Forward Zak Irvin and guard Derrick Walton Jr. both entered Saturday’s game against Maryland ranked in the top-five of minutes played per game in the Big Ten.
While the pair of seniors have insisted that they can handle the marathon of spending so much time on the court, their seemingly bottomless gas tanks finally hit empty.
It wasn’t just Walton and Irvin who were challenged by the workload down the stretch versus the Terrapins, junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson each sat just three minutes of Saturday’s contest.
After facing a nine-point deficit at the half, Michigan had the muscle to reduce Maryland’s lead to within a single possession multiple times. But the Terrapins took advantage of their depth and week-long break, finding the energy to overcome the Wolverines’ comeback attempts time-and-time again to down Michigan at Crisler Center, 77-70.
“I was concerned about the third game in (seven) days,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We came back 10 days ago. We haven’t really had a day off, and I was concerned about that coming in.”
Added Maryland coach Mark Turgeon: “I thought we had the deeper team today. Our guys were great in the first half and gave us great depth, and we had some fresh legs down the stretch.”
The Wolverines used just three substitutes the entire game, and the trio combined for 35 minutes — the lowest amount of bench minutes thus far in Michigan’s three conference games.
Redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson barely played in the second half, primarily because he wasn’t giving the Wolverines the production they needed on the defensive end to close the deficit.
Robinson logged just 11 minutes, and in that time, had just three points from three shots with a plus/minus of minus four. He wasn’t adding enough offense or defending the perimeter well enough to be relied upon down the stretch. Beilein’s only option to make the defensive stops the Wolverines needed was to stick with his starting five and manage his timeouts well.
“I thought that was our best defensive team on the floor,” Beilein said. “If you noticed, I called a timeout so we can use the (media) timeouts. When you have eight minutes to go, you’re going to have two media (timeouts), and I called a timeout and (Maryland) called one. There’s no reason to make a change.”
One option Beilein did have that could deliver defensively off the bench was freshman guard Xavier Simpson. The freshman has seen a rise in his minutes the past couple outings, and he showed that he had the skill and confidence to disturb Maryland’s guards.
“(Simpson has) made the progress in practice,” Beilein said “It’s good to have (Walton) be a little more rested. We got to find another way to have (Walton) play some off-guard at times, or maybe have those guys out there together.“
Simpson’s final contribution was nearly picking the pocket of Maryland guard Melo Trimble from behind, but the ball went out-of-bounds before any Michigan defenders could come up with it. Simpson was replaced by Walton following the play, and Walton subsequently left Trimble open to drain a 3-pointer seconds after play resumed.
Allowing Simpson to ride out the momentum he had found for just a few more plays could have stopped the Terrapins from scoring those critical points in such a close contest. It could have also given Walton and Abdur-Rahkman a few more seconds of rest and a chance to regain some mental sharpness to lead the Wolverines in crunch time.
As the Big Ten schedule rolls on, Beilein will need to challenge his bench players, especially Simpson and Robinson, to make up for their shortcoming and enter games ready to contribute. While Michigan’s starters have shown they can carry the workload, they can still fall victim to fatigue.
The Wolverines won’t be able to go nine-deep in their rotation like the Terrapins did Saturday. What will matter most is the quality, rather than the quantity, of minutes they can receive from their bench.
If the quality is high enough, Michigan may have the ability to overcome, or even prevent, the setbacks it has experienced early in the conference season.