COLLEGE PARK — When Michigan coach John Beilein addressed the media a month ago after the Wolverines lost to Purdue at Mackey Arena, he made a tangential comparison that got lost in the fray of a dizzying, offensive showcase.
“To have Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman playing that way is the expectation we have of seniors. That’s the trend I hope we’re going to see the rest of the season,” Beilein said. “A little bit around the time Derrick Walton took off was about this time last year.”
It was an understandable comparison to make: a senior role player emerging from relative passivity to lead his team on a late-season charge, shedding his shell, becoming an assertive force. And yet, in many ways it seemed far-fetched.
Some time in the midst Abdur-Rahkman’s dazzling 28-point, eight rebound, seven assist game Saturday, though, Beilein pulled the senior guard aside and affirmed that comparison.
“I called Muhammad over and said, ‘You’re doing a D-Walt impersonation at just the right time.’ ”
After being poked in the eye in warmups Wednesday night at State College, Abdur-Rahkman donned a pair of rec-specs throughout Saturday’s affair, perfectly suited for his old-man style of game. With the glasses covering a bloodshot right eye, the senior turned up his game to a level it has never been before, sparking Michigan’s 30-point first-half lead in its eventual 85-61 blowout over Maryland.
“We should all wear goggles,” Beilein joked after the game. “That was great.”
In the final regular season game of his career, carrying the team he once joined as a two-star afterthought, Abdur-Rahkman compiled the most complete game of his career, proving once more the Wolverines are on the ascent at the right time.
It started early, as he nailed three 3-point attempts in the first 6:11 of the game. Maryland had no answer all half, allowing the senior to score 22 of his career-high 28 points in the frame.
With the clock winding down in the half, he stamped his dominant half with vigor.
As freshman guard Jordan Poole — he of 12 points and three threes of his own — glided smoothly down the court with the first half game clocked ticking to a close, he spotted Abdur-Rahkman positioned on the right wing, inexplicably all alone. Abdur-Rahkman swished the three — his sixth of the half — and paraded off the court with a 30-point lead in tow.
Abdur-Rahkman masqueraded around Xfinity Center all of Saturday afternoon like he owned the place. He finished the day shooting 10-for-21 from the field and 6-for-13 from 3-point range.
Whether he was hitting threes in the face of defenders, staring down fallen defenders, gallavanting in and out of the paint or helping disrupt Maryland’s fearsome guard duo, Abdur-Rahkman had his way. In addition to his first half firestorm from deep, the senior added seven assists and eight rebounds, while taking 21 shots and posting a staggering 41 percent usage rate, according to KenPom.com.
Since Beilein’s comment after the Purdue game, Abdur-Rahkman has averaged a team-high 16.8 points per game and become the Wolverines’ primary late-game and end-of-shot-clock scorer.
“When your teammates have confidence in you, you kind of develop that (killer instinct),” Abdur-Rahkman. It’s instilled in you. You’re not afraid to go out there and have that urgency.”
Added Beilein: “Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, as the year went on, we realized as a staff that he can be so much more than we were probably allowing him to do. We were probably focused in other areas. But right now, he’s become a guy who we play through like a Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Caris Lavert. We’ve played through some really good players, and we’re trying to do that now, and he’s not disappointing us.”
Maryland didn’t need glasses to witness the beatdown Abdur-Rahkman was guiding. Neither did its fans, who rapidly shifted the source of their “boos” from Wagner to its own team.
Abdur-Rahkman didn’t need a visual boost to carefully dissect a pourous Terrapins’ defense.
And with the regular season now in the books and the Big Ten Tournament a week away, Michigan doesn’t need any enhanced eyesight to see where this could be going next.
“The great part of college basketball is when you hit it right,” Beilein said. “A kid who will not transfer because he’s not a star after two years. He’s not begging to go to the NBA. He just gets better every year, and all of a sudden (he’s having) a great, great February.”
Amidst flurries of questions for both coaches about the recent NCAA scandal — with a massive black cloud beginning to engulf the college basketball world — the irony of a quiet senior leader emerging into a star at the dawn of his career is defeaning.
Perhaps it’s a reality more apt for your father’s college basketball. But it’s a reality Michigan is living.
“He’s embracing his role,” Wagner, who had a front-row seat to the Derrick Walton show last year, said. “He knows it’s his time. He’s more aggressive, I think he senses a certain feeling, a certain responsibility. Responsibility to score, to be aggressive, to lead us.”