For as long as he has been one of the leaders and de facto spokesmen for the Michigan men’s basketball team, Zak Irvin has never hesitated to use any emotion as motivation.
Two years ago, when Irvin stepped into his role as a go-to player for the Wolverines, the Fishers, Ind., native admitted after scoring 23 points in Bloomington: “Going into this game, this was a personal one for me.”
Last February, after Michigan State and Indiana dealt Michigan consecutive, embarrassing blowouts at Crisler Center, Irvin minced no words: “You’ve got them laughing at us on our home court,” he said. “In these past two games, teams have just punked us, and we can’t let that happen.”
And then, after the Wolverines trounced Southern Methodist to win the 2K Sports Classic and avenged ugly defeats to the Mustangs in the previous two years, Irvin vowed: “The last loss we had to them, we basically got punked throughout the whole game, and we knew we weren’t going to let that happen this game.”
More fodder for another chip on Irvin’s shoulder came along last week, and you didn’t have to look hard to find it. After Illinois ran up 85 points to drop Michigan to 1-3 in the Big Ten, Fighting Illini center Maverick Morgan slighted the Wolverines, calling them “more of a white-collar team traditionally.”
Michigan coach John Beilein insisted the Wolverines “do not have a bunch of white-collar kids.” Junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added, “I especially don’t like that.”
But the first player to speak up, two days after the game, was Irvin.
“We’ll see them again,” the senior vowed.
Saturday, Michigan did. And the Wolverines blitzed Illinois, winning Saturday at Crisler Center in a game not nearly as close as the 66-57 score indicated. Michigan (3-4 Big Ten, 13-7 overall) has plenty of work to do to make the NCAA Tournament, but for at least one day, the Wolverines proved their toughness and their grit.
In large part, that mindset stems from Irvin. The senior captain has long established himself as one of the leaders of the team, and he plays that role more emotionally than anything else. When Michigan goes on a scoring run, Irvin is among the most enthusiastic. When the Wolverines get “punked,” Irvin is usually the first to implore them to do something about it. In this case, while most of the players saw the “white-collar” comment in one way or another, junior forward DJ Wilson said Irvin showed the most urgency about it toward the rest of the team.
“Zak kind of just lets us know what was said and how we’re going to go about it the next time,” Wilson said Friday. “… Him as our leader, I think he’s just kind of just watching out for us and trying to get us ready as much as we can and prepare for them.”
Irvin made it clear how he wanted his team to approach the rematch against Illinois. In response to Morgan’s dig after last week’s game, Irvin had the idea of wearing road uniforms at home. The reason was simple: Morgan called the Wolverines white-collar, so they wore blue jerseys — “just to switch it up a little bit,” Irvin said.
The satisfaction in Irvin’s voice of having the last laugh was palpable. Illinois’ first shot was sweet, Michigan’s answer much sweeter. Irvin has always talked about the mental aspect of the game. He has lost 45 games in his college career. But the blowouts and the laughing and the insults, those seem to sting much more.
As the Wolverines look to climb out of this hole and inch back into the NCAA Tournament, they could use a fiery leader — or two or three — like Irvin.
“Teammates and coaches told me they notice that the team feeds off of me and the intensity that I bring,” Irvin said. “So I try to bring that no matter how I’m playing on the offensive end. I know I can always bring emotion to the team and get us going, and I did that a little bit today. But like I said, I really feel like DJ set the tone and carried us today.”
Saturday, with the help of Irvin, Wilson (19 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. (13 points, 11 rebounds), Michigan did what good teams do. The Wolverines came out on their home court with much more energy and outplayed Illinois almost wire to wire.
It’s worth noting that Irvin’s performance Saturday was statistically the least impressive of those three. He needed 15 shots to score 15 points and turned the ball over four times with no assists. But as he has proven many times before, he can influence the game with his intensity perhaps more than anything else. He admitted after the game that this performance meant a little more to him.
“When a team’s beat you and you get another opportunity to play ’em, you definitely want to take it personally,” Irvin said. “You really never want to get swept with that team in the regular season.”
Michigan allowed just 24 points in the first half and led by as many as 21. The Wolverines “punked” the Fighting Illini. They might as well have been laughing on their own home court.
They still have a long road back to the NCAA Tournament, but it continues Thursday night in primetime against Indiana, Irvin’s hometown team. That’s a personal one for him, remember.
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jakelourim.