Four minutes into its first game without its leading scorer, Michigan’s No. 2 scoring option was whistled for his second foul.
John Beilein handled the situation like he has during every other game that he’s coached at Michigan. He put Zak Irvin on the bench for the remainder of the half and let his bench play.
That meant 11 different Wolverines, including two walk-ons, played in the opening half and eight of them found their way to the score sheet. The only one who didn’t register a point in the first half was junior guard Spike Albrecht.
Even if it meant playing a lineup of three freshmen and two walk-ons — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Andrew Dakich, Sean Lonergan, Kameron Chatman and Mark Donnal — Beilein was going to stick to his principles.
The message resonated through Michigan’s whole game plan and really its plan for the rest of the season. This is how you win games and even if Caris LeVert isn’t here, we’re going to keep playing how we play until good things happen.
Good things were few and far between at times, but Michigan’s fight was always present.
The Wolverine offense still stalled for long stretches. Ricky Doyle was limited by illness, Derrick Walton didn’t make a basket until late in the second half and Zak Irvin continued to struggle with his floor game. The Wolverines still let modest leads slip away amidst frustrating field goal droughts. And Michigan still needed a bit of help from a below-average Rutgers team to come back in the final ten minutes to escape with a victory.
It wasn’t ever very pretty, but the Wolverines figured out how to win. They are now 5-2 in Big Ten play and armed with the belief that they can win games, even on the road and even without the player that led them for the first 18 games of the season.
Michigan’s offense managed only .94 points per trip, but the offense actually generated plenty of clean looks. The Wolverines just couldn’t make them. That’s nothing new for this team, which shot just 39% on twos and 31% on threes for a 42.9 eFG% in the victory. Michigan didn’t do anything particularly well on offense to win this game, they simply kept it close enough to steal it down the stretch.
Defensively, the Wolverines went with a 2-3 zone for probably about half of the game and it was a smart choice against a team that just can’t shoot. Rutgers didn’t move the ball well against the zone and settled for a lot of very questionable shots. I did think Michigan’s 2-3 zone moved and rotated more effectively than it has in other games as the wings did a better job of bumping and recovering to take away the wing three. The 1-3-1 was largely left in the closet, in part because Caris LeVert was critical to the top of the zone and also because Rutgers was content enough to turn the ball over without being trapped and it wasn’t worth giving up an easy basket.
Free throws also made up for the difference in an otherwise even game. Both teams went to the line 14 times, but Michigan made 12 and Rutgers made only 7 in a four point Wolverine victory.
Michigan gave up just .88 points per possession and now has the conference’s No. 2 rated defense in terms of points per possession allowed in Big Ten games. I’m not ready to buy the Wolverine as defensive stoppers — they’ve now played the league’s second easiest slate — but toughness on the defensive end is going to be critical for a group that doesn’t have many reliable offensive options.
Michigan hosts Wisconsin on Saturday and will obviously be heavy underdogs – even if the Badgers lost at Rutgers, they are still the class of the conference – but playing at home this team doesn’t have a lot to lose either.
The value of winning this game at Rutgers is almost immeasurable for a team that John Beilein admitted probably wasn’t even sure they could win Big Ten games without LeVert. Now the Wolverines won’t be chasing their first conference win without LeVert, they’ll be in the much more comfortable position of searching for another.
- Derrick Walton: I expected that Walton could take over the offense today and look to score. He certainly didn’t do that. He’s also visibly feeling the effects of his turf toe injury by the end of the games. But when Michigan needed someone to step up and take over down the stretch, it was Derrick Walton who answered the call. He hit two critical three-pointers after not making a shot all game, hit his free throws and had a critical steal on the defensive end. Despite his clutch play, Michigan is going to need more from Walton as a creator in the half court, especially against better teams and defenses.
- Max Bielfeldt: Playing a 6-foot-6 center is never ideal, but Bielfeldt is far more comfortable running Michigan’s offense from the high post than Donnal or Doyle. His experience pays dividends in that position and he finished with 8 points and eight rebounds in 22 minutes. Bielfeldt is undersized, but he’s learning to use his lower body strength more effectively and was able to keep a number of offensive possessions alive with his hustle.
- Aubrey Dawkins: It was great to see Dawkins get out in transition and on the offensive glass for a few easy points and then he hit a critical three to break Michigan’s scoring drought, immediately after missing on the previous possession. That was the shot that really changed the game for Michigan and got it back involved and Dawkins deserves a lot of credit for his shooter’s conscience to keep on firing. While he brought a lot of production to the table (11 points on 4 of 8 shooting), his weak side box outs need to improve as he has the tendency to get out-muscled, especially in the 2-3 zone.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: When his instinct (to go to the basket and score) kicks in, it’s obvious that Abdur-Rahkman has some great natural talent. But it’s also clear that most of the time he’s thinking his was through every move. Rutgers trapped him a couple of times and at that point he responded by taking the ball right to the rack and scoring. That’s a skillset that not many people left on the roster have and it’s a skillset that John Beilein and his staff are going to need to refine over the next two months.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht, like Walton, struggled to get his offense going from the point guard spot. He didn’t score until moments before Walton’s threes when he finished a nice little scoop shot in the lane. Albrecht is a capable shooter, but he’s just not comfortable firing up threes right now and seemed to pass up a number of open looks.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin looked great for the first four minutes of both halves. After that, things started to deteriorate. In the first half, he managed to find himself on the bench after committing two fouls. In the second half, he started hesitating to shoot and then driving himself into trouble. Irvin is a one dimensional player — he now has 421 field goal attempts and 28 assists in his career — but he’s a capable shooter and his shooting struggles are all between the ears.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal was just 1 of 4 from the field, but he hit a big three in the first half and also grabbed seven rebounds. Was it a perfect performance from Donnal? No way, but it was a critical step in the right direction. Offensively, Donnal was indecisive at the top of the key which resulted in turnovers and some lazy passes — those are mistakes that Michigan can’t afford at this point.
- Kameron Chatman: Chatman is battling tendinitis in his knee, but got a nice long stretch of playing time in the first half and came up with a nice follow up basket. Late in the shift he lost focus and missed a shot badly, gave up a second chance and turned the ball over in three consecutive possessions. That stretch pretty much killed his playing time for the rest of the game as he continues to maintain a consistent role in the offense.
- Sean Lonergan: It’s clear that Michigan doesn’t have many complete options at the three and four spots and Lonergan looked serviceable on the offensive end, finishing a nice take to the bucket, but he struggled a bit defensively and was whistled for a foul and gave up a putback.
- Andrew Dakich: Much was made on Twitter about Dakich burning his redshirt to play in the game tonight. Beilein told reporters after the game that Dakich has been asking him multiple times to burn the redshirt and if he has a chance to play meaningful minutes this season, why not?
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle was clearly not himself and took himself out of the game – as he was instructed to do, according to Beilein – early in both halves.