March 22, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There is a scroll with a Bible scripture verse tattooed high onto the back of Zak Irvin's right calf.
Irvin said: "It's from first Corinthians 16:13. It says, 'Be on your guard. Stand firm in your faith. Be courageous, be strong.' I really like that Bible verse."
It ties into his faith first but also into his defensive mentality on the basketball court.
"Yeah, it does," said Irvin, leaning back in the locker room chair and smiling.
Defense will play a big role in determining whether Michigan continues advancing in the NCAA Tournament because Oregon -- which averages 79.4 points per game -- is capable of making the kind of scoring runs that decide games.
Irvin will primarily cover Ducks guard Dylan Ennis in Thursday night's (March 23) Sweet 16 game at Sprint Center. However, Irvin (6-foot-6, 215 pounds) is versatile enough to switch onto Oregon's hottest scorer in 6-4 Tyler Dorsey (20-plus points in five consecutive games) or even leading scorer Dillon Brooks (16.4 points per game), a 6-7, 225-pound forward.
"They remind me of UCLA with how fast-paced they are," said Irvin, whose team lost to the Bruins, 102-84, earlier this season. "They are able to shoot the ball very well and are very talented."
Irvin's defensive versatility will be vital in this matchup.
"I'm most impressed with his defense," said Michigan assistant coach Billy Donlon, the team's defensive guru. "Obviously, there's his shot-making and scoring, but the guys he's had to defend since the Big Ten Tournament on, and the job he's done, has been a real credit to him. And the whole move to (allowing) under a point a possession is really an accomplishment, and a lot of that has to do with Zak and how well he's played all over the floor.
"I don't mean to take that away from his offense. He certainly made two high-level shots late against Louisville -- he nailed a three and then a pull-up going right -- but he's played like our whole team, with a great end-of-season urgency. And for him it's a career-ending urgency because he's a senior."
Near the end of Wednesday's (March 22) practice, Donlon played a one-possession, one-on-one game with Irvin. The player bodied up on his coach, arms extended and feet shuffling, while Donlon dribbled and jockeyed for position, searching for the right instant to make his move to the bucket.
Donlon drove to the hoop, barely getting off a finger roll shot that swirled and dropped. He was ecstatic, and Irvin was laughing, and it was another example of how these Wolverines are having so much fun on their march through March.
Irvin has become a complete player again during this stretch run and is making a bigger impact than ever.
The shots are dropping again for a player whose 1,591 career points rank 15th at Michigan. He just passed Roy Tarpley and recently moved ahead of Juwan Howard, Phil Hubbard, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jimmy King on that list.
However, his offense nearly disappeared right in the middle of conference play.
Irvin shot four-for-31 (.129) from the field over four games, but Michigan head coach John Beilein wanted Irvin to keep shooting because, Beilein reasoned, somebody who has scored this much will definitely regain their touch.
And Irvin did. He has scored in double figures in 11 of the last 12 games. Beginning with the last two regular-season games, Irvin has made 48-of-83 shots (.578) for a 16-percent improvement over the .417 in the first 29 games.
I asked Irvin about the joy of regaining his rhythm.
"It's nice to be in that rhythm and so confident in my abilities," said Irvin. "It's nice to see everyone else playing well, too. It's contagious, and when one of us gets it going, we all get it going."
His patience has led to the timing that led to a real flow in his game. He spots an open lane an instant before the defense can clog it. He exploits mismatches that come when opponents switch. He anticipates the movement of his teammates for perfect set-up passes.
Has he sensed the game slowing down for him?
"I think so," Irvin said. "As I've gotten older and watched more film and learned new things about the game, things have begun to slow down for me."
Irvin was an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2016 and 2017 -- making a positive impression but not wowing folks. However, he gained that wow factor in the Big Ten Tournament and was named to the all-tournament team along with senior classmate and four-year roommate Derrick Walton Jr.
"It's been perfect timing," said Irvin. "I'm definitely playing my best basketball since March rolled around."
This game with Oregon will be his 142nd at Michigan and will break a tie with former teammate Jordan Morgan for the most ever by one player at the school.
"Really," said Irvin. "I didn't even know that, and that's something. I've been here a long time, and that just speaks to my durability."
Irvin, who underwent a summer back procedure after his sophomore season, has never missed a game.
And lately, he's barely missed a minute.
Irvin, who led the Big Ten with 35.2 minutes played per game, has missed only 14 minutes total in six postseason games. He actually played all 45 minutes of the overtime win against Purdue in the conference tourney.
How has he been able to do this?
"It's just a lot of rehab," said Irvin. "Really, it's just about getting my body right, eating and sleeping right and being ready for the games.
"I feel good. We got a couple days off, which was nice. At this point, everyone's tired and has fatigue. But we made the Sweet 16, and I'm not worried about being tired."
He's leaving a much larger footprint behind than it looked like he would just six weeks ago, joining Walton in leading the Wolverines to the Big Ten Tournament championship and beyond.
"We're just enjoying everything," said Irvin. "We're embracing it because it's our last year. We want to make the most of every opportunity.
"It's been one heck of a run that we're on, and we're playing really well right now. We just don't want it to end."
Irvin and Walton used to be roommates with Purdue senior transfer Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert, now with the NBA's Brooklyn Nets. So, despite Albrecht now playing for a Big Ten rival, their friendship endures.
When Albrecht hit a three-point shot against his former teammates in a conference tourney game two weeks ago, he shouted, "Let's go!"
That was all the scoring in that game for Albrecht, who scored 17 first-half points off the bench for Michigan in its 2013 national title game loss to Louisville. It seemed like that game in Washington D.C. would be the last of two games Spike played against his buddies but now Purdue is bracketed against No. 1 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16 games in Kansas City.
"They won't leave us alone," Albrecht said of the Wolverines. "They keep following us. Once we found out we were all going to be in Kansas City earlier in the week, I was talking to those guys. We're not staying at the same hotel, but hopefully we'll be able to catch up at some point."
If both Michigan and the Boilermakers win Thursday night (March 22), they would face off one more time in the Elite Eight on Saturday.
"Everyone knows Spike from his freshman year and the national championship game," said Irvin. "He's playing a great role for Purdue this season. We were talking to him yesterday, and it will be nice to be able to see him. We texted back and forth and got a little group message going. We're happy for him that he's able to continue his season. It's all friendly. Spike's a great guy, and we wish him the best."