Unlike many coaches, John Beilein doesn’t pretend every game is equal. When the No. 22 Michigan men’s basketball team (10-5 Big Ten, 21-7 overall) was lackluster early this season, he posited that January and February were when it really mattered.
After last week’s loss to Northwestern, however, the Wolverines looked far from experiencing the February success they had enjoyed in years past.
Beilein had a solution: to give his seniors more opportunity to lead.
That’s exactly what happened Tuesday, and it worked.
Bolstered by 36 combined points from seniors Duncan Robinson and Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the Wolverines routed Iowa (3-12, 12-16), 74-57, at Crisler Center.
“It’s their time right now,” Beilein said. “I want them to shoot more, I want them to be more aggressive. It’s their time.
“Tonight, they saved the day.”
Though Michigan never seemed to lose control of the contest, forward Luka Garza scored Iowa’s first eight points of the second half and closed the team’s 13-point halftime deficit to single digits early in the frame.
But in his second-to-last game at Crisler, Robinson came up with a big-time answer. The forward drained a trio of 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, extending the Wolverines’ lead to 16 points midway through the second half.
From there, Michigan’s defense would ensure the victory, as it has all season. The Wolverines shot a middling 42 percent, but held the Hawkeyes — who lead the conference in per-game scoring — to their third-lowest output of the year.
“I was really proud of our defense, although the percentage (against us) isn’t great,” Beilein said. “They had 12 turnovers in the first half that allowed us to (pull) away a little bit.”
Early on, however, it was Iowa’s defense that was causing problems.
Taking a page from Northwestern’s playbook, the Hawkeyes utilized an extended zone to slow Michigan’s offense, forcing numerous attempts late in the shot clock.
“About ten minutes before the game, I saw the starting lineup and knew they were definitely going zone, and it was going to be a huge zone,” Beilein said. “We were ready, but it took us for a shock initially.”
After trailing 9-2 early, the Wolverines responded with aggressiveness in transition to tie the contest at 14 just minutes later — capped by a steal and score by Abdur-Rahkman off an Iowa inbounds pass.
That trend continued for the entire first half, which was dominated by sloppiness. The Hawkeyes committed 12 turnovers during the first 20 minutes. Michigan had five. Errant passes, shot clock violations and air balls were plentiful for both sides.
As sloppy as the half was, though, Abdur-Rahkman provided some beauty on Valentine’s Day. Slicing down the right side, he whipped a pass behind his back into the corner that shifted the Iowa defense to create an open triple for junior center Moritz Wagner, who would finish with 14 points.
“(Abdur-Rahkman) is really careful with what he does and is not afraid to make the extra pass,” Beilein said. “I think we’re going to really miss him in the future. … He’s as complete of a player than as you’d ever think he’d become.”
It was just one example of the impressive vision Abdur-Rahkman flashed all night, as he finished with seven assists and no turnovers to go along with his 18 points.
And in a game dominated by Michigan’s seniors, it’s fitting that three of those assists were to Robinson. With just over seven minutes to go in the first half, Abdur-Rahkman drove baseline to find a wide-open Robinson, who drained his first of six 3-pointers on the night.
“(As seniors) we don’t want to leave any stones unturned,” Robinson said. “We want to compete and play hard and make winning plays. I thought (Abdur-Rahkman) played great tonight and found me in a lot of good situations.”
After a 16-point effort against Wisconsin, Robinson would finish with 18 points Wednesday on 6-for-9 shooting — a sign he’s starting to solve his offensive woes at the right time.
And as demonstrated by the win, Michigan might be too. That’s pivotal as the Wolverines prepare for a challenging stretch to close the regular season that includes Sunday’s showdown with No. 8 Ohio State.
Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman realize they have some power in the way their team ends the year. And in accordance to Beilein’s solution, Michigan’s seniors showed exactly that on Wednesday.