Even while riding a six-game winning streak, John Beilein began his press conference with a sentiment of trepidation.
“If one team is gonna beat us (with offensive rebounding), it’s this team,” the Michigan men’s basketball coach said last Friday before the Wolverines’ matchup against Illinois. “They’re really strong, and that’s part of their offense.”
That fear was justifiable — the Fighting Illini frontcourt is built on size and an eagerness to crash the boards, averaging a conference-high 12.1 offensive rebounds per game.
But last Saturday, the Wolverines beat Illinois, partially because of their ability to compete on the glass.
The Fighting Illini won the overall rebounding battle, 31-27, and grabbed 10 offensive boards. Yet, those numbers demonstrate improvement in an area that looked like one of Michigan’s Achilles’ heels at the beginning of the year.
With the losses of Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson, the Wolverines returned just 40 percent of their rebounding from a season ago. That showed in a November exhibition, when the Wolverines allowed 15 offensive boards to Grand Valley State — a team whose tallest starter is just six-foot-eight.
“We can’t let a team, I don’t care who they are, get 15 offensive rebounds,” said redshirt junior guard Charles Matthews afterwards. “That could be potentially dangerous. We’ll correct.”
They’ve done just that, transforming into one of the country’s best on the boards statistically, rebounding at a rate of 78.4 percent that is good for tenth nationally, according to teamrankings.com. Last season — even with a point guard in Walton who was frequently recognized for his nose for the ball — the Wolverines finished 224nd in the category with a rebounding percentage rate of 71.9.
“We’ve had some guys become so good at boxing out, but for whatever reasons we’ve been better,” Beilein said Monday. “We’ve had some guys stand around and could never do it. We’ve got some guys who are really good at getting in front and getting the ball.”
Michigan showed flashes of improvement Tuesday in a one-point loss to Purdue. Despite facing two centers over seven feet tall in Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms, the Wolverines won the rebounding margin, 34-29, and held the Boilermakers to a below-average effort on the offensive boards.
Still, there were moments Tuesday when Michigan was far from flawless on the glass.
After guard Grady Eifert cleaned up another teammate’s miss with around seven minutes left in the first half, he found guard Dakota Mathias for an open corner-3. The shot bounced off the rim and just over the fingertips of fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, allowing Eifert to earn his second offensive rebound of the possession. Two passes later, Mathias took advantage and hit the same shot he missed seconds before.
Saturday, the Wolverines will need to avoid those plays facing a Michigan State team with a dominant frontcourt. The fourth-ranked Spartans boast the country’s second-highest offensive rebounding rate of 39.4 percent.
And despite a loss to Ohio State and lackluster effort against Rutgers this week, Michigan State has the talent to soundly defeat Michigan. Forward Miles Bridges and center Jaren Jackson Jr. are expected to be among the top picks in this summer’s NBA draft.
Cleaning up on the boards will be paramount to the Wolverines’ chances of challenging a strong frontcourt and nationally-ranked opponent for the second time this week.
“Playing teams like Purdue and Michigan State, it’s tough rebounding offensively and defensively,” said senior guard Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman on Saturday. “So we’ve got to stick to our game plan: box out and want the ball.”