Minh Doan: The evidence was all there
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With less than two seconds left on the clock, Derrick Walton Jr. stepped back and put up a shot.
Unlike many times before in the last three weeks, the senior guard’s shot clanked front iron and rimmed out as the buzzer sounded.
Final score: Oregon 69, Michigan 68.
It marked the end of a magical three-week run for the Michigan men’s basketball team which saw the Wolverines win the Big Ten Tournament and advance to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
It was a run that saw them win in about every way possible, coming out victorious in a variety of methods including hot shooting, dominant big man play and stifling defense, among others.
For how successful Michigan was in March, though, it was a run that was unexpected by many, especially after the inconsistency the Wolverines showed during the year, and few gave them a chance at accomplishing what they did.
But even during those low points, all the evidence was there of Michigan’s capability to go on the run that it went on. The Wolverines just happened to put it all together in March.
Back in November, Michigan traveled to New York City to play in the 2K Classic. The Wolverines shot lights out — over 50 percent in both games — en route to victories over Marquette and Southern Methodist, two teams that would make the NCAA Tournament as No. 10 and No. 6 seeds, respectively, on the way to a 2K Classic title.
It was the first piece of evidence that Michigan was capable of being the team it has been the last three weeks.
Against SMU, Walton put up 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting from behind the arc, and it was on the back of fantastic shooting performances from Walton and Co. that carried the Wolverines to the Sweet 16.
But, more importantly, Michigan played fantastic defense, holding both opponents under 40 percent shooting, while shutting down both teams’ big men. Most notably, the American Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year, Mustang forward Semi Oljeleye, who averaged 19 points per game this season, was held to just 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting.
The tournament victory was the best evidence of Michigan’s capabilities, and the type of play that coach John Beilein referenced “getting back to” as the season progressed.
The next piece of evidence came about a month later, when the Wolverines traveled to California to take on then-No. 2 UCLA.
Michigan shot a blistering 65.5 percent from the field — 75 percent from behind the arc — and kept up with one of the best shooting teams in the country, taking a 50-50 tie into the halftime break.
While the Wolverines ran out of gas in the second half, losing 102-84, the game showed that Michigan was capable of sticking with the elite teams in the country, even if just for stretches at the time.
It was invaluable experience that helped them, especially against another elite team in No. 10 Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, when the Wolverines climbed back from an eight-point halftime deficit to win.
Michigan’s next piece of evidence came after the New Year, when Nebraska came to town.
The Cornhuskers featured two guards in Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr., who like to push the pace.
In a game that featured little-to-no defense — Nebraska scored 1.232 points per possession, while the Wolverines scored 1.338 — Michigan prevailed by simply outscoring its opponent.
It was a contest similar to the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament first round game against Oklahoma State, and at home on Jan. 14, Michigan proved that it could win an offensive track meet.
Sandwiched between the two big home victories against Indiana and Michigan State, in which the Wolverines showed their offensive prowess, Michigan traveled to East Lansing to take on Michigan State in a game that was the complete opposite.
The Wolverines lacked energy and their offense stalled, shooting just 33.9 percent. But one player who didn’t lack energy was Walton, who finished with 24 points while no other Michigan player finished with more than 10.
It was the first game that Walton carried the brunt of the Wolverines’ scoring, while his teammates struggled. The game was the first piece of evidence that Walton could be the team’s primary scorer and kickstarted a two-month period of dominant play from Michigan’s senior point guard.
While much of the evidence thus far in the season had been about the Wolverines’ offense, their improved defense was a key aspect of their March run.
And on Feb. 16 against Wisconsin, that was on full display.
With the Badgers sporting two dominant big men in forwards Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ, Michigan was up to a tall task in defending the duo.
In the first half, the Wolverines looked like they weren’t up to the task as Happ put up 18, looking unstoppable in the post.
But in the second half, Michigan double teamed him, with much of the work going to sophomore forward Moritz Wagner, redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson and senior wing Zak Irvin. With a new strategy, the Wolverines excelled, holding Happ to just four points in the second half.
Irvin, especially, played great help defense on Happ, and it was the first evidence of what assistant coach Billy Donlon called his “elite defense” over the course of the last two months of the season.
The last piece of evidence of Michigan’s capability of a March run came on Senior Day against Purdue.
Wagner, going up against an elite big man duo of Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan and 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas, the Berlin, Germany native had himself a game, scoring 20 points in the first half, on his way to what was a career-high 24 points before he broke that record against Louisville.
While there had been evidence of Wagner being able to score like he did against the Cardinals all year, it all came to fruition against Purdue. Wagner not only showed his 3-point shooting range, but also worked inside against the Boilermaker big men, as 15 of his 24 points in the paint.
For much of the season, Michigan’s play has teetered between fantastic and below-average.
The Wolverines have looked like world beaters against the best teams in the Big Ten, while looking lost against some of the Big Ten’s bottom feeders.
And while it’s easy for people to overreact as the season progresses, sometimes the Wolverines just haven’t looked like the team capable of pulling off a March run.
But more importantly, there were many times when they did look like a team that could play with the elite teams in the country.
And in March, they finally put it all together.
Doan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @_minhdoan.