Ann Arbor — Michigan senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. couldn’t help but chuckle.
After decimating a shorthanded Indiana team, 90-60, Thursday night in arguably Michigan’s best performance of the season, one could only wonder: Where has this team been all Big Ten season?
"I think every team has its ups and downs, got some inconsistencies,” said Walton, who led six Wolverines (14-7, 4-4 Big Ten) in double figures with 21 points and five assists.
“I think just the mentality to want to be aggressive every single game, but it's never too late to turn it on. I think the last few games have been a step in the right direction.”
Ever since hitting a low in an embarrassing loss at Illinois on Jan. 11, the Wolverines have seemingly flipped a switch.
Michigan leaned on its balanced offense to outgun Nebraska before stringing together solid defensive outings in a close loss at Wisconsin and thumping of Illinois. But none of those games were without lapses at either end of the court.
It hit a crescendo Thursday as Michigan displayed what it’s capable of for a full 40 minutes. The Wolverines shot 63.3 percent from the field — the second-best shooting performance of the season, trailing only the 65.4 percent against Maryland-Eastern Shore — scored 22 points off 16 turnovers and 17 points off eight offensive rebounds.
The Wolverines were clicking in every facet as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Mark Donnal were a combined 4-for-4 from 3-point range, Duncan Robinson knocked down fadeaway jumpers, Moritz Wagner crashed the offensive glass, and D.J. Wilson threaded the needle with bullet passes and swatted four shots.
According to Wagner, it was only a matter of time before everything started to come together.
“I know my team and we all trust each other even if the ball doesn't bounce our way, so we all keep believing in ourselves and a win or a loss doesn't change that,” Wagner said. “That's the hard thing in basketball, you just got to keep believing, keep trusting yourself and keep working in practice even if you lose.
“I think we did a great job the past couple weeks and now we got to continue to do that because that's nothing in terms of what we want to achieve.”
It’s the type of team Michigan coach John Beilein has seen in practice and for spurts of games. Yet, Beilein said Thursday didn’t mark Michigan’s ceiling because “there’s always another level.”
“There's going to be times we look like a million bucks and there's times we're not,” Beilein said. “We're capable of a lot of things, a lot of teams are.
“There's always these spans right now that people try and figure it out, but the world corrects itself at some point and basketball does, too. We just have to stay persistent, keep working and let's see how this evolves.”
Beilein has said in order for Michigan to make a run, it’s going to need an outlier to provide a spark.
On Thursday, that proved to be Abdur-Rahkman’s defense. The junior guard clamped down on Indiana star James Blackmon Jr., who was coming off a 33-point outburst against Michigan State, and held him to career lows with four points and three field-goal attempts in 33 minutes.
“I think he took it very personally,” Wagner said of Abdur-Rahkman. “He did a great job and didn't let him get the ball easy, which is hard for an offensive player. I know myself when you don't get the ball and have to work hard, it's hard to make shots. He’s a very good player in transition and Muhammad did a great job taking that away.”
Blackmon’s points came on two jumpers in the first nine minutes and he didn’t attempt a single shot in the final 29 minutes. He also had four turnovers and was held without a 3-point attempt for the first time in 66 games at Indiana.
“I don't know if kids go into college saying I'm going to be a defensive stopper. They want to be the leading scorer,” Beilein said. “It's difficult to have kids to have that mindset but everybody needs everybody to do something...There's jobs everybody has to have on this team and that's the one we want Muhammad to embrace.”