ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Zak Irvin is ready for Michigan to play at full strength again at long last.
“I just can’t wait for everyone to get healthy,” Irvin said. “We’ve at least had an injury I think all throughout last year.”
Irvin’s back problem is the last major issue the Wolverines are waiting on after an offseason in which several key players needed to work their way back from injuries. Michigan held its media day Thursday and allowed reporters to watch an hour of practice. Irvin was able to do some light shooting and participated in other drills as well.
The school announced in early September that Irvin was having back surgery and would miss 6-8 weeks. The Wolverines open the season Nov. 13 against Northern Michigan.
“I’m definitely not going to go out there if I’m not 100 percent – with my back 100 percent, also being in shape,” the 6-foot-6 Irvin said. “I can’t just get back on the court and not be in shape.”
Irvin is showing patience with his recovery, and guard Spike Albrecht continues to make progress with his. Albrecht had hip surgery in the offseason and is almost back to full strength.
“Obviously I’m not where I want to be,” Albrecht said. “I think it’s been a little bit tougher than I expected, just because I kind of jumped back in and just kind of expected myself to be right where I was, skill-wise and shooting the basketball and things like that. I’m not there yet.”
Caris LeVert (foot injury) and Derrick Walton (toe problem) both missed significant time last season, but they’re back now.
Those four players – LeVert, Irvin, Walton and Albrecht – give Michigan a talented, experienced core that should help the Wolverines recover nicely from missing the postseason last season. And the injuries that made 2014-15 so difficult allowed some of Michigan’s younger players more minutes. Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman started 13 games apiece.
“I think that our skill level, as far as seeing the floor, understanding offense and defense, is at a different level than it was last year,” coach John Beilein said. “We’ve worked a lot on it, all last year, but the Aubreys and Muhammads and guys like that, the game was moving so fast. The game has slowed down for them.”
Beilein said Abdur-Rahkman has “his work cut out for him” if he wants to play as much as he did last season. For once, the Wolverines aren’t dealing with a major exodus to the NBA – and that depth could certainly be an asset.
“Our best teams had two or three guys that we could go to late,” Beilein said. “Caris is certainly going to be one of those, but I don’t think he’s like the only option late in a game.”
Michigan was plagued by injuries last year. But when the Wolverines take the floor to open the 2015-16 season, John Beilein expects to have a healthy lineup, which includes Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr.
“He is getting better every day,” Beilein said Friday morning in a radio interview with WTKA 1050 AM, transcribed by Brendan F. Quinn of MLive.com.
“He can’t do anything yet, but he’s very vocal and leading,” Beilein said Friday morning. “We feel really good about what we said, (that he’ll return) somewhere here in the start of the season and we expect him to be back out on the court for us.”
Irvin was the most recent Wolverine to be bit by the injury bug. LeVert missed 14 games with a left foot injury Derrick Walton missed all of 13 games his own foot injury. Spike Albrecht managed to play through pain before undergoing offseason surgery on both hips. Beilein said LeVert and Walton have are playing with “no restriction” on Friday afternoon, according to Quinn. Albrecht says he’s hoping to get to 100 percent within the next month.
The 6-foot-6 Irvin averaged 14.3 points and 4.8 rebounds last year.
Hit hard by injuries a season ago, Michigan is already dealing with health issues before the 2015-16 season has even begun. Wednesday night the school announced junior guard Zak Irvin will be sidelined for six to eight weeks as a result of a back injury that requires surgery.
Should the recovery process take the full eight weeks, that would mean Irvin wouldn’t be cleared to go until just over a week before the Wolverines begin their 2015-16 regular season schedule. That being said, head coach John Beilein expects Irvin to make a full recovery from the procedure.
“We expect a 100 percent recovery for Zak after this procedure,” Beilein said in the release. “We will not rush his return; but given Zak’s work habits and determined attitude, we anticipate he will be back on the court and at full speed sometime near the beginning of our season.”
Irvin averaged 14.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest as a sophomore, shooting 40.2 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from beyond the arc. Irvin was one of two Wolverines to play in all 32 games last season, with forward Kameron Chatman being the other.
Beilein’s Wolverines struggled with injuries throughout the year, with guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Caris LeVert missing significant amounts of time and Spike Albrecht playing through hip issues that would result in two surgeries this offseason. With the majority of their rotation back on campus, Michigan is expected to bounce back from a disappointing 2014-15 season.
Aubrey Dawkins, zone defense help Michigan overcome 13-point deficit to beat Illinois in overtime
The day was suppose to be dominated by Michigan’s new head football coach, Jim Harbaugh. The arrival of Harbaugh spiked ticket prices for Tuesday’s matinee Big Ten opener against Illinois with Harbaugh addressing the Crisler Center crowd — many of whom dressed in Harbaugh’s trademark Khaki pants — at halftime.
However, the star of Michigan’s 73-65 overtime win over the Illini was freshman wing Aubrey Dawkins, son of Stanford head coach, Johnny Dawkins.
Aubrey Dawkins scored a game-high 20 points off 6-for-7 shooting from three. To put that in perspective, the 6-foot-6 freshman entered Tuesday afternoon appearing in 10 games, scoring a grand total of 15 points. He had missed his previous eight attempts from three, the last make coming against Nicholls State on Nov. 29.
The Wolverines trailed by 13 in the second half, struggling to get offensive support from Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin, who combined for 1-of-16 shooting to begin the game. Although, midway through the second half, Irving caught fire with back-to-back 3-pointers, aided by better ball movement from Michigan. Dawkins followed with two triples of his own. An 18-5 run gave Michigan a 56-55 lead with Caris LeVert accounting for nine of those points (three points, three assists).
LeVert ended with 19 points with five assists. Irvin added 13 as did Ricky Doyle, who scored eight of his baker’s dozen in the second half.
Late in the second half, Michigan switched to a 1-3-1 zone defense, which caused problems for the Illini. Add in a 3-for-11 performance from Rayvonte Rice. The leading scorer for Illinois ended with a season-low eight points, as Malcolm Hill paced the Illini with 19.
During Michigan’s run, Rice took zero shots, not looking as assertive as you’d expect someone averaging 17.7 points per to be. With the shot clock off and the score tied, Illinois drew up a play for Rice to replicate the buzzer-beater he hit against Missouri earlier this month. He came off a high-screen on the 2-3 zone defense, but LeVert raced over to close out on Rice, forcing a difficult look.
In overtime, a drive by LeVert created an open, endline three for Irvin, followed moments later by a wide-open look for Dawkins on a defensive lapse for Illinois, giving Michigan a two-possession lead.
This was a good win for Michigan after taking its lumps in the non-conference. The win will help overshadow Walton’s 0-for-8 performance, forcing John Beilein to rely on Spike Albrecht for 25 minutes. While the zone defense was effective, Michigan’s man-to-man was not. While the win helps the Wolverines put that four-game losing streak in the past, it could be the start of a difficult stretch for Illinois.
The Fighting Illini will be road warriors to start conference play, with four of their first five conference games — Ohio State, Nebraska, Northwester — on the road. The only home game in that stretch: Jan. 7 against No. 12 Maryland. Illinois has a second home game on Jan. 18, hosting Indiana.
TUCSON — The last four seasons under John Beilein have been the most successful at Michigan since the 1990’s, with the Wolverines winning an average of 26 games per season, a pair of Big Ten regular season titles and a trip to the 2013 national title game. During that run, the Wolverines were able to account for the premature loss of key players, with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. grabbing the reins following the departure of Darius Morris, and a talented group led by Nik Stauskas doing so once Burke and Hardaway moved on to the NBA.
The consensus this preseason was that this current group, led by junior Caris LeVert and sophomores Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, would be able to do the same. LeVert was a preseason all-american. Walton and Irvin? They were high-profile recruits with a year of college hoops under their belts, primed for a breakout season.
Things haven’t worked out that way, as the Wolverines have now lost three consecutive games, the most recent — an 80-53 loss on national television to No. 3 Arizona Saturday evening in Tucson — being only marginally less embarrassing than homes losses to Eastern Michigan and NJIT.
Expected to be every bit as competitive as last season’s meeting, a 72-70 Wildcat victory in Ann Arbor, Saturday’s game saw Arizona look every bit a national title contender. This Michigan team is still in search of an identity, the biggest issue on Saturday being their most glaring problem: The Wolverines have yet to find a consistent option in the middle.
That may seem weird considering that the loss of Jordan Morgan didn’t receive nearly as much attention as Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary bolting to the NBA. But Morgan was a valuable player for those Wolverines, making 27 starts and averaging 6.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest as a senior.
Morgan’s numbers may not have been eye-popping but he was consistent for the Wolverines. Offensively he was a capable passer in the high post, and he also did a solid job of finishing at the basket in pick-and-roll situations. Also good on the glass (remove McGary’s average through the eight games he played and Morgan led the team in rebounding), Morgan defended his position well for the Wolverines. In short, Morgan performed at a level that Michigan’s current big men have yet yo reach on a consistent basis.
It’s a bit unfair to use Saturday’s showing against a Mark Donnal (five points, one rebound) or Ricky Doyle (eight points, three rebounds). Arizona’s front court has multiple players whose names will likely be called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver at some point in the near future, and Doyle and Donnal are both playing their first season of college hoops.
Doyle displayed flashes of what he can do earlier this season, as he averaged 13.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in wins over Nicholls and Syracuse, but due in large part to their inexperience Michigan’s interior players haven’t been as consistent as one would like. Arizona scored 42 points in the paint Saturday, and while there were highlight-reel worthy dunks from wings Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson the Wildcat big men also proved to be an issue for the Wolverines.
“They have much bigger players, much more experienced players,” Beilein said after the game. “Our two freshman centers, Mark Donnal, Max Bielfeldt who’s a senior, and Ricky Doyle, were having trouble against the size of Tarczewski and [Brandon Ashley].”
But even with that being the case, Saturday’s contest proved to be a valuable one for the young Michigan big men as it gave them a good idea of what it takes to compete against some of the nation’s best big men.
“I really wanted to get Ricky as much [playing time] as we [could] to see what this level’s about,” Beilein said of Doyle. “It’s motivation now, it’s motivation all year. For him to see, ‘this is what the big boys play like, that’s what you have to learn to be able to do.’ There were really valuable small victories in some of the things he did.”
With Morgan out of eligibility and Jon Horford transferring to Florida, it was known that the Wolverines were going to be young in the paint this season. It’ll take time for the likes of Doyle and Donnal to develop into consistent players, as is the case for most freshmen in college basketball.
What that means is that Michigan may need to go with a lineup that allows them to exploit those mismatches for their perimeter players. But in order for that to be effective, Michigan has to use the resulting lanes to attack the basket and not simply settle for perimeter shots. Do that, and a team that ranks 12th in the Big Ten in free throw attempts (165) will be able to take advantage of the fact that they’re one of the conference’s best foul shooting teams (75.8%).
When it comes to Walton Jr. and Irvin, they’re making the transition from being part of a rotation one year to being critical pieces the next. LeVert went through that process last season, as his minutes tripled and he emerged as one of the most improved players in the Big Ten if not the country. With the lack of experience and consistent production inside those three have even more on their plates offensively, and the added attention is something they’ve had to battle this season. After being one of the best shooting teams in America last season, Michigan’s effective field goal percentage (55.7% to 50.1%) and three-point shooting (40.2% to 36.8%) are both way down this year.
According to Walton, the bigger concern is the team’s play on the defensive end, as Michigan is currently last in the Big Ten in both field goal (45.4%) and three-point (38.4%) percentage defense.
“I [don’t] think offense is the problem right now. I think it’s more so on the defensive end,” Walton Jr. said following Saturday’s loss. “[There are] just times when guys are falling asleep and missing boxouts and stuff like that. Film study will always help. At the end of the day this team needs to focus on the defensive end more than offense.”
After finding a way to account for the loss of key players with few major hiccups over the four seasons prior, that hasn’t been the case for Michigan in 2014-15. While losses to No. 7 Villanova and No. 3 Arizona will be understood given the caliber of those teams, a similar case can’t be made for their home losses to N.J.I.T. and Eastern Michigan. With finals this week, Michigan has just two games left to play (SMU and Coppin State) before they start Big Ten play December 30 against Illinois.
The time spent on the court and in the film room during this period will be vital for this group, as its most experienced options adjust to greater roles and the younger players work to become more comfortable not only with the system but also high-level Division I basketball. While the impulse for some may be to rush to judgment when it comes to this Michigan team, they’ve still got time to figure things out.
The process won’t be an easy one, as evidenced by their current three-game skid, but it is one the Wolverines are capable of navigating.
Even with their trip to Italy this summer, the process of figuring out how all of the pieces will fit offensively is one that will take No. 24 Michigan some time to figure out. And that was the case Thursday night against Detroit, as the Wolverines shot just 34.5% from the field in the first half and trailed the Titans 28-27 at the intermission.
Michigan would turn things around in the second half, going on a 16-1 run in a game they would eventually win by the final score of 71-62. Two things stood out during game’s final 20 minutes: the many ways in which junior guard Caris LeVert can impact a game, and the Wolverines finally clamping down defensively.
LeVert finished the game with 21 points, nine rebounds and three assists, with 17 of his points coming in the second half. And in the game-changing run that turned a 52-all tie into a 68-53 lead, LeVert factored into the first six points of the run. From there, fellow returnees Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and Spike Albrecht made plays to help the Wolverines put away Detroit.
It’s been said many times over that the junior guard will have to lead the way for Michigan, and while John Beilein has other perimeter players with experience it’s LeVert who’s most capable of affecting games in multiple ways. And with Michigan’s lack of depth and experience in the front court, that also means that LeVert will have to do more defensively and on the boards (he’s led Michigan in rebounds in two of their first three games).
As for the defense, after struggling to slow down Juwan Howard Jr. (24 points) for much of the game the Wolverines held him scoreless over the final 5:39. As the newcomers get acclimated to Beilein’s offensive system it will be the veterans and their ability to get stops that Michigan will need to rely on. It took some time for that scenario to play out Thursday night, but once it did the Wolverines were able to take care of Detroit.
Like every team in the country Michigan has plenty to work on, with Irvin’s need to become more comfortable making plays off the dribble being one of those areas that stood out Thursday. The good news for Michigan is that they’ve got LeVert, and his all-around game is something they can rely on as the other pieces fall in place.