If not for a collapse in overtime — which featured two turnovers, an 0-for-2 trip to the free throw line and just six total points — the Michigan men’s basketball team could have left Williams Arena on Sunday riding a four-game winning streak.
Instead, the Wolverines return to square one, with their first chance to bounce back from last weekend’s loss on Wednesday night, when Michigan will travel to Piscataway for a matchup against Rutgers in what will be the first of a three-game, 10-day stretch.
The Wolverines couldn’t ask for a much better team to face as they aim to get back in the win column. The Scarlet Knights (2-13 Big Ten, 13-15 overall) sit at dead last in the Big Ten, and it’s easy to see why.
Rutgers ranks last in the conference in four categories — scoring 66.1 points per game, shooting just 41.2 and 29.4 percent from the field and beyond the arc, respectively, and posting a lowly free throw percentage of 61.2. Still, Michigan coach John Beilein refuses to allow his team to take the Scarlet Knights at face value.
“This is going to be a difficult one going to Rutgers,” Beilein said. “I know you look at the record, but look at the scores instead of the record and you’ll see, watching this team, they are going to be the best rebounding team that we’ve played all year.
“We are obviously not a great rebounding team, and that’s a tough matchup for us. … It is going to be a great win if we can get it. I know that sounds like ‘coach speak’, (but) I’m telling you it’s going to be a great win if we can get it. We’re going to have to play better than we did against Minnesota.”
Rebounding is certainly Rutgers’ one saving grace, as it leads the Big Ten with 41.1 per game — 15 of which come on the offensive glass. And if there were ever an advantage that Michigan wouldn’t want its opponents to have, it would be on the boards.
Unlike Rutgers, the Wolverines (7-7, 17-10) sit last in the conference with 29.3 rebounds per game. Though sophomore forward Moritz Wagner has markedly improved — averaging 5.4 rebounds through the last five contests — his emergence still isn’t enough to offset one of the biggest problems that Michigan has faced all year.
While rebounding should realistically be the only issue the Wolverines face Wednesday night, they are stepping onto the court against a team that is playing with house money. A loss to the Scarlet Knights could deal a serious blow to Michigan’s tournament resume, as the Wolverines have an invitation to the Big Dance to lose. Rutgers, on the other hand, has nothing to lose at all.
“We’ve been in that situation,” Beilein said. “We were in that two years ago, we were in that certainly my first year … of just trying to get a ‘W’ somewhere. They’ve been on the road I think the last two games, at their place right now, in a storied environment there at Rutgers — they’ve had some great teams back in the day.
“And they’re trying to grow that. I think with a new coach, it’s all fresh, a lot of enthusiasm. Every day there’s a small victory in that program right now, and a huge victory would be beating Michigan tomorrow.”
Regardless, there is no denying that, on paper, Michigan should win the matchup handily.
Though it stumbled against Minnesota, Michigan is still averaging 74.6 points over the last five games while allowing just 66.2.
What’s more, all five of the Wolverines’ starters scored in double digits against the Golden Gophers — an encouraging sign of consistent production that they have been searching for all season.
Michigan holds an unimpressive 1-7 road record, but given that Rutgers’ season has been a consistent progression from bad to worse, the Wolverines should be able to bump that total up to two.
“We’ve just got to realize how close we are to reaching our goals,” said senior forward Mark Donnal. “Take it one game at a time and just really be locked in going into Rutgers, and make sure that we play up to our potential and not let anything beat us.”