Columbus, Ohio — In one of the biggest wins of the season, Michigan’s bench came through again.
Freshman Zak Irvin and junior Jon Horford provided a boost in reserve roles, combining for 18 points in a 70-60 victory at Ohio State on Tuesday night.
Irvin (10 points) scored in double figures for the third straight game and gave a lift off the bench as Glenn Robinson III (3-for-10 from the field) struggled offensively.
Meanwhile, Horford (eight points, four rebounds) combined with Jordan Morgan to give 14 points and 12 rebounds from the center position, as Michigan took a 39-27 rebounding advantage.
Irvin had a 3-pointer in the first half and added two free throws after he was fouled on a 3-point attempt, keeping Michigan close in the first 20 minutes.
“He’s been a typical freshman in some ways, but the young man can make a shot,” coach John Beilein said. “He comes in and finds the bottom of the basket. I was shocked to see he had 10 points during that time, but he just makes shots.”
Irvin has shown a penchant for making big shots all season. The Wolverines have gotten used to it by now.
“He’s done that for us now for probably this whole stretch of the Big Ten. He’s been great bringing us energy and he energizes the whole team,” Morgan said. “Obviously that was a big shot and I knew he was going to hit one when he went in the game. The energy he brings to everybody on the court picks the whole team up.”
Horford had Michigan’s two previous baskets before the run, teaming with Derrick Walton Jr. (13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists) on several pick-and-roll plays and converting easy baskets in the paint. Horford finished 4-of-5 in 20 minutes.
For Morgan and Horford, who had struggled in the past few games, it was a welcome return of productivity, bullying their way to 14 offensive rebounds, including six by Morgan.
“I can’t say enough about what Jordan Morgan did on the backboards today with his offensive rebounds, giving us extra possessions, then Derrick Walton just with a great game,” Beilein said.
With an eight-man rotation, the Wolverines were able to stay fresh and to take control of the boards and prevent the Buckeyes from getting offensive boards, as well.
“I don’t know if we looked to exploit that but we definitely wanted to limit them to one shot and make it hard for them to get offensive putbacks,” Morgan said. “It was a team mentality on offense — we had guys in there that probably shouldn’t have been in there because they should have been back on transition.”
One of the featured matchups against Ohio State was defensive stalwart Aaron Craft against Michigan’s leading scorer, Nik Stauskas (17.3 points). As one of the primary ball handlers and scorers, Stauskas was guarded closely by Craft, much like Trey Burke was the past two seasons.
Stauskas finished with 15 points, on 4-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-6 on 3-pointers and said Craft’s defense was a challenge.
“Aaron’s probably one of the best defensive players in the country and he plays defense with his feet — which is the way defense is supposed to be played,” said Stauskas, who added three rebounds. “He’s really quick and doesn’t fall for a lot of ball fakes. It’s tough going against him; you have to be patient and confident with the ball.”
Stauskas hit his first 3-pointer on a step-back move for Michigan’s first points of the game. He added another during a 10-2 run near the end of the first half as the Wolverines closed a 10-point deficit to two. His other triple started the second half and cut the lead to one before a 7-0 Buckeyes run.
Beilein seemed to use Stauskas as a decoy, as he stood in the corner for some of the possessions, keeping Craft away from the rest of the play and opening driving zones for the other Michigan shooters.
Beilein has beef with schedule
Beilein doesn’t get adamant about too many things, but one subject he does feel strongly about is the Wolverines’ schedule this season and how it’s structured.
There was no way to tell at the beginning of the year, but U-M’s schedule worked out to feature two spans of games against the top teams in the Big Ten. In January, Michigan played consecutive games at Wisconsin, home against Iowa and at Michigan State. All three teams were ranked in the top 10 in the national rankings — and U-M was able to sweep through the trio, getting a simultaneous boost back into the top 10.
After a three-game stint against teams in the middle of the pack of the conference standings, Michigan now has another round with the contenders, playing all four of the other top teams in the Big Ten in succession — at Iowa, at Ohio State and home against Wisconsin and Michigan State the next two Sundays.
It’s a concern for Beilein, who said he was addressing the issue with the conference office.
“I’m not a big fan of it, but I am addressing — probably the best ways possible, through the Big Ten,” Beilein told reporters Monday on video posted on mgoblue.com. “I’ll continue to have discussions with the Big Ten about it.”
But U-M also benefited from the structure of the schedule also, starting the Big Ten slate at Minnesota, versus Northwestern, at Nebraska and against Penn State before getting to the higher-ranked teams.
It’s a give-and-take Beilein hopes to address in getting more equity in how the schedule is divided and how the games are spaced out.
“What I’d really like to do is practice right now and try and get better. At the same time, that’s the schedule and we just have to go,” he said.
“One of the good things in basketball is sometimes you play two or three games a week; one of the bad things in basketball is sometimes you play two or three games a week.”
The Wolverines are finishing a stretch of five games in 13 days, including three on the road in a 10-day span. The condensed schedule doesn’t allow for much regular practice time, where Beilein and his staff can work on skill development and improve on their deficiencies as they get to the last few games of the Big Ten season. Beilein laments there is only time left to prepare for the opponent and install a game plan.
“It’s very hard to get better when you’re just preparing for a game,” Beilein said. “We’re trying to do our best while we work at some of the areas where we have to get better.”