Donnal meriting return to UM starting lineup

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Starting forward Mark Donnal?

It sure seems like Michigan coach John Beilein is leaning heavily toward putting the junior forward back in the lineup following his career day against Illinois earlier this week.

"We're examining that today. Is he better coming off the bench? Is he better starting?" Michigan coach John Beilein said Friday morning. "Anybody that puts on that type of performance ... we're thinking about changing."

Donnal was the third big man off the bench in Wednesday's 78-68 win at Illinois, but kept himself on the floor with a performance that might've stunned the fan base, but not the coaching staff.

Donnal had career highs in points (26), rebounds (nine), blocks (three) and, as a result, minutes (28).

Michigan's  Mark Donnal

"It wasn't like a 10 (points) and five (rebounds) game. It was 26 and nine," Beilein said. "That's an important factor for us.
"If we get that position going and keep improving, that makes a big change for our season, I think."

Donnal was Michigan's starter for the first three games of the season, but then was replaced by Ricky Doyle.

Doyle started Wednesday, and was followed by Mo Wagner, and then Donnal, who quickly became a go-to target of Caris LeVert.

Michigan (11-3) has figured out its rotation since ugly losses earlier in the season against Xavier and SMU, but the forward spot was the one remaining holdout. Beilein hopes that final piece of the puzzle is starting to get solved now.

"We have to get Mark some confidence now," Beilein said ahead of Saturday's game against Penn State at Crisler Center.
"I think he'd have a little longer leash than he's had in the past after that performance."

Since being taken out of the starting rotation, Donnal has been a scout-team member in practice.

And Donnal really started thriving in that role about a week before the holiday break, and picked right up with good practices following the break.

Beilein said the coaching staff is pondering taking him off the scout team, and moving in either Doyle or, more likely, Wagner.

"That's been an interesting conversation the last couple days," Beilein said. "Our thought is to probably get him closer to the rotation and let somebody else get those reps and see if that can work the same kind of confidence-builder it did for Mark."

Leery of Lions

Penn State is only 9-5, but it opened some eyes last game when it took it to No. 4 Maryland, the home team, for most of the game before eventually falling, 70-64.

That performance certainly has Michigan on high alert heading into its noon game Saturday.

"Oh yeah, we were watching (film) on the plane on the way back (from Illinois) and I ended up watching it again while you were still sleeping this morning," Beilein told reporters Friday. "This is the best defensive team Penn State's had, so this is gonna be quite a challenge for us."

Penn State, a veteran team, has some big men that can give opponents fits, including 7-foot-1 Jordan Dickerson, who has 30 blocks on the season and is a big reason Penn State is limiting opponents to below 40-percent shooting. Below 40 is typically a benchmark for good defenses.

The Nittany Lions use a mix of man-to-man and a matchup zone to befuddle opposing offenses.

Offensively, forward Brandon Taylor averages 16.1 points, and guard Shep Garner averages 14.9.

"They have several ways they can score," Beilein said.

Reserve plaudits

They get lost in the shuffle, but Beilein is thrilled with the play of a couple reserves.

Specifically, he's raving about Aubrey Dawkins, who has embraced his new sixth-man role, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

Immediately following games, Michigan's practices run what it calls "All-Stars," and this week, both Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman were "All-Stars," even though their stat-sheet lines don't necessarily jump out.

Dawkins' defense off the bench has been a huge plus, and Beilein now believes he can turn to Abdur-Rahkman to hold down the fort when Caris LeVert needs a break, or Zak Irvin, or even both at the same time, as was the case for a couple minutes in the second half Wednesday.

"You could see the sense of purpose that they have in our practice," Beilein said. "They know their role."

Beilein said he hopes the practice effort of Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman rubs off on others, like Kameron Chatman and D.J. Wilson.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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Penn State at Michigan

Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/WWJ

Records: Penn State 9-5, 0-1 Big Ten; Michigan 11-3, 1-0

Outlook: The Wolverines have won three straight against Penn State, and eight of the last 10. ... Penn State has three players averaging in double figures in scoring, led by Brandon Taylor (16.1 ppg), who also averages a team-high 6.4 rebounds.