Behind underclassmen push, Michigan keeps tournament hopes alive

Zach Shaw

When the season began, the Michigan basketball team knew it had two seniors to keep everyone in line when the Wolverines struggled.

And when Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert both went down with injuries, the Wolverines were able to instead lean on their juniors to fill the void.

But on Wednesday, when Michigan found itself down 10-0 early and its juniors — guard Derrick Walton and forwards Zak Irvin and Mark Donnal — were struggling to produce, the Wolverines’ third wave of leadership shined through.

Behind Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s 19 points and the clutch bench play of Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle, Michigan’s sophomore class steered the team past Northwestern and kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

“We need that,” said Michigan coach John Beilein of his team’s productive youth. “You see all of our good teams over the years, we had a bench that could just come off and get us some baskets.”

Abdur-Rahkman got those baskets early, often and late, usually when no one else could.

Despite being a team that relies heavily on a matchup zone defense, the Wildcats came out in man-to-man from the get go. As Michigan’s offense went empty in its first 8 trips down the floor, Northwestern quickly stormed out to a 17-4 lead on the heels of Alex Olah and, for a moment, looked primed to bury Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes.

But Abdur-Rahkman dug deeper. The sophomore guard drove to the basket time and again in the first half, and time and again it paid off. By halftime, the Wolverines were still struggling with turnovers (six) and shooting from 3 (1 for 9), but Abdur-Rahkman had found a way around it, leading the team with nine points.

“I thought he was tremendous,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “His ability to drive the ball, get by our guys, get to the basket, draw fouls. If he did miss, we were in rotations so they got offensive rebounds. I thought he played a great game and was a big difference in the game.”

More importantly, the deficit had been narrowed to one. But when the Wildcats went on an 8-0 run to start the second half, Abdur-Rahkman had to take control again just to keep Michigan in it. He did that, and ended the game with a game-high 19 points. Whenever Michigan needed a basket, Abdur-Rahkman was up to the challenge.

“Muhammad is becoming a guy that just gets there,” Beilein said Wednesday night. “He keeps his dribble. He’s got the Ali shuffle around the hoop. He’s got all kinds of things happening. I’d like to have more of those guys.”

This time, however, the goal wasn’t to catch up to Northwestern, but to take the lead, and to do that he needed help. And with the usual suspects of Walton and Irvin struggling to get open and redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson struggling to make shots, he had to turn to his bench.

Fortunately, they delivered.

The biggest contributor was Dawkins, who tallied three of Michigan’s four 3-pointers and grabbed seven rebounds. Though Doyle and sophomore forward Kam Chatman didn’t light up the box score, their contribution to the Wolverines taking the lead and their eventual win was clear.

“I’m really happy with the bench, the bench was huge today,” Beilein said. “Everything from Kam just getting in there and getting a rebound and making a (lead-taking) foul shot, Ricky making those foul shots at the end. Obviously Aubrey was a catalyst again for us.”

After Michigan took its first lead of the game with just 9:15 to go, it found itself in a battle against the Wildcats. Even with their seniors on the bench and their juniors playing unusually quiet, the Wolverines were up to the task.

That toughness, especially from his sophomore class, did not go unnoticed by Beilein.

“Really I thought the game came down to the last five minutes, and quite frankly I thought Michigan’s guys were tougher than our guys,” Collins said. “I just thought they were tougher. I thought when the game was there to be won, they made the plays they had to make.”

“I told our team that, that I’m proud of that. Because sometimes that’s questionable about teams, especially I’m sure with us,” Beilein said. “That was as good a win as we’ve had all year as far as I’m concerned.”

The statement may turn heads, given that the Wolverines’ struggled at times against a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team, looking out of it at times and lucky at best in the closing minutes.

But with a tournament spot on the line and the team’s healthy upperclassmen showing fatigue, the win showed that Michigan can find a way, even if it’s from the third wave of leadership.

“It’s a young team that’s learning toughness,” he said. “They’re learning what it takes to win and how to fight through adversity.”

  • Mattski

    Dawkins seven rebounds. He gets miserably lost, but the guy’s still a sophomore–if he figures out how to play D he can be a strong contributor. I think he could be a kid like Hardaway who had a fair amount of natural ability but was ambivalent about the game, coming to it all a little late. . .

    • MAZS

      Not questioning that Dawkins could still be a player, but, even with his disappointing sophomore year, Hardaway was always more engaged in the game than Dawkins has been to date.

      • Mattski

        That’s not my recollection. I always get nervous when we start to question how lazy a kid is or not, but there were times when Hardaway, like a lot of these guys (Robinson at times last night) looked pretty glaze-eyed.

    • Jake

      I agree about Dawkins. He seemed to have a much better game on the defensive end last night. His offense is always good. I think Dawkins needs to start over Robinson from here out for 2 different reasons. One, Robinson has hit a major slump and if it’s truly just fatigue, bring him off the bench and lighten his minutes. Two, Dawkins has the ability to absolutely fire up the entire team with his unbelievable athleticism. Stick him in there until he finds a groove on D, and if he blows a few assignments throw in Duncan.

    • NorthernBlue

      He really doesn’t have the best defensive awareness. His effort level is there, sometimes his brain just can’t keep up on that end. He has a couple flashes. I would prefer if he could be a plus defender and rebounder who could play the role that GRIII did, providing backdoor cuts into lobs. Then we could have Duncan come in off the bench and give him the green light to gun and if he doesn’t have it he doesn’t have it.

  • John

    I don’t mean to nitpick, but “keeps tournament hopes alive” is an unreasonably pessimistic view of things right now. Bracket matrix has Michigan nearly universally in right now with seedings as high as 7. I think “gets an important win for tourney resume” fits the situation a lot better.

    • Carl

      Agreed.. Most have us around a 9 or 10 seed. I think we may already be in.

      • NorthernBlue

        i think a B1G tourny win is needed if we lose these next two. However, that should be a favorable match up. Also, if OSU wins one of their next two vs Iowa or MSU and we lose both, I could see that as a problem. Not sure if they give B1G 8 teams, but maybe they do as a play in game. Anyways, if they get to 21 wins, I think it will be surprising if they don’t get atleast a play in game.

      • Kevin Sheets

        10 and 20. Blue is in but a lesser mid seed.

    • Eh they are barely in now around the 10-11 line among the last few teams in. A loss could have come close to killing them though.

      • Carl

        Lunardi has us a the #1 9 seed in his updated bracket. I trust him. Think it would be a stretch to keep us out..

        • Carl


      • Jeff in AA

        I hate to sound like too much of a homer, but I really don’t understand why Michigan is currently on the bubble. According to Lunardi, as of today, Michigan would be a 10 seed, while Purdue is a 5 seed. How is Purdue that much better? Michigan is 20-9 overall, and 10-6 in conference, while Purdue’s numbers are 21-7 & 9-6. And they’ve split the season series.

        I look at RPI, and Michigan is at 52, one spot below Alabama. The Tide are 16-11 overall, and is 7-8 in conference — and again, I know I’m sounding like a homer, but isn’t a Big Ten’s schedule a lot tougher than one from the SEC? How can the RPI be so low when MIchigan has quality wins versus Texas, Maryland and Purdue, and they have no bad losses?

        Look, if they lose their next three games (including a one and done in the Big Ten Tournament), I’d admit that the Wolverines would deserve bubble status. But it seems to me that right now their accomplishments are being undervalued…

        • Carl

          They would be a 9 seed according to Lunardi..

        • ChathaM

          Their RPI is simply based on formula; no bias involved. Our weak non-conference schedule, and our relatively light B1G schedule. hurts our RPI. I’m not an RPI expert by any means, but I’d guess that even losses at Wisconsin and vs. Iowa would actually help our RPI.