Michigan had everything to lose and very little to gain on its Wednesday night trip to The RAC and it played like it was feeling the pressure.
The Wolverines led for most of the evening in New Jersey, but every time it felt like they could put the game away the Scarlet Knights crept back into the action. After extending the lead to 10 points in the first four minutes of the second half, Michigan let Rutgers back in and found itself down by 4 with 6:46 to play.
Michigan answered with a 10-0 run of its own, featuring a DJ Wilson three-pointer, a Derrick Walton and-one layup and a pair of layups by Moritz Wagner. The Wolverines held onto that lead down the stretch, but not without teeth gnashing as they missed enough free throws to give Corey Sanders a three-point look for the tie that he missed with two seconds to play.
Michigan has had worse offensive performances statistically this season, but I’m not sure it’s played a more frustrating offensive game. The Wolverines managed 1.07 points per possession in the end, but nothing about the performance was clean.
Free throw shooting is becoming a scary mental block for this team, which is ranked 6th in the country in free throw percentage but went 14-of-23 at the stripe tonight after going 9-of-18 on Sunday. Mathematics say that the last two games should be a statistical anomaly, but there’s clearly some mental hijinks going around in the heads of Michigan’s guards.
57% of Michigan’s shot attempts were three-pointers, and it made just 32% of its long-range efforts, but I thought they were good shots for the most part. Most came off of dribble penetration and kick action and the Scarlet Knights consistently over-helped and were leaving guys. The fact that Michigan also posted a free throw rate of 43% (their highest since the first Indiana game) speaks to the fact that there was at least some aggressive play going down hill.
In the end, this was tied for Michigan’s 5th-worst shooting night of the year at 52% on twos, 32% on threes for a 50 eFG%.
The turnovers were most frustrating of all of Michigan’s offensive woes as it gave the ball away on 17.3% of its possessions and it felt worse than that. The Rutgers press took the Wolverines out of their comfort zone offensively and forced a litany of bad decisions which led to 15 Rutgers points off giveaways.
Perhaps the most shocking stat of the night was that Michigan actually won the offensive rebounding battle, grabbing a third of its misses and holding Rutgers to just a 24% offensive rebounding rate. Defensive rebounding was Michigan’s focus on the night and they certainly did a good job of that.
The next most surprising stat on the box score was Rutgers making its threes. The three-point luck bounced back in Michigan’s favor over the last few weeks, but Rutgers going 6-of-16 from deep is just the opposite. The Wolverines did hold the Knights to just 42% shooting inside the arc, but weren’t able to force the turnovers that have provided such a defensive boost in recent weeks.
There’s no such thing as a bad road win. The victory at Rutgers gave Michigan a modest RPI bump and it also doesn’t hurt to have a 2 instead of a 1 in the road victories column. Six of the Scarlet Knights’ previous 8 games had been decided by single figures, so it’s not like the rest of the league had been dominating them either — get into town, get out and move on.
Now it’s time for Michigan to go hunting. The Wolverines could be underdogs in the final three games and probably need to win at least one of them reach the NCAA Tournament. First up is a Saturday afternoon date with the league’s best team, the Purdue Boilermakers.
- DJ Wilson: I apparently wasn’t paying close enough attention because I had no idea that DJ Wilson landed a double-double on the night with 10 points and 11 rebounds. He also stuffed the stat sheet with 2 assists, 2 blocks (both in the final 4 minutes), 1 steal and two turnovers. He wasn’t perfect, but he can do so many things to influence to the game and him playing well is really a key to Michigan’s ceiling.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman had some of the biggest plays in the game in both directions. He looked incredibly shaky against Rutgers’ press defense, but he also had 14 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists. He made his first two threes and I promptly jinxed him with a tweet about him leading the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage, but while he cooled off from deep he had some strong drives that were critical plays.
- Derrick Walton: Walton went 0-of-5 from deep in the first half, but I have no problem with him shooting those shots and he made two triples in the second. He was slinging the ball all around and commanding the offense to open the game with 4 assists before the first media timeout, but he only had 1 more dime for the rest of the night. He had some really frustrating moments, especially on defense, but he settled in and made the big plays late as well.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin carried Michigan’s offense in the first half with 13 points, but scored 3 points on 0-of-3 shooting and went 3-of-8 at the line in the second. Overall this game was still a step in the right direction for Irvin, but his second half felt like a half-step back as well and he got stuck taking a brutal shot late in the game after dribbling the ball off of his foot.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner took a long time to get involved in the game as he missed a few makeable shots, but scored some key baskets late and also held his own on the glass with 6 boards. Wagner is doing a better job of staying out of foul trouble, he forced some turnovers fronting the post and he’s rebounding and while this was a down game offensively, it feels like it’s just a matter of time until he has a big offensive game.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson now has 7 assists in his last 41 minutes of game time and is starting to show a really nice feel for passing the ball. His role is still limited, but he’s consistently started to show flashes.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson’s hesitation to let it fly on three-pointers is turning into a trend. He’s on the floor to shoot those shots and he’s hesitating just enough that it’s throwing everything out of wack. Defensively he’s shown some signs of improvement, but I thought he really struggled on that end as well tonight.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal had some nice moments in the first half including a layup running the floor, but his second have shift wasn’t nearly as impressive. With Wagner out of foul trouble, Donnal only played 8 minutes.