Three games into the season, junior forward Mark Donnal lost his confidence and his starting spot in the lineup.
Donnal tallied just 12 points in the Michigan men’s basketball team’s first three contests. In the Wolverines’ next game against Connecticut at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, Donnal wasn’t just scratched from the starting rotation — he didn’t play at all. He quickly dropped from Michigan’s top big man to its last option off the bench.
His minutes were dwindling and so was his focus. He was overthinking the game.
Then Big Ten play began, and suddenly he wasn’t.
“I’m not necessarily sure what exactly it was (that changed),” Donnal said. “But I got the confidence rolling after the Illinois game and just kind of built off that.”
After impressing Michigan coach John Beilein in practice leading up to Michigan’s Big Ten opener against the Illini two weeks ago, Donnal got an opportunity to put his refocused game on display. After coming off the bench in Champaign, he dropped eight points in 11 minutes of first-half work and earned a spot in the starting lineup in the second frame. He finished the game with a career-high 26 points and his old spot in the starting five. Three days later, Donnal continued to make his case, dropping 16 points at home against Penn State.
Tuesday night, Donnal’s think-less, do-more game plan worked again, helping Michigan edge No. 3 Maryland, 70-67. He had just eight points and went 0-for-3 on 3-point attempts, but he did the little things right.
“I’m just going out, playing my game, being a ball player,” Donnal said after the win. “That’s what I got recruited for, and I think that’s a big thing for me, just playing my game. I’m not traditionally focused on all the X’s and O’s and overthinking things — I think I’ve just done a better job of playing my game.”
With Michigan up six points late in the first half, Donnal had two blocks in 12 seconds. With less than a minute left, he stepped up and got a hand on the ball as Maryland guard Rasheed Sulaimon drove to the hoop, knocking the ball out of bounds. After the Terrapins inbounded the ball, forward Robert Carter Jr. tried a jumper from inside the paint only to have the ball swatted by Donnal, who snuck in from behind him.
The Wolverines recovered the loose ball and, after calling a timeout, set up their offense for one final shot at the end of the frame. Junior guard Zak Irvin missed a 3-pointer from straightaway, but Donnal was right under the hoop and, amid a handful of Maryland bodies, tipped in Irvin’s miss as time expired.
He took the hand he had just tipped the ball in with, clenched it, pumped his fist and yelled. He marched over toward Michigan’s bench and was greeted by high fives and chest bumps. The Wolverines were headed to the locker room up 37-29 on the third-ranked Terrapins, and Donnal — the same guy who was benched three games into the season — had a lot to do with it.
Late in the second half, Donnal came up big again. With less than 15 seconds remaining, he fought off two Maryland defenders to grab an offensive board off a missed layup by junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. Michigan called a timeout, and after Donnal received the inbound, the Terrapins were forced to foul. The junior made only the front end of the 1-and-1 opportunity, allowing Maryland an opportunity to tie the game late.
The Terrapins brought the ball down the court and an offensive screen forced Michigan to switch on defense, pinning Donnal on Sulaimon — Maryland’s best option from behind the arc. Sulaimon backed up and fired from deep over the outstretched arm of Donnal, but the shot missed, clinching the victory for the Wolverines.
“He’s playing with a little swag. And we all need that, but there’s some young men that probably need that more because they’re just gentle giants, and you can’t survive this league being a gentle giant,” Beilein said on the Huge Show on Thursday.
In the four games since conference play has started, Donnal’s combined 57 points are more than he had the entire first half of the season. He’s done thinking about the little things on the court and is just focused on playing the game.
“It’s one of those things that comes with college basketball,” Donnal said. “All the different terminology and different plays and everything that’s being thrown at you, it’s easy to overthink, but today we were just playing basketball.”
This article was written by Simon Kaufman and originally appeared in The Michigan Daily on January 15, 2016. It has been republished with the author’s permission.