In late December, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein acknowledged what seemed like an inevitable truth: Zak Irvin might not return to 100 percent, in terms of health or rhythm, at any point during the 2015-16 season.
Tuesday, the junior forward made a simple assertion.
“I feel healthy,” Irvin said. “My body is 100 percent.”
At that point, Irvin barely had to say it. He had just scored 22 points during Michigan’s 70-67 stunner over No. 3 Maryland, playing with the confidence he had seemed to lack in the 15 games leading up to the breakthrough as he recovered from an offseason back surgery.
“We couldn’t guard him,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon.
Irvin’s confidence, and his irrepressible shot, were never more evident than with just under three minutes remaining in the game, as junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. clung to a defensive rebound as tightly as Michigan clung to its five-point lead. Beilein signaled to his point guard to play slowly and burn clock as he brought the Wolverines into their half-court set.
Irvin wasn’t having any of it. He received the ball from Walton at the top of the key, and knowing it was his night, he rose, off balance, and brought the house down with his third trey of the night.
Asked if he would have made, or even attempted, the same shot just two weeks ago, Irvin could only smile.
“I’m getting more confident each game,” he said. “I think I would have taken that shot, but I was definitely in a rhythm tonight, which made that shot easier.”
It was the proverbial dagger — the shot that gave Michigan its first win in five tries against ranked opponents this season. And while in a Beilein-designed utopia it might have come with 10 fewer seconds on the shot clock, Irvin recognized the opportunity when he saw it.
“I think everybody knows, once I see one go in, I feel like every one can go in,” Irvin said. “We have different options in that set, but I felt like I had enough room to be able to make the shot, and I did. It just felt good when it left my hand.”
For two months, Irvin had looked like a shell of his former self. After working for two years to do away with a longstanding label — “just a shooter” — the junior forward struggled in the early season to prove himself as even that. His 3-point percentages dipped into the low 20s, and his attempts from long range were often discernibly off target almost from the moment they left his hand.
The return to grace hasn’t been smooth — just as Irvin seemed to regain some semblance of a rhythm, senior guard Caris LeVert fell out of commission with a left leg injury. So the Wolverines have turned to Irvin, among others, to shoulder the scoring load, especially in Thursday’s 87-70 loss at Purdue. With redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson locked down by the Boilermakers’ Raphael Davis, the ball wound up in Irvin’s hands frequently.
It was to no avail. With the burden of LeVert’s scoring on his shoulders, Irvin shot just 2-for-10 from the field, and he said Tuesday that the pressure of playing in his home state took him out of the mindset he needed to be successful.
Against Maryland, it was a different story.
“He’s doing some things,” Beilein said. “He’s driving the ball to the basket. He’s driving it under control. That was a good night for him — a really good night for him — and if we can just get him (to play) with the consistency that he expects of himself, that will really help us.”
Michigan’s assistant coaches, as Beilein mentioned offhandedly after Tuesday’s game, call Irvin “big shot,” in reference to his reputation in high school and across youth leagues in his teenage years.
They might want to update the rationale behind the nickname, as Tuesday made it clear that Irvin still has his ability as a playmaker. Calling Irvin a big shot, at times like these, is only fair. Sometimes, and perhaps more often going forward, he acts like a big shot, and sometimes, he makes big shots.