If the Michigan basketball team is a train, Derrick Walton Jr. might be the conductor. But Zak Irvin is the engine that drives it.
Prior to the Wolverines’ season-opening exhibition against Armstrong State, Michigan’s senior wing admitted as much.
“We know that the team goes as Derrick and I go,” Irvin said on Nov. 3. “We’ve recognized that and we know that we have to play at our best, be at our best — offensively but defensively as well. I think we set the tone going into every game and we have to know that and we can’t have any let-offs.”
It was a refreshing dose of realism from the veteran who comprises a leadership group that has been quick to say this season’s outcome will be determined by a collective team effort. While that may be true, the stark reality is that this team could live or die by Irvin’s performances.
That much showed itself in the Wolverines’ matchup against South Carolina last Wednesday, where they learned for the first time that if Irvin doesn’t go, then they may not go at all. After committing eight turnovers and scoring just five points on 2-for-13 shooting, Irvin was forced to watch from the bench after fouling out with 5:33 left to play as Michigan swallowed a 61-46 loss against the Gamecocks.
But Irvin rebounded from the dismal performance with a team-high 14 points against Mount St. Mary’s, leading Michigan to a 17-point victory.
“You go out there and hit your first shot and it’s like, ‘Finally, thank you,’ ” Irvin said on Saturday. “I was definitely getting reps in before the game so I was happy to see the first three went in.”
Added Beilein: “I made the correlation. It was like Caris Levert’s (Southern Methodist) game last year. Nothing could go for him. He just didn’t make some plays that we’re used to Zak making. So I love it. He had great energy, he took the coaching really well the last two days about how he may be trying to do too much sometimes, about some tendencies that he’s had that are out there on scout that he’s gotta realize he can’t continue to do or people will take away.”
The pressure on Irvin’s shoulders is nothing new. His statement in early November was more a ceremonial token of seniority than a final declaration.
After spending his career in Ann Arbor playing on a team decimated by injuries, the Wolverines’ outcomes have been determined by Irvin for a long time now. There’s plenty of evidence of that, but last year’s matchup against Michigan State at Crisler Center may be the only evidence needed.
Michigan was blown out by 16, but Irvin tried to will his team over a hurdle by pouring in 19 points on 8-for-16 shooting. He tried to inspire the Wolverines verbally, too, storming into the huddle and screaming at his teammates to wake up.
But now, to say Michigan will perform as Irvin does is truer than ever.
While Irvin could rely on Kameron Chatman to come off the bench in relief last year, Chatman’s transfer left freshmen guards Ibi Watson and Xavier Simpson as the Wolverines’ best options to back up Irvin. Right now, those aren’t reliable options, as their defensive games have left something to be desired for coach John Beilein.
“I can’t give the rest — tomorrow, they have rest, and then we’ll work hard Monday, Tuesday with X and Ibi so that every day they get closer to getting in there,” Beilein said on Saturday. “If we’re still playing this way in the middle of January and February, it’s going to be a hard year. These guys, we’ve just got to bring them along, win games, rest, bring them along, win games, rest.”
As Beilein indicated, the freshmen development process is certainly a pressing one.
Through six games, Irvin is averaging the most minutes played per game on the team with 33. If that number holds through the season, things could turn ugly for Michigan — especially given the fact that Irvin played 35 games after recovering from a back surgery last year. Given the Wolverines’ injury history, that workload could quickly become a dangerous test of fate.
That might not show up against teams like the Mountaineers, but the stakes are higher when facing Virginia Tech or a conference opponent. Irvin’s performance in the Big Apple showed he has the ability to handle that.
Eleven days ago, Michigan traveled to Madison Square Garden and left as the champion of the 2K Classic. Lost among Walton’s barrage of 3-pointers and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson’s dunks in the tournament championship was the second of two performances that earned Irvin the tournament MVP honor.
Irvin combined for 32 points on 11-for-22 shooting and 13 rebounds, en route to helping push Michigan into the top-25 for the first time this season. But when Irvin went cold against South Carolina five days later, the Wolverines followed suit and went colder, losing that ranking as soon as they earned it.
And with the rest of the season ahead, the last 12 days have made it clear: Irvin was right at the beginning of November. As he goes, Michigan will go with him.