to easy runouts, open 3s, and a barrage of transition attempts that quality defense opens up. If they can pull out tonight’s game and Sunday’s equally-important tilt against Nebraska in Lincoln, there might not be a hotter team in the country come tournament time than Michigan.