Purdue coach Matt Painter waited eight minutes before sending Michigan’s nightmare onto the court: two men who, stacked one atop the other, would weigh 532 pounds and stand an inch shy of 14 feet tall.
Caleb Swanigan, at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, was more physically imposing than anybody on Michigan’s roster. Isaac Haas, at 7-foot-2 and 282 pounds, was just there as a redundancy measure.
With Michigan junior forward Zak Irvin, 35 pounds lighter and three inches shorter than Swanigan, and junior forward Mark Donnal, 42 pounds lighter and five inches shorter than Haas, attempting to guard them, respectively, the result was a predictable dismantling. The Wolverines (2-1 Big Ten, 12-4 overall) were eaten alive Thursday in their 87-70 loss, the fourth time this season they have crumbled in the face of larger opposition.
“Post defense is something that you try and work at,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “But when you play the best in the country at post offense, it’s an eye-opener. That didn’t help us.”
Irvin’s defensive play against Swanigan, as it turned out, was one of Michigan’s best individual efforts of the evening. However, the image of Irvin, known principally as a shooter and undersized as a power forward, that remained was him getting physical in the post with a 250-pound freshman.
Swanigan and Haas combined for 10 points and 14 rebounds, and the Boilermakers outperformed Michigan on the defensive glass, 30-19. Purdue’s other 7-footer, A.J. Hammons, did even more damage, scoring 17 points and recording four thunderous blocks.
“You can run some cute stuff and get right to the rim, and somebody’s sending you back,” Beilein said. “It really deflates you.”
Outgunned inside, Michigan’s only option was to win from behind the 3-point arc, a task made considerably more difficult by the absence of senior guard Caris LeVert, who missed his second consecutive game with a leg injury.
Redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson, who ranks sixth nationally in 3-point shooting percentage, was healthy. But with the defensive blanketing he received from Purdue’s Rapheal Davis, he might as well have been on the bench as well.
Davis, one of the country’s elite defenders, stuck to Robinson like ice on an unshoveled Ann Arbor sidewalk, holding him to five attempts from beyond the arc, two of which were desperation heaves with the shot clock winding down. Robinson did what he could, impressively nailing a transition 3 with a shooting motion that began before he landed in his preferred spot on the right wing. But his 10 points weren’t enough, especially with Irvin shooting a frigid 2-for-10 from the field.
“(Davis) is a really good defender,” Robinson said, offering little else by way of explanation. “That poses a challenge for us.”
With Michigan’s shooters either injured, locked down or unable to find twine, the outside game turned to two of the Wolverines’ own big men: Donnal and redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson, who combined to shoot 3-for-7 from 3-point range.
That was in line with the game plan, Beilein said. If the Wolverines could make one-third of their 3-point attempts, the strategy would prove a bargain against Purdue’s defensive efficiency rating of 83.6 points per 100 possessions, which leads the nation. The hope was for Michigan’s bigs to attempt between five and 10 shots from that range.
Wilson had attempted just 13 3-pointers this season before Thursday, the majority of which came in garbage time against markedly inferior non-conference opponents. He attempted five from beyond the arc Thursday, making only one. Donnal fared better, draining both of his attempts.
“Those guys, they can make ’em in practice,” Beilein said. “They’ve got to make them, obviously, at Mackey Arena, in front of a crowd.”
The formula could be one Michigan turns to more often, especially if size continues to limit the Wolverines’ inside presence and if a single perimeter defender like Davis can wreak havoc on their traditional, guard-based outside game. Even against Purdue’s impressive perimeter defense, Wilson and Donnal were reliably open from straightaway after early-possession ball screens. Whether that pair can consistently shoot 3-for-7 is a different discussion.