Another one up, another one down.
There are no easy games in the Big Ten Conference, but the Michigan men’s basketball team can make it seem like there are. On Thursday night, it was an industrious Rutgers team (12-8 overall, 8-8 Big Ten) that fell victim to the wrath of the third-ranked Wolverines (15-1, 10-1), 71-64.
For the second consecutive game, Michigan came out of the gate flat. Against Wisconsin last weekend, it took until the second half for the Wolverines to play up to their ranking. On Thursday night, Michigan’s struggles lasted mere minutes.
Despite appearing rudderless offensively in the opening few minutes — like they didn’t know what set to run — the Wolverines slowly found their groove. A string of defensive stops — including two sky-scraping blocks by senior wing Isaiah Livers — triggered a response on the other end.
“Our defense is our offense,” graduate transfer point guard Mike Smith said. “A lot of teams don’t believe in that, but that’s the truth, our defense is our offense. If we can’t score, we’re gonna keep getting stops.”
Back-to-back corner threes from Smith and junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. gave the Wolverines a 22-15 cushion midway through the first half. It was a well-rounded offensive attack for Michigan, though, with no one player standing out. By the 5-minute mark, eight Wolverines had scored and at the break, sophomore forward Franz Wagner led the field with nine points.
Michigan’s nine-point advantage ballooned to 15 within the blink of an eye. The Wolverines’ sweltering man-to-man defense held the Scarlet Knights to just two points in the first five minutes of the second half. As it’s done numerous times this season and with unrelenting focus, once Michigan smelled blood in the water, it finished the job.
“Against them you don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “You really have to take advantage of any opportunity you get. They do a really good job, their defense is so efficient. They don’t give you a lot of easy baskets. … It’s as good of a team as I’ve seen in five years.”
Every positive play for the Wolverines had a compounding effect. Every time Wagner found freshman center Hunter Dickinson on a wrap-around bounce pass — which happened three separate times — Dickinson’s ensuing dunk might as well have been worth four points. Every time Wagner, Livers or Smith knocked down a fadeaway jump shot, Michigan’s bench cheered like it was a game-winner. Wagner led the way finishing with 19 points, but as Michigan has demonstrated throughout the season, it’s leading scorer could’ve been almost anyone.
The Scarlet Knights continued to battle and kept the difference closer than it felt but ultimately, the Wolverines made enough plays, hit enough shots and got enough stops to keep Rutgers at arm’s length.
“It’s hard to simulate that team in practice,” Pikiell said. “They go full speed and have a lot of weapons. Every single guy is a 3-point threat and then they have two 7-footers in the paint.”
While Michigan will face stiffer competition against the likes of No. 4 Ohio State and No. 11 Iowa in the next two weeks, every game in the Big Ten gauntlet poses its own unique challenges.
For most, the Scarlet Knights are a tough test.
“Rutgers is a very tough team,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “They’re well coached, highly competitive and very physical. They were expecting to come in here and beat us. … It was important that we had to match their energy from start to finish.”
The Wolverines passed that test with flying colors.
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