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Maybe Michigan isn't quite dead yet

1/25/2015

On Friday afternoon, Michigan held its usual pregame media availability, and the assembled reporters asked coach John Beilein some variation of a question he'd no doubt been asking himself: So, how do you stop Wisconsin?

Beilein didn't offer an answer. Instead, he rattled off the particulars of UW's starting lineup, describing the almost hilarious challenges it presents to opposing defenses. Wing Sam Dekker was "as good of a player as there is in the [Big Ten]." Center Frank Kaminsky is "one of their best passers, he's one of their best shooters, he's one of their best back-to-the-basket players"; Kaminsky would give Michigan "matchup nightmares no matter who is against him." Beilein said he had a game plan for the national player of the year candidate, but didn't sound too assured of its chances. By the end of it, his quotes almost doubled as sighs.

“We’ll do what we can do and hang in there as long as we can,” Beilein said. “If you hang in there as long as you can, you might be able to win it.”

And you know what? It almost kind of worked.

"Almost" because the Wolverines fell short in the end, in overtime, 69-64. This is Wisconsin, after all, a team that entered Saturday playing the best offense you'll find outside the NBA's Western Conference. This week, the Badgers destroyed Iowa to the tune of 82 points and one (incorrectly called!) turnover in 54 basically perfect possessions.

That impossibly balanced scoring Beilein talked about showed up Saturday, of course. Kaminsky finished with 22 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-13 shooting from the field and 6-of-8 from the line. Sam Dekker had 15 points and four boards; Bronson Koenig had 13 points and four assists; Nigel Hayes had 10 points on an unusually mediocre 3-of-10 shooting night, but pitched in five boards, three assists and two steals. With overtime factored in, Wisconsin ended up scoring about 1.2 points per trip, par for its elite course.

"Kind of" because, obviously, Michigan didn't stop the Badgers on the offensive end. Michigan did some nice things to keep Wisconsin off balance and out of rhythm, sure, but this wasn't a defensive stand for the ages.

Instead, Beilein's team surged forward on offense. This is actually the more encouraging sign.

For most of the 2014-15 season, Michigan has been an OK defensive team. (And better than OK against its Big Ten competition, though that did include Penn State, Northwestern and Rutgers in three of the first seven games.) Weirdly enough, for a team that led the nation in points per trip each of the past two seasons, the problems have come almost entirely when it attempts to put the ball in the basket.

The group of guards expected to emerge in the wake of Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III's departures has struggled in every meaningful way. Derrick Walton Jr. entered Saturday night shooting 32 percent from 2 and 33 percent from 3. Caris LeVert, the 6-foot-7 shooting guard who played fantastically alongside Stauskas last season, was shooting just 43 percent from 2-point range before his injury (more on that in a second). In his role as a catch-and-shooter, Zak Irvin, who had attempted just 88 2s to his 125 3s before Saturday, seemed to be leaving the benefits of his size and athleticism on the table. Throw in Michigan's lack of size -- and the corresponding absence of easy post buckets, offensive rebounds and the like -- and the result was a cold-shooting team stuck hoping for its shots to go in.

Even if everyone is healthy, that's hardly a recipe for success. Of course, everyone isn't healthy: Last Sunday, Michigan announced LeVert would miss the rest of the season with a fracture in his foot. The Wolverines' season had long since taken its ugliest turn. Now its leading scorer was gone for the year. Most news reports of the injury stated the obvious: Michigan's streak of five straight NCAA tournament runs was sure to end.

But Michigan's offense was unusually good Saturday. Walton -- who finished with 17 points and made the game-tying 3 with less than two seconds to play -- was more aggressive in attack than ever, earning eight of his team's 12 free throw attempts (and making seven). Irvin had a 3 and a nifty pullup over Kaminsky in quick succession as Michigan made its 9-0 run late in regulation. Little-used freshman Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored nine points on 3-of-4 shooting in 23 minutes, including a batch of confident stutter-step drives late in the game. Michigan's 1.09 points per trip weren't simply a product of better shooting, but better spacing, passing and shot selection.

Whether that can be sustained remains to be seen. Maybe Walton ends up working better with the ball in his hands more. Maybe Abdur-Rahkman is Beilein's next great random discovery. Maybe not. Either way, there was more promise in this loss than in most teams' wins. Consider what the Wolverines faced: the nation's best offensive team, coming off the best performance of that team's season, in a cruelly visible broadcast slot, in front of Michigan's own slightly depressed fans, where it already lost to the New Jersey Institute of Technology ... without its best player.

That Wisconsin won is not a surprise. That it needed overtime to do so is.

Overtime didn't pan out, but Beilein's game plan -- mix defenses, beat them off the dribble and "just hang in there as long as you can" -- worked. With Selection Sunday just seven weeks away, that game plan doubles as a fitting mantra for the rest of the Wolverines' seemingly doomed season. Michigan could still turn this thing around, if it can just hang on.