New York, NY – Looking for a college basketball team that’s risen above preseason expectations in the first couple of weeks of the season? Look no further than the Michigan Wolverines, picked to finish in the middle of the Big Ten pack this season but playing in November like a conference title contender.
Following up on its resounding victory over Marquette on Thursday night, Michigan beat down a talented SMU squad 76-54 on Friday night to win the 2K Classic championship in Madison Square Garden and in the process opened the eyes of observers who witnessed the games either in person or on national television.
“Michigan played about as good a game as anyone has played against us in the four plus years I’ve been here (at SMU as assistant and head coach)” said SMU Coach Tim Jankovich. “They shot it absolutely outstanding today including hitting a number of guarded shots. They’re going to have a heck of a year.”
It was all about balance for Michigan in its win over Marquette. That balance showed up again against SMU, but Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, two Michigan seniors who have made their marks on the program for the last three seasons, stepped up to get the Wolverines rolling early and then carried them to the comfortable margin of victory.
Irvin scored 16 points in both games and filled up the stat sheet as well leading the Wolverines with six rebounds against SMU after recording a team-high five assists against Marquette. In recognition of his two-day performance, Irvin was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
At 6-6 and a solid 215 pounds, Irvin is a physical wing. His game is centered on attacking the basket, something he does in transition and out of the Michigan set offense. He’s a strong finisher with both hands and employs different release points to beat shot blockers at the rim.
Irvin’s shooting range extends beyond the three-point line, where he made 5-of-11 shots in the two games. He shoots off the bounce in both directions and creates space for his jumper with a step-back move to his left. A tough guard on the ball, Irvin is just as hard to guard off it as he understands spacing and knows how to set up defenders to rub them off-ball screens freeing himself for the catch and shooting opportunity.
Asked how it felt to lead Michigan to the tournament championship and win MVP honors, Irvin laughed and said, “It feels great. Champions in the Garden–that’s something. It’s nice to start 4-0. Our players and coaches work so hard. Now we just have to keep it going.”
Walton was whistled for a couple of early fouls against Marquette that limited his playing time to 22 minutes and prevented him from getting into any kind of a rhythm. While he did hand out four assists, he went scoreless in the game.
The 6-1 native of Detroit came out firing against SMU connecting on three three-point shots within the first seven minutes of the game to stake Michigan to a lead it would continue to grow all game. Walton finished with a team-high 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting including 7-of-12 from behind the three-point arc. His six assists led Michigan and he committed no turnovers in 34 minutes on the court.
“It was good to see him (Walton) come out and play,” said Michigan Coach John Beilein. We want him to look at the basket.” Walton’s performance earned him a spot with Irvin on the all-tournament team.
In addition to being balanced, the Wolverines are deep. The emergence of junior DJ Wilson and sophomore Moritz Wagner into the starting line-up has relegated seniors Mark Donnal and Duncan Robinson, both starters a season ago, to roles off the bench. If their play in New York is any indication, both players have adapted swiftly to their new roles.
Donnal, noticeably lighter and quicker than last season, made 10-of-13 shots over the two games, including both his shots from distance, in scoring 24 points. He also grabbed eight rebounds and blocked two shots.
“I’m playing with a lot of confidence and my job is to bring a spark off the bench,” said Donnal. “This is the first year since I’ve been here that we’ve won a preseason tournament like this.”
“This is four times in a row now (out of four games) that Mark’s been solid off the bench,” said Beilein. “Mark practices OK, but he’s more or a gamer than a practice guy. He’s really helped us.”
Playing with more bounce, Donnal ran the court better than in past years to help Michigan play the kind of up tempo pace that fits the skill set of Irvin, Walton and starting Michigan wing Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. He’s effective in screen-and-roll actions once rolling out of a pick for a catch and score at the rim. Active off the ball, Donnal worked off a perimeter screen to free himself for a catch-and-shoot opportunity from behind the three-point line that he knocked down.
Robinson is believed to be the first player to ever jump from a D-III school (Williams College) to a scholarship position with the Wolverines. At 6-8 with good length, he’s a knockdown shooter from distance who stretches defenders out to the three-point line to open the court for Irvin, Walton and Abdur-Rahkman. Despite scoring only two points against SMU, Robinson was big against Marquette draining 3-of-4 long range shots en route to a 10-point night in only seven minutes of playing time.
Beilein is held in high regard in coaching circles for his understanding of offensive basketball and the high-scoring teams he mostly puts on the floor. While that held true as Michigan scored 77.5 points in the two 2K Classic games, the Michigan defense played at an equally high level holding its two opponents to a 57.5 average.
Michigan limited high-scoring SMU wing Semi Ojeleye to 10 points, 13 below his average. The Wolverines crowed Ojeleye all game, contested most of his shots and forced him into a 5-for-16 shooting night. Ojeleye managed to collect a game-high nine rebounds and was recognized for his play over the two games with a spot on the all-tournament team.
“They did a good job of getting us out of our rhythm,” said Jankovich. “As for Semi, it’s hard for a player to have a huge night each and every night. He’ll be up early tomorrow begging a manager to shoot with him. But he’s not the only one of our guys like that.”
This was the first time Jankovich had to address the media as a losing head coach in a long time. Serving as a SMU assistant since 2012-13 and going undefeated substituting in nine games for suspended Head Coach Larry Brown last season, he had not absorbed a loss as a head coach since the 2011-12 season when he guided Illinois State.
Reminded that it has been a long time since being head coach of a losing team, Jankovich joked, “Thanks for picking up my spirits there. I did forget a little (what it’s like to lose), but college basketball can be a cruel game even with a real good team. I thought we were a step slow tonight, for whatever reason. I think we can be an outstanding team, but this wasn’t an outstanding game for us. We’re much better than we showed.”
Michigan returns to action on November 23 when it travels to South Carolina. SMU resumes play at home against Santa Barbara on November 22.
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can subscribe to our RSS feed from the upper right corner of our home page, follow us on Facebook, or on twitter.
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