Since losing his starting spot to Duncan Robinson early in the season, sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins has thrived, but primarily in uncommon and unpredictable spurts.
Maybe it was a 5-for-5 shooting performance against Penn State, or knocking down three 3s to keep the Michigan basketball team within striking distance of Iowa, but it was clear that, at any given moment, Dawkins could explode with the ball in his hands.
So when the Wolverines struggled out of the gate against Rutgers — the worst Big Ten team in recent memory — Michigan coach John Beilein turned to Dawkins for a spark.
The sophomore rewarded the faith, scoring eight points in 96 seconds, igniting Michigan — which had been shooting just 5-of-20 from the field before Dawkins entered — on a 15-2 run that ensured it had enough breathing room to survive the trap game.
“(I’m) just trying to provide energy in whatever way I can,” Dawkins said. “If it’s making shots, if it’s rebounding, if it’s making the right pass — whatever it is — just trying to give the game a different kind of vibe, a different energy. That’s what I pride my game on right now, just trying to make something happen.”
By the game’s end, the Wolverines scored their fewest points in a game since scoring 58 on December 8th at Southern Methodist. Michigan’s starting five shot just 14-for-41 from the field.
But in an off night for Michigan’s starters, Dawkins was there, shooting 4-of-6 for 11 points in the 11-point win.
“That was a big part of our game, to establish that sixth guy,” Beilein said. “It’s really been good, and as he continues to grow in other areas of the game, he should be an important part of us in these final 10 games that we have left.”
Dawkins is now averaging 18 points per game and has made 13 out of 18 three-point attempts in three career games against the Scarlet Knights.
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect night for Dawkins. The athletic guard landed himself on the wrong side of the highlight reels late in the second half by leaping over the rim for a one-handed slam, only for the dunk to bounce off the rim and soar 40 feet the other way.
“He just has to understand that you need to be good before you’re great,” Beilein said. “Go up and dunk with two (hands), you’ll still make the highlight reel.”
Irvin racks up assists, rebounds
Wednesday was about as bad as it gets offensively, by Michigan’s standards. But a bright spot came from sharing the ball. The Wolverines assisted on 17 of their 20 made shots, generating a season-high 85-percent assist rate.
And an elemental part of that was junior forward Zak Irvin. After mustering just 14 assists in his freshman campaign, Irvin has shown an ability to set up plays for others this season. He did so Wendesday, using a heavy arsenal of drives and and dishes to teammates to tally a career-high eight assists against the Scarlet Knights.
“At times people would look at the game and say he’s the primary guy out there,” Beilein said. “But we went to Derrick later a couple of times just because we felt that it would be a better option for us, but (Zak) is really doing a good job of seeing people … you have to have some help, but he’s really good at finding them.
In addition to the passing proficiency, Irvin matched a career high with 12 rebounds, putting him very close to triple-double.
Alas, Irvin had to settle for a strong, complete game and a Michigan win.
“You can throw the stats out the window,” Irvin said. “I’m just trying to follow the ball better and do whatever it takes to win.”
Something missing from Wednesday’s game
Well before the game began and before Michigan struggled against the Scarlet Knights, Beilein knew something was missing.
In fact, Beilein was all too aware that, after decades of checking scouting reports one more time just before the game begins, Beilein’s 4-5 page writeup on Rutgers was nowhere to be found.
“I religiously go over it one more time, and I couldn’t find it,” he said. “That was a bad omen to start. Because after 1,100 games, I have the same ritual.”
Of course, Beilein’s team failed to dispel any of his fears, missing 15 of their first 20 shots before only slightly taking control. It was an off night that could have been even worse, had Michigan not been playing the Big Ten’s worst offense and defense.
“When you’re playing an 0-7 team and it’s at your place and you’re coming off a big win, the trap game, the let-down game, all those things are a part of it,” Beilein said. “In those types of games, you just have to provide a message for your team moving to the next game.”
Eventually, the Wolverines proved to be ready enough for and found a way to win, but Beilein never found his notes.
“It’s a great mystery,” Beilein quipped.