WASHINGTON — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman wasn’t the hero Michigan expected as it put together its five-game postseason run last year. He was the one it needed.
With guard Caris LeVert lost for the season due to injury, then-junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. caught in a shooting slump and then-junior wing Zak Irvin bogged down by the heavy scoring load already placed on his shoulders, the Wolverines knew they needed to find a new source of points heading into the Big Ten Tournament or start planning for an early summer.
From there, the stage was set for Abdur-Rahkman to put on his best show. The then-sophomore guard entered Michigan’s opening round game of the conference tournament playing the best basketball of his young career. He posted double-digit scoring figures in three of the Wolverines’ final four regular season games, and looked as consistent as he ever had in a Michigan uniform.
Abdur-Rahkman was ready for a breakout performance on the big stage, just when his team needed it the most to reach its postseason goal.
In the Wolverines’ five combined games in last season’s Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament, Abdur-Rahkman averaged 15 points per game — the highest of any five game stretch of his career — and stepped up to keep Michigan’s season alive.
Abdur-Rahkman peaked at the right time then, and as the calendar flips to March again, it looks like he’s about to do the same for the second straight year.
After finishing the regular season with six straight double-digit point tallies, the now-junior guard has peaked at the right time, and is ready to play an integral part of the Wolverines’ next tournament run.
“You just want to play your best in the postseason,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I just try to channel that and focus on the little things, try to hone my skills and up it in March.”
Thursday against Illinois, Abdur-Rahkman scored a season-high 17 points, grabbed three rebounds and notched three assists to push Michigan to the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. The junior set his tone that, just like last season, his mind is set on bringing his best stuff to extend his team’s season.
Like his usual self, Abdur-Rahkman’s offense derived from being aggressive driving the lane, and finishing easy buckets at the rim. The guard kept Fighting Illini defenders on their toes by dialing up from deep — four of his 13 shot attempts were from beyond the arc.
But Abdur-Rahkman’s outing Thursday was different than those he had in the previous postseasons. Not only was the junior scoring points for the Wolverines, he was preventing Illinois from scoring itself.
“Maybe before we — even myself — were guilty of caring about offense too much,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I think now we’re worried about defense, and getting out and running, instead of worrying about offense. We’re letting our defense turn into offense.”
Abdur-Rahkman finished with three steals, made plays on the fast break and opened up opportunities to convert on the Fighting Illini’s offensive mistakes.
His finest stretch came on a 6-0 run halfway through the second half, which Abdur-Rahkman single-handedly constructed. After driving to the hoop for two straight layups, the guard started a fast break off a steal, dribbled all the way to the hoop and found senior wing Zak Irvin under the hoop for the assist.
“It’s a conscious effort trying to get buckets in transition instead of half-court sets,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “In order to do that, you have to play defense.”
If Abdur-Rahkman can catch fire like he did last year over this stretch, his abilities to make plays on both ends of the court could lift Michigan to uncharted heights as it looks for postseason glory. He saved the Wolverines last season, now Abdur-Rahkman could be a paramount piece in Michigan’s plan to surpass expectations.