Zak is Back
If calling bank was all it took, Zak Irvin would have said it a lot sooner.
With the shot clock approaching zero, the senior wing launched a prayer. Given Irvin’s recent slump over Michigan’s last four games entering Thursday’s tie with Wisconsin — in which he’s averaged 3.25 points per game — nobody thought Irvin’s heave was going anywhere near the twine below the rim.
But Irvin got just enough power and accuracy on his shot that a kiss off the glass of the backboard was enough for it to fall through the hoop.
As Irvin turned around, he gave off a shrug in disbelief. Who would have thought that out of all the shots he has missed of late, the one that seemed most improbable would actually go in?
It turned out that all Irvin needed was a trip to the bank to get back to his true scoring self.
The senior followed that shot with a couple more smooth jump shots and an uncharacteristic two-handed dunk off a fast break. All of those buckets proved to be crucial down the stretch as the Wolverines were able to pull out the 64-58 win over the Badgers.
“When I made in that bank shot, I was so relieved after it went in,” Irvin said. “I think that really got me going in the second half. It’s a great feeling.“
Irvin knew it was only a matter of time before he’d be able to bounce back and rediscover his form.
After his four-game streak of underwhelming performances, Irvin put together an impressive 18-point, five-rebound and three-assist night that might have been his best all-around performance of the conference season.
The senior began by diversifying his offense, scoring an easy layup at the hoop and getting to the free-throw line early. Irvin’s jump shot was still off in the first half, as he airballed a three in the opening minutes, but he still boosted Michigan’s offense by finding easy baskets at the hoop.
That allowed the court to open up for Irvin later in the game, where he had the opportunity to find open looks and the scoring rhythm he had recently been missing.
Michigan coach John Beilein trusted that Irvin would breakout and become the offensive threat he’s been for most of the season. The only way Beilein felt that could happen was to continue giving Irvin the green light.
“When he threw that air ball and missed by four feet, I don’t care,” Beilein said. “I told him, ‘Shoot it when you’re open.’ It’s going to be very hard for us to have success this year if we shut him off and just say, ‘Don’t.’ He scored 1,400 points — you don’t say, ‘Okay, you don’t know how to score anymore.’ You don’t forget that.”
While Irvin proved Thursday that his jump shot wasn’t close to being forgotten, he also showed that the slump may have had benefitted other facets of his game.
Irvin had two assists down low in the second half to redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson and sophomore forward Mortiz Wagner that circumnavigated Wisconsin’s stout frontcourt defense and led to a couple of big scores in the paint. Those were passes Irvin may not have made a couple of weeks ago, but his vision has opened up to more than just the hoop in front of him.
“I think tonight, I was able to find players and put them in the right position to score,” Irvin said. “I just got to do that going forward.”
The senior also put more energy into making stops on the defensive end. In the second half, Irvin had the task of double teaming Badger forward Ethan Happ, who had tallied 18 points and four assists in the first 20 minutes.
The help defense clearly got to Happ’s head as the second half progressed. Irvin forced Happ into bad shots and bad passing lanes, all while holding his main defensive assignment, Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes, to just four points in the final period.
“That’s been the biggest thing for me,” Irvin said. “I’m able to impact the game in other ways than scoring. I’ve really taken it upon myself on the defensive end to contribute there. As a whole, we did a great job on Hayes and Happ.”
The Wolverines will hope Irvin can maintain the form he rediscovered Thursday in all areas of his game. With five games to go in the regular season, Michigan knows it needs Irvin to be his well-rounded self now more than ever as it enters the home stretch of its postseason push.
“That kid works so hard, (and) has been going through a tough stretch,” Wagner said. “To be honest, I think people make a big deal out of it even though it isn’t. Like people go through stretches like that. I’m so happy that — even though he banked it, I don’t care how — it was such a relief. We just knew, hey, he’s back.”