Michigan shot 43 percent from the field, 32 percent from three, made just eight free-throws and still won by 15 points Sunday afternoon.
In what may kindly be deemed a defensive struggle — and not so kindly, a downright ugly game — the twenty-third ranked Wolverines improved to 17-5 overall and 6-3 in Big Ten play with a 62-47 win over Rutgers.
For much of the first half, the Michigan offense seemed as disjointed as it was against Nebraska earlier this week.
Luckily for the Wolverines, the Scarlet Knights’ was worse. They scored just .68 points per possession in the half, including zero made 3-pointers and eight turnovers.
Rutgers failed to register an assist in the first half, and had just one the entire game.
“We were trying to take the 3-point line away,” said junior center Moritz Wagner on his team’s defensive strategy. “And they have the tendency to go to one-on-one plays once you take the first play away — at least that’s how we scouted. Our guards, especially, did a good job.”
But the Scarlet Knights came into the game with the best scoring defense in the country and seemed intent early on winning with that style. Michigan missed 10 of its first 11 shots, falling to an early 8-2 deficit.
“There’s some things I can’t explain coming out,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. … “Whether it’s nerves, whatever it is, they’re also reading how the team is gonna play us. And when they’re going through those reads I think it’s giving us some paralysis. It’s something that we’ve gotta keep working on and getting better starts.”
Slowly but surely, the Wolverines started to crawl out of its now-regular first half offensive woes.
Led by a surprising boost of energy from fifth-year seniors Jaaron Simmons and Duncan Robinson, Michigan pieced together an 8-0 run in the middle of the first half to grab a 15-10 lead.
Regardless of the optics, the Wolverines took the lead into halftime for the first time since Jan. 2 against Iowa. Even with bumps in execution, they never relingquished that lead.
From there, Rutgers simply lacked the offensive firepower to force a competitive game. While Michigan, as has come to be the norm, found its footing from beyond the arc in the second half, the Scarlet Knights struggled to find consistency, relying heavily on guard Corey Sanders to create in isolation.
Robinson made four of his seven 3-point attempts in the game, matching the number of threes he’s had in his previous five games combined. He finished with 12 points on the day.
Beilein said he knew Robinson was due for a big game, and sent him a text before the game saying, “Duncan, you’re going to be terrific today. Just come off shooting.”
Robinson is shooting just 37 percent from 3-point-range this season, five percentage points lower than his previous career low. The shooting slump, combined with his defensive struggles guarding out of his normal position, forced him to the bench in favor of freshman forward Isaiah Livers.
Regardless of role, though, Sunday could be a step toward Robinson regaining his value.
“That’s the dude I know,” Wagner said. “That’s my roommate. That’s the player I’ve played with the last three years, so I’m not surprised at all. I’m very proud of him the way he bounces back.”
Wagner and sopohmore point guard Zavier Simpson also finished in double figures. The duo combined for an effective pick-and-roll play in the second half to help the Wolverines pull away.
Wagner finished with a game-high 16 points, including 12 in the second half, to guide an uninspiring game to a merciful finish.
“As you can tell in this game, we’re tired. We’re beat,” Beilein said.” … “I’m just so glad we could gut through this game, and get refreshed both with our legs but also with our game.”