MADISON — Throughout the season, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein has pined for more transition scoring. The Wolverines play best when they run, and on Sunday, playing in a game essential to their NCAA Tournament hopes, they ran.
But as the hard part came easy, the easy part came hard. The Wolverines missed a dunk and two run-of-the-mill layup opportunities in the second half of their 68-57 loss at Wisconsin, allowing the Badgers to run away with a game that had gone back and forth throughout the first 33 minutes.
Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. was the Wolverines’ biggest and most surprising offender. After coming away with a steal with just under seven minutes remaining in the game, he ran the length of the floor and found himself alone at the rim, only to hesitate awkwardly and come up short on the type of layup he can make with his eyes closed during warmups.
“My foot kinda gave out, but I don’t have a reason,” Walton said flatly after the game, clearly upset with himself. “I had a clean look. I just … I just missed it.”
Asked minutes later to once again relive the play, Walton didn’t bristle or decline to take reporters through the worst moment of his day a second time. Along with junior forward Zak Irvin, the soft-spoken guard has been frequently asked to speak on the team’s behalf in the absence of Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert. Asked to do so again on Sunday, the de facto elder statesman searched for an answer that wasn’t really there, took a deep breath and gave it his best shot.
“I kind of looked off both defenders, and just jumped off the wrong foot,” Walton said. “I didn’t get as much lift as I thought I did, and kind of left it short. That’s pretty much what happened.”
Walton had a chance to redeem himself two possessions later, again having come away with what seemed like a momentum-shifting steal.
Walton got the ball to Irvin, who missed his own layup after being bothered Khalil Iverson’s outstretched hands. The play left Michigan empty twice in a row on fast-break possessions.
“Two-on-one, you want to make the guy play you first, and then give it up at the end,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He made a 2-on-1 into a 1-on-1, and Zak missed it.”
Irvin, who led the Wolverines with 14 points and eight rebounds, shouldered more of the blame.
“(I) lost the ball a little bit,” Irvin said. “Just missed it. Mental lapses — you’re not going to be able to make those, especially crunch time.”
With Michigan on uneasy footing and slipping toward the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, Irvin is right — the Wolverines simply can’t afford mental lapses with their season on the line.
Worse, the mental lapses came from Michigan’s two most experienced players, making them all the more devastating.
“Those two are better than that, and they’ll play better than that,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “But those two juniors — we can’t have those mistakes on those two plays. … They feel really bad right now.”
As the Wolverines’ odds at making the NCAA Tournament have dwindled, Irvin and other Michigan players have openly questioned their team’s mental toughness, especially after falling victim to a 25-0 run against Indiana and a similarly fatal first half against Michigan State.
Last week at Maryland, junior forward Mark Donnal singlehandedly kept the Wolverines in the game, albeit in a losing effort. Wednesday against Northwestern, it was sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman who stole the show and kept disaster at bay. Sunday, Michigan had no savior.
Now, next Saturday’s clash against No. 8 Iowa seems like a must-win should the Wolverines want to go dancing. Michigan — upperclassmen included — has exhausted its chances and wiggle room for mental lapses.