It has been an up-and-down month for Zak Irvin.
The senior wing went through a rough stretch for the Michigan men’s basketball team at the end of January and into February, starting with the Wolverines’ game at Michigan State on Jan. 29, which began a four-game stretch where he scored just 13 points on 4-for-31 shooting.
Irvin improved at home against Wisconsin on Feb. 16, when a banked 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring seemed to jump start his shot, as he put up 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting.
Since then, it’s been temperamental for Irvin, culminating in what Michigan coach John Beilein called an “exceptional” performance Sunday night at Nebraska, where he scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
“That game against Nebraska, (Irvin) was as good as (senior guard Derrick Walton Jr.) was,” Beilein said. “Derrick was sensational, but Zak was really good too.”
Michigan, though, hasn’t missed a beat. The Wolverines have gone 6-4 since the game in East Lansing. It’s a big difference from earlier in the season, when a poor shooting performance by Irvin usually spelled doom for Michigan, such as the November loss at South Carolina, where Irvin scored just five points on 2-for-13 shooting.
A lot of Michigan’s success without a scoring Irvin is due to the emergence of his roommate and best friend, Walton, whose starring role Irvin has enjoyed watching.
“Zak really enjoys seeing his roommate do so well,” Beilein said.
And with less pressure on himself to score, Irvin has excelled in other areas.
The senior wing has become a mainstay on the defensive end of the court, and his help defense on some of the Big Ten’s premier frontcourt players in Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ and Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan has boosted Michigan to top-25 RPI wins down the stretch to solidify its NCAA Tournament resume.
“Derrick’s playing really well right now,” Irvin said. “But I’m still trying to do as much as I can with the scoring load. I’m trying to affect the team in other areas.
“I know how important it is to play well defensively to win games and to be in games, so I really just try to be that anchor on defense, and I know if I do that, everything else will come into play.”
It’s an odd transition for Irvin to go from a go-to scorer to the role he is in now. When Irvin came to Michigan four years ago, his role was to be a shooter. Now, his job on the team has changed to more of a secondary scorer and a mainstay on the boards and the defensive end.
“(Irvin) just turned it over and said, ‘I’m going to become a defensive player and forget about (the slump), and I know that if I put less pressure on myself to be the guy, I could be a better performer,” Beilein said.
And in turn, as Irvin has defined his role, so has the rest of the team. And it’s made for a better team overall.
“(Zak’s playing) a different role on the team, but it’s made our team better right now,” Beilein said. “As Zak was going through a transition of trying to read things better and shoot it better, it forces us to go in other directions while he gains some confidence back, and it’s made our team better.”
But through it all — the slump and the role change — Irvin’s confidence hasn’t wavered.
Over the last seven games of the season, Irvin averaged 10 shots per game, not a far cry from the 11.75 shots per game he averaged before then.
“He’s got a lot of faith in himself,” Beilein said. “He’s really got a good personality of letting things go.”
Added Walton: “The player and person that he is, he wants to be great at everything, so when one thing isn’t working, he’s worked so hard on everything. Overall, I don’t think his demeanor has changed. He’s still a confident person.”
Now, with Irvin’s collegiate career coming to an end, Michigan is going to need him to be as confident as ever.
Except this time, unlike earlier in his career, he will need to be confident in other aspects of his game besides scoring.