Michigan won a dandy Saturday night, knocking off the 3rd ranked Michigan State Spartans 80-75 at the Breslin Center. In Michigan’s third consecutive win over a top ten team, the young Wolverines made another statement, showing that they can beat the best with terrific perimeter offense. Now alone on top of the Big, John Beilein’s team is red-hot thanks to their guard-play.
The three biggest stars of the night for Michigan were their three starting guards: Derrick Walton Jr., Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas. The trio combined for 55 points and 11 assists on the night, including 10 three pointers and 15-17 from the free throw line. It was this dominant scoring display from Michigan’s guards that made up for their lack of bite inside.
Stauskas stayed hot, coming just one point short of a fourth straight 20-point performance. Gary Harris was tracking Stauskas all over the court defensively, often completely denying the Canadian the ball on some possessions. But when Stauskas had his chances, he was deadly, making 5-6 threes. Stauskas has been deserving of the NBA Draft hype this past week, as he has been playing like a pro this year.
LeVert has also been coming into his own these past few weeks, transforming from a roll player last year to an offensive creator this year. Although there were times when LeVert was dribbling too much, he has shown his ability to breakdown a defense off the dribble with his quickness and aggression. On top of his important offensive output of 17 points, LeVert also grabbed 8 boards on the defensive end. While Stauskas was the star again, LeVert stepped up when Harris was taking Stauskas out of the game at times. They have become one of the best one-two backcourt punches in the country this year.
Finally, the night’s most impressive performance belonged to the freshman point guard Walton. He was in control of the offense all night and the common observer would have been shocked to know he is just a true freshman. While he often looked rushed and uncertain earlier in the season, Walton is really coming into his own in conference play. The freshman had a career high 19 points, including 9-10 from the free throw line (8 in the final 2:30). This was Walton’s best game of his young career and it happened on a huge stage, in front of a hostile Breslin Center crowd that shook last year’s Michigan team.
Along with the perimeter offense, Michigan’s big men Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford both gave in strong performances. This has proven to be a consistent recipe: flashy, prolific offense from the outside and tough, effective defense from the two bigs inside. Morgan was the victim of a couple of weak foul calls, but that didn’t stop him from giving in a gritty, impressive performance inside, albeit against a Spartans team that was without standout big Adreian Payne.
The one low-light on this special night for Michigan was Glenn Robinson III’s passive play. There are two different Robinsons: the aggressive, athletic forward who can go at and finish over nearly anyone and hit open jumpers and then there’s a hesitant, seemingly uninterested stationary forward who stands in the corner all night. Tonight, unfortunately, the latter of the two showed up. Robinson was just 2-8 from the field and didn’t take advantage of some clear mismatches on the offensive end. His biggest weakness, besides the lack of a constant motor, is the fact that Robinson struggles to create his own shot off the dribble and that limits him against good teams like Michigan State. What was indefensible for the sophomore was the fact that he had just one single rebound all night(Spike Albrecht, who is just 5’11″ and played 16 fewer minutes than Robinson had 3), a sign of a lack of effort and aggression. Michigan won despite Robinson tonight thanks to their prolific shooting, but they are going to need Robinson to step up in the future for this success to be sustainable. In a game where future NBA players like Stauskas and Harris shined, Robinson gave a poor effort.
The Wolverines will now have a relatively easy matchup with Purdue at home on Thursday, although they must be careful to avoid a letdown after such an emotional win in East Lansing. But seven games into Big Ten play, against all odds, Michigan now sits at 7-0 and is one of the hottest teams in the country.