STATE COLLEGE — For a few minutes just three days ago, the Michigan men’s basketball team looked like it may never score again.
A dismal showing against Purdue last Saturday was the low point for an up-and-down Wolverine offense, which has been prone to tremendous cold stretches.
Deepening the severity of the team’s recent struggles, junior guard Caris LeVert and sophomore forward Zak Irvin — Michigan’s two main options for carrying the offensive load — had both struggled with bouts of inconsistency since the Wolverines’ victory over Syracuse on Dec. 3.
But in Tuesday’s game against Penn State, Michigan’s shooters — who shot 53.3 percent from the floor, including 9-for-15 on 3-pointers — orchestrated a far more efficient offensive attack. Rather than forcing their shots, the Wolverines instead focused on picking their spots to create better scoring opportunities.
“(If you average) eight shots a game, maybe if you shot six a game, you still might make three out of six and you won’t give up two possessions,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We all were a lot more selective today.”
The resurgent offense — led by LeVert and Irvin, who finished the game with 18 and 17 points, respectively — was the deciding factor in Michigan’s 73-64 victory over the Nittany Lions.
In the first half, Irvin looked like a different player than the one who went 2-for-12 from the floor in West Lafayette. After exhibiting poor shot selection and execution against Purdue — including several missed layups — Irvin was back on his game early against Penn State. He drilled a long, contested jumper for the first points of the game and also knocked down his first two 3-point attempts.
More importantly, Irvin exhibited both patience and confidence with the ball in his hands. Instead of taking shots early in the shot clock and looking unsure of himself — as he did for long stretches against the Boilermakers — he seemed content to pass the ball around and wait for a better chance.
“I just let the game come to me,” Irvin said. “You don’t want to force anything. (I tried) to just take open, good shots that I can make. I think that was a big reason why we won today.”
Added Beilein: “(Irvin) has the ability to get (his) own shot, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good shot all the time. Just (by) waiting, getting a little bit more space, a little bit more rhythm, your shooting percentage will go up.”
And even when Irvin missed a shot, he refused to give up on the play. After clanking a wide-open triple off the left side of the rim midway through the second half, he hustled to the glass to grab his own rebound. Seconds later, he kicked the ball out to freshman guard Aubrey Dawkins for an easy corner 3.
In a game where the Wolverines committed 15 turnovers and allowed 36 combined points from guard D.J. Newbill and backup John Johnson, it was Michigan’s shooting that averted a second-half collapse. But with 7:40 remaining, Penn State used a 12-2 run to tie the game at 53.
Then it was LeVert’s turn to pull his weight.
Despite receiving heavy attention from the Nittany Lions’ defenders, LeVert had no trouble finding scoring chances in key situations. In two separate instances when Michigan was clinging to a one-possession lead, LeVert nailed both a step-back jumper and a difficult banked shot off the glass. Having no trouble finding shots, LeVert stifled Penn State’s comeback attempt.
Ultimately, the Wolverines’ shot selection proved to be the difference in an otherwise ugly victory.