NEW YORK CITY, NY. — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman wasn’t sweating his team’s upcoming matchups with powerhouses No. 2 Michigan State and No. 8 Purdue.
He was playing Xbox — Fortnite, specifically. He had time to learn the challenging game and win while he was in New York.
You can’t fault the laid-back attitude. Michigan, perhaps the hottest team in the country, proceeded to pummel both teams with relative ease to win back-to-back Big Ten Tournament Championships. The senior — as he has always done — was just trying to lay low each night.
But with constant buzzing in Madison Square Garden and rainbow confetti veiling the top of their Champion hats two days later, the captain could no longer fly under the radar — he was literally center stage on the championship platform at midcourt.
Throughout four Big Ten Tournament games, Abdur-Rahkman led the Wolverines with 15 points per game on 54-percent shooting and averaged 3.5 boards, 2.8 assists and a steal each contest. Despite winning the championship last year, the glitz and glam victory felt even sweeter now.
“It’s a little more exciting this year because I am the captain so I have a bigger hand in it than last year,” he said. “You always envision (being a leader) until you step on campus and actually see what’s going on and what you have to do to get to this point.”
Abdur-Rahkman’s sound statline warranted a place on the All-Tournament Team, a designation that came as a pleasant surprise to him. When he heard his name called, he didn’t realize what it was for. When he did, he smiled and posed for the cameras. The 6-foot-4 guard was finally noticed.
“I just had that chip on my shoulder all season and ever since I got on campus,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I’m glad to see that the hard work is paying off. I’m kind of a guy that goes unnoticed a lot so when you get that recognition it feels good.”
Beyond just his nickname on the team — “Rahk” — Abdur-Rahkman was Michigan’s figurative rock all season.
Whether it was his game-winning free throws to top Maryland, his double-double and late triple to conquer Texas or his unconscious shooting displays at Maryland and Purdue, the Wolverines needed him to win.
The tournament was no exception.
Abdur-Rahkman squashed the Spartans’ comeback attempt with a late three that swirled around the rim before sinking through. When Purdue gave its last-ditch effort in the finals, his mid-range jumper hit the iron, climbed over and in to halt the Boilermakers’ momentum. And each game, he shut down his opponent on the defensive end.
Abdur-Rahkman’s confusion of being on the All-Tournament team really shouldn’t have been confusion at all. It was proof of how a quiet captain gripped the reins of his team and flourished. He knows he’s not a vocal provocateur like fellow captain Moritz Wagner or a rambunctious personality like freshman Jordan Poole, but his presence is still palpable and loud in its own right.
“Man, he’s been the most consistent player we’ve had all year,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “But it’s not surprising because if you look at his career, he’s just grown a little bit every year, every game. And this year, he had to take the responsibility of turning into Batman and stop being Robin.”
But even Batman would try to conceal his true identity. While his natural ability was no secret to his teammates, his consistent play perplexed defenses all season. He was, as Washington calls him, the “silent assassin.”
“You see how throughout this entire year he’s been stepping and being big for us, making big time shots,” Poole said. “And it hasn’t been a fluke, he’s been super duper consistent.”
Abdur-Rahkman and consistency pair together like peanut butter and jelly. They have essentially acted as synonyms, a benchmark for the rest of the team to work for.
With an unusually long break between the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines will have to strategize how to continue their hot streak into March Madness — staying consistent, if you will. Abdur-Rahkman, despite garnering attention and accolades, will fill the time between now and then the best way he knows how — laying low.
“I think I’ll just stick to playing Xbox. A little Fortnite and Call of Duty.”