Michigan Basketball: Three Takeaways from Wisconsin Loss

Jan 17, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein  reacts to a play during the game with the Wisconsin Badgers at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin defeated Michigan 68-64.  Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 17, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein reacts to a play during the game with the Wisconsin Badgers at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin defeated Michigan 68-64. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan basketball played its best defense of the season on Tuesday night at the Kohl Center, but it was outlasted by Wisconsin.

Most pundits didn’t expect Michigan basketball to go into the Kohl Center on Tuesday and pull out a win. But for the brief span of a 17-2 run, it seemed like the Wolverines were on track to turn their season around.

And yet, Michigan squandered an eight-point lead with 12 minutes left to allow the Wisconsin Badgers to eke out a victory.

After the Badgers finally tied the game up with five minutes left to play, a Bronson Koenig 3-pointer 20 seconds later ensured Wisconsin would not trail again. The Badgers missed enough free throws down the stretch to give the Wolverines a sliver of hope, but it turned out to be delaying the inevitable loss.

In an ironic twist, Michigan played its best defense of the season in defeat. At the start of the game, it appeared all Wisconsin would have to do is toss the ball to Ethan Happ. After a series of bullying post moves, Michigan adjusted as the Wisconsin big man finished 5 of 13. Wisconsin shot a middling 45 percent from the field, and the difference between winning and losing was Michigan allowing Koenig open looks in the second half.

Once again, the seniors led the charge for the Wolverines. Zak Irvin continued his triple nickel pace with 20 points, 6 boards, and 3 assists. Derrick Walton Jr. had 15, 5, and 5 of his own. But neither effort was enough, with Walton’s buckets at the end of the game coming too late. The point guard also appeared to injure his hip or leg towards the end of the game, not that any foul was called.

Other than a lack of production from players other than Irvin and Walton, fouls were Michigan’s big problem. A team that is No. 1 in the nation in fewest fouls committed struggled all night, with John Beilein calling the officiating “confusing.” Michigan was in the bonus with 14 minutes left in the first half.

Michigan is now 12-7 (2-4) as the path to March Madness gets rockier for the Wolverines. They will need to win a majority of their games down the stretch to have a chance for the bubble, starting with Illinois on Saturday. Read on to forget Michigan lost to Illinois by 16 earlier this  year.

Jan 17, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard Bronson Koenig (24) attempts a block on Michigan Wolverines guard Zak Irvin (21) shot during the first half at the Kohl Center. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 17, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard Bronson Koenig (24) attempts a block on Michigan Wolverines guard Zak Irvin (21) shot during the first half at the Kohl Center. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Consistency from Zak Irvin

It was an encouraging night for Irvin, who, for much of the season, has been playing well despite shooting poorly. Luckily, the senior has started to round into form as Big Ten play gets underway.

After a 9-of-16 performance from the field against Wisconsin, Irvin is now shooting 45 percent on the season. While his 3-point percentage of 35 percent could use an uptick, it’s much better than the 29 percent he shot last year.

More importantly, the Indiana native is averaging career highs in rebounding and assists. The rebounds are especially welcome, since Michigan’s post players don’t snag a lot of boards. His assists totals might be more promising yet. This season has seen less of Irvin dribbling on the perimeter, looking to create his own shot. Instead, the senior is using each dribble with a purpose. Whether he cuts a straight line to the hole or curls off a Moritz Wagner screen, Irvin has been way more efficient this year.

His scoring was key for Michigan to stay in this game. Without some of his timely shots, Michigan wouldn’t have had the firepower to match the Badgers.

As the Wolverines search for a go-to player in Big Ten play, Irvin will need to be even more of an offensive focal point, both scoring and distributing.

Jan 17, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Michigan Wolverines forward Moritz Wagner (13) moves the ball against Wisconsin Badgers forward Ethan Happ (22) during the first half at the Kohl Center. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 17, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Michigan Wolverines forward Moritz Wagner (13) moves the ball against Wisconsin Badgers forward Ethan Happ (22) during the first half at the Kohl Center. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Mo giveth, Mo taketh away

Wagner has been the breakout story of the 2016-17 Michigan hoops campaign. While the German showed flashes of potential last season, it was not reflected in his stats.

Now, with John Beilein allowing the post player 14 more minutes a game, he has quadrupled his scoring average. Wagner came into Wisconsin on the heels of a 23-point performance against Nebraska.

But against Wisconsin, the big man showed he still has a lot of areas to improve. The first is his strength, as he saw multiple Wisconsin players back him down in the post. This is an issue that can be resolved during the summer under the excellent Jon Sanderson, the strength and conditioning coach who made Nik Stauskas and Trey Burke NBA-ready.

This will also help his paltry rebound numbers, which still hover under 4 a game.

Wagner is absolved of a poor shooting night (2-7, 0-3 from 3), especially because he is shooting 60 percent from the field and 45 percent from deep on the season. His looks were mostly off pick-and-pop situations, and were mostly open looks.

Wagner won’t keep shooting like this, and one positive was his ability to get to the line. Between a quick first step and good handles for a big, Wagner is exploiting slower big men. If he hits shots, the Wolverines will have a fighting chance in most games.

Jan 17, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Michigan Wolverines guard Duncan Robinson (22) looks to pass as Wisconsin Badgers guard Bronson Koenig (24) defends at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin defeated Michigan 68-64.  Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 17, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Michigan Wolverines guard Duncan Robinson (22) looks to pass as Wisconsin Badgers guard Bronson Koenig (24) defends at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin defeated Michigan 68-64. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

January look-ahead

This is a pivotal point for Michigan basketball. Some columnists have questioned John Beilein’s job security. I don’t think it’s nearly that serious, but this team is at a crossroads. With two seniors that have been to the Elite 8, two emerging post players, and a new assistant coach brought in for defensive overhaul, Michigan appeared ready to return to prominence.

After injuries derailed the season after the Elite 8, last year’s team squeaked into the postseason.

This year, the Wolverines will again need to claw their way back to March Madness. It’s difficult to watch, especially because it seemed like this could be the year the team takes the leap. Michigan has played well this season, but its defense has held it back the entire year.

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All of the losses, save for embarrassing games against South Carolina and Illinois, have been close and to superior teams. But it’s wins that matter to the committee; that’s what decides who’s dancing come March.

With that in mind, let’s look at Michigan next three games.

Michigan is among the eight worst records in the Big Ten, but it has a decent schedule to end January. Upcoming is Saturday’s game against Illinois, in contention for worst team in the Big Ten. At Crisler, this will be a chance for the Wolverines to exact revenge for the blowout in Champaign.

The Illini are coming off two straight losses and should be easy to demoralize.

After them, Indiana visits Crisler. The Hoosiers have been ranked for much of the season, and this would be a big upset. A win here would help solidify Michigan’s confidence for the final game of January, a road test against Michigan State.

The Spartans, young and struggling, are always tough at home. However, Michigan’s seniors will be looking for one last rivalry win. If Michigan sweeps January, it’ll be 15-7 and at least back in the middle of the Big Ten race.

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