Feb. 17, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Here's what John Beilein knew to be true:
Zak Irvin had scored 1,430 points for the University of Michigan basketball team prior to Thursday night's (Feb. 16) game with Wisconsin.
Irvin had scored only 13 points in his last four games combined.
Those were the facts, and there was no avoiding either of them. Still, when Irvin lofted a three-point shot that missed the rim by four feet on his first outside shot of the game, his head coach had a message in the timeout that came seconds later:
"Keep shooting! Keep shooting!"
When Beliein encouraged Irvin with those two words, what did he see in his senior forward's eyes?
"I saw love in his eyes," said Beilein. "It was almost like, 'Thank you.' And I saw the gratitude that this wasn't something I wanted him to stop doing. It's just common sense. He's a key part of this program, and you cannot shut off his water like that, and say, 'Do something else.' Just because he's had three or four games that were subpar.
"So, I love what he did today."
Derrick Walton Jr., who had been carrying the team with a 23-point scoring average over the last five games, had the same message to his classmate and friend: "Just keep shooting!"
"That was all I could tell Zak," said Walton. "You've just got to trust it. You're not seeing it, but you've still got to trust it because you put in the time to make the shots."
It is that belief you receive from those closest to you when doubt is pervading that makes all the difference in the world.
"To start it off with an air ball the way I did," said Irvin, "I had my head down a little bit. But Coach Beilein and the guys were there: 'Keep shooting. Keep shooting.' For Coach Beilein to be right there, he's a confidence guy for us. It really helped my mindset the rest of the way."
Irvin scored 18 points -- making six of 12 shots, including two of five treys -- and added five rebounds, three assists and two steals. He was the needed spark in a huge, 64-58, win over No. 11 Wisconsin.
What was it like to be back?
"It feels good," said Irvin. "I got it going, and everybody was kind of relieved."
Jordan Morgan and Caris LeVert, both former teammates, were among a group of recent Wolverines in the postgame locker room. Morgan pulled Irvin aside as they began parting and said, "The rest of the way -- just like this."
What did that mean to Irvin?
"It was huge," said Irvin. "I was a freshman when Jordan was a senior, and he was always a great captain for us. That will boost your confidence as well, and seeing Caris and Tim (Hardaway Jr.), who played my position. I tried to learn as best as I could from them."
Beilein added, "I know this kid, and you can't score over 1,400 points and then all of a sudden not be able to put the ball in the basket. But I get the mental part. I've been watching this for 40 years, and it happens.
"Tim Hardaway was here today and he had a span where he once went one-for-17. It comes and it goes, and all you need is a couple shots to break out of it."
Irvin plays off emotion, and so it was only natural that his awakening began with a burst of joy.
He picked up a loose ball after the Wolverines got some great post defense and dribbled the ball down the right side of the court with great urgency.
D.J. Wilson was cutting to the basket with purpose, and was rewarded with a perfect pass from Irvin that he slammed home.
Irvin began thrusting both of his hands upward from his sides. He leaned back his head and roared.
"That was huge for us," said Irvin.
Less than two minutes later, Irvin had the ball in his hands with the shot clock about to expire. He hoisted a deep three-pointer that hit glass and banked in. While jogging back on defense, Irvin extended both arms as if to say, "How do you explain that?"
He laughed when that lucky shot was mentioned.
"I got glass," said Irvin, "and it really knocked the seal off of me. It was a huge weight off my shoulders, and I just felt such confidence after that."
Beilein added, "That shot changed his world a little bit with what he's been through, and changed us."
Irvin had averaged 3.3 points in the last four games, making only four of 31 shots (.129) and going two-for-15 (.133) on treys.
How did he deal with the frustration that brought?
"It's all mental," said Irvin. "I have to give thanks to everyone in my support system, and for my family and the players being there for me. It was a mental block.
"But it's in the past now. I just look to the future."
He's now scored 1,448 points, passing Rumeal Robinson against the Badgers for 23rd on the school's career scoring list, and he's three points away from Loy Vaught, another one of the heroes from the 1989 national champions. His 221 treys are fourth on the school's career list.
And that is why Beilein and Walton told him to keep shooting.
The Wolverines (17-9, 7-6) gained an important win for their NCAA Tournament resume, and Irvin had plenty to say about the outcome.
Walton congratulated Irvin before they went through the post-game handshake line.
"He made the big plays for us," said Walton. "He was making timely shots, and it was just time."
Walton smiled and said he saw that look again in Irvin's eyes. Confidence had been restored.
The team's confidence also is growing after three straight wins over Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin by 29, 12 and six points, respectively.
"This was our second-to-last home game," said Irvin, who has a Feb. 25 home game with Purdue wedged in the middle of four road showdowns. "Things had to change, and we made those changes. We just have to keep that going down the road."
What was the biggest change made by the team since being 4-6 in the conference three games ago?
"Mindset," said Irvin. "We told ourselves, we got a little group message going, telling ourselves it was an eight-game season and we just wanted to be 1-0. We won that game, and it became a seven-game season, let's go 1-0. We had the same mindset tonight, and when we go to Minnesota (Sunday, Feb. 19) it will be a five-game season and we just want to go 1-0.
"We're just taking it one game at a time."
That might be the most used cliché in sports, but I think these Wolverines have adopted it with real meaning. You believe in what works.
Moritz Wagner and Wilson have stepped up to add great energy and production in the front court; Walton has been on fire; and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is supplying steadiness to the starting lineup. Duncan Robinson, Xavier Simpson and Mark Donnal are making meaningful contributions off the bench.
However, over the last two weeks, Irvin, the player who had scored more than anyone on the squad, was the missing component.
"It's going to be very hard for us to have success this year if we shut him off," said Beilein. "We don't say, 'You don't know how to score anymore.' It's like riding a bike. You might fall off, but you just keep going and going."
Until you get on a roll.