To reiterate: Three freshmen and two former walk-ons were on the court, together, for the Wolverines in an important Big Ten road game.
And it sure wasn’t pretty, but Michigan’s unknowns made enough contributions in the first half, and veteran players made key buckets in the second to steal a 54-50 win.
And while a victory at Rutgers might not change the season overnight, don’t tell that to coach John Beilein or his “11 strong” who suited up to face the Scarlet Knights in Piscataway, New Jersey.
“Here’s the biggest thing that it does: You have a lot of coach speak. You say, ‘You can win this game. You can win this game.’ I don’t know if anybody looked at any game going forward and said we thought we had a [chance],” Beilein said. “It’s just natural. They’re young, and there’s their leader, he’s down. And you gotta convince them. And now it gives credence to, ‘You can do things. … You can win again.’ ”
The Wolverines dressed 11 players, several of whom weren’t fully healthy. Chatman had tendinitis in his knee but felt well enough to play; still, he only managed eight minutes before Beilein decided the freshman wasn’t able to continue. Doyle is still sick, and he lasted just four minutes in the second half until he told coaches he was gassed.
What we do know is this: Irvin, Michigan’s No. 2 scorer, picked up a pair of fouls 49 seconds apart within the first four minutes of the game. He sat for the rest of the half. And with Doyle and Chatman significantly impaired, Beilein had to create a competitive team out of a patchwork of freshmen, an undersized center, and two former walk-ons — including Dakich who willingly burned his redshirt for four minutes of playing time.
“As we’ve been transitioning this year and playing 10 guys, everyone knows what they’re doing — some are just better at things than others,” Beilein said. “We had a shortened playbook a little bit, so just try and get through it.”
And somehow it worked: Chatman scored on a tip-in, Abdur-Rahkman cut for a layup, Lonergan added a bucket, Dawkins scored on an athletic putback and Donnal made a three-pointer as Michigan led by two at halftime.
“We just survived it,” Beilein said.
With Irvin back in the second half, Michigan’s substitutions became a little more vanilla. And in the final seven minutes, familiar names made the big plays.
Albrecht hit a left-handed scoop, followed by a pair of three-pointers from Walton and a trey from Bielfeldt. Irvin made a pair of free throws with 24 seconds left to seal the result.
“I don’t even know if they believed they could win without Caris,” Beilein said on-air to the Big Ten Network, “but the coaching staff did.”
You might not have thought it possible either. Not with a lineup of Lonergan, Dakich, Donnal, Abdur-Rahkman and Chatman on the floor.
And though Beilein warned Michigan “can get blown out as well” — it will have its hands full over the next two months against much of the Big Ten’s elite — let us not forget how, on Tuesday, that group of bench players, practice-squad members and freshmen went on the road and won the game.