On Sunday, the fuel gauge finally hit empty.
All season, the Michigan men’s basketball team has been relying on what is essentially a seven-man rotation made up of its starting lineup, redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson and senior forward Mark Donnal.
Even calling it a seven-man rotation is generous. Donnal averages just 14.3 minutes per game – most of which have come when sophomore forward Moritz Wagner is in foul trouble – while Robinson averages 20.2. Beyond that, freshman guard Xavier Simpson has the next highest total with 9.3 minutes played per game.
On the opposite end of that spectrum, senior wing Zak Irvin and guard Derrick Walton Jr. are second and sixth in the Big Ten in minutes played per game with 34.8 and 33.0, respectively.
The biggest concern? There is no viable option behind Irvin at the wing position.
The Wolverines certainly found out just how problematic that is against Michigan State on Sunday.
Against the Spartans, Irvin logged 36 minutes, tied for the second-highest total on the team. But those lofty minutes didn’t translate to expected results, as he scored zero points on 0-for-8 shooting while turning the ball over three times and tallying just two rebounds and two assists – marking his first scoreless performance since the 2015 season opener.
For all intents and purposes, Michigan had been playing with fire, and it got burned badly.
“He didn’t make the shots he usually makes,” Walton said. “We trust him 100 percent. I just don’t think he was himself.”
It was revealed after the game that Irvin took the floor having battled the flu in the days leading up to the matchup with Michigan State. He had missed two practices prior to the trip to East Lansing, trying to recover for what was a much-needed and hotly-contested conference road win.
Irvin had emphasized to Michigan coach John Beilein that he felt good enough to play. But as his stat line indicated, he was far from good, and the Wolverines left the Breslin Center still winless on the road this season.
That’s not to knock Irvin’s effort. Instead, it simply paints a picture of just how precarious the Wolverines’ depth issues are. Freshman forward Ibi Watson – who was expected to be Irvin’s backup this season, but still hasn’t acclimated well enough to the college game – played only one minute.
As a result, Robinson saw an uptick to 30 minutes of playing time against the Spartans, but mustered just eight points. It’s a troubling sign that even an ailing Irvin appears to be a better option than those outside of Michigan’s seven-man rotation right now.
“I think we’re going to look back at it,” Beilein said Sunday. “It probably wasn’t the right thing to do. But he’s one of our best passers, he’s one of our best scorers, he plays three different positions for us. It’s hard to take him out of there.”
Irvin entered the matchup against Michigan State averaging a team-high 14.4 points per game. He had increased that production to 17 points per game in a four-game stretch, during which he helped the Wolverines dig themselves out of a 1-3 conference hole.
Walton showcased an ability to shoulder the burden when Irvin was struggling against the Spartans, scoring a game-high 24 points to go with nine rebounds. Even with a healthy Irvin, the senior guard has averaged 18.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in Michigan’s last five contests.
With Walton playing arguably the best basketball of his career, the Wolverines simply needed another contribution to help Walton carry the load down the stretch to escape East Lansing with a win and go above .500 in conference play for the first time this season. But even that was too much to ask.
The issue becomes even more pressing when you look at the current Big Ten landscape. Maryland and Wisconsin are currently tied for first in the conference with a 7-1 Big Ten record, while Northwestern is on their heels with a 7-2 record of its own.
The Terrapins have 11 players that have played more than 10 games, and all of them are averaging above 10 minutes per game. Even guard Melo Trimble is averaging less minutes per game than both Irvin and Walton, and five of Maryland’s players are averaging between 13.8 and 18.6 minutes per game.
As for the Badgers, it’s more of the same. While Wisconsin has just an eight-man rotation – only one more than the Wolverines – its minutes are distributed more efficiently. Michigan has three players averaging above 30 minutes per game in Irvin, Walton and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson.
The Badgers, on the other hand, have their two best players barely registering such significant time. Guard Bronson Koenig and forward Nigel Hayes share the heaviest workload with 30.0 and 30.9 minutes per game, respectively. Beyond that, though, Wisconsin has five players averaging between 15.4 and 27.4 minutes per game, with an additional two contributing 10.1 to 11 minutes on a consistent basis.
And finally, there’s the Wildcats. Like the Badgers, Northwestern boasts a roster with eight players averaging above 10 minutes per game. Guard Bryant McIntosh is the only outlier, as he averages 33.4 minutes per game – a mark slightly above Walton’s total.
If the upper tier of the conference is any indication, depth is winning games this year, as it often does. Some teams manage to get by with a limited rotation, but to do so requires elite talent. And in a 31-game season, having options off the bench certainly doesn’t hurt a team’s chances of grinding out wins. Right now, as Irvin’s flu game indicated, Michigan doesn’t have them.