Saturday against North Florida, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman took one shot in the first half.
The senior guard did not make that mistake again Monday, grabbing a stranglehold of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s struggling offense the way a captain should.
He led the team in minutes with 37, shots with 15 and points with 17, guiding the Wolverines to a 72-65 win over Central Michigan.
“His aggressiveness really set a tone,” said fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson. “His ability to get to the basket and also score from the outside is fantastic for us. We really feel like we’re at our best when he’s aggressive. Hopefully, we’ll see more of that moving forward.”
But the outcome, as was the case Saturday, remained in doubt well into the second half.
The Chippewas came out eager to shoot threes, and at least early in the game, were making them. They made five of their first 10 attempts from beyond the arc and grabbed an eight-point lead with 7:36 left in the half.
On the other side of the court, Michigan showed a familiar dysfunction.
Though offensive stagnation was reminiscent of the Wolverines’ season-opening performance, the nature of their struggles was quite different. The Chippewas’ frenetic defense — a soft full-court pressure that broke down into a frantic matchup zone — wreaked havoc early, and Michigan looked out of sorts from the opening tip. At the first media timeout, the Wolverines were 1-for-6 with three turnovers, and trailed an energized Central Michigan team, 8-3.
But the shots wouldn’t fall forever for the Chippewas, and slowly but surely, Michigan’s offense began to find its footing.
After combining for just four points in the first half against North Florida, Abdur-Rahkman and junior forward Moritz Wagner took ownership of the offense Monday, combining for 12 of the team’s 26 first-half shots and 16 of the team’s 32 points.
A corner 3-pointer from Abdur-Rahkman sent the Wolverines into the half on a 12-3 run with a 32-31 lead in hand. His personal 8-0 run — with halftime sandwiched in between — gave Michigan the lead.
He couldn’t do it alone, though. His backcourt mate, sophomore Zavier Simpson, staked the most defiant claim yet to make that starting spot permanent. Coupled with his usual defensive tenacity, Simpson posted his best offensive performance as a Wolverine, making five of his seven shots and scoring a career-high 13 points.
The Chippewas weathered that blow early in the second half, though, to grab a 47-46 lead on a layup from guard Shawn Roundtree. He led Central Michigan with 19 points, and speaheaded the up-tempo Chippewa offense.
“We had Roundtree (before the game) as a, what we call ‘Two-gap’ — a good shooter, but not a great shooter,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.“His points were a big difference in this game. He was really good.”
But the effort was not quite enough to pull off the upset.
With the Wolverines clinging to a three-point lead with 6:49 to go, it was Abdur-Rahkman who took initiative. With the shot clock running down, he found himself trapped near the baseline. Effortlessly, the senior pivoted out of duress toward the hoop, and made an underhand shot in the lane.
He then raced down toward the other end and stole a pass headed for a driving Chippewa, hurdling his way over photographers in the process.
“I just love what he’s bringing us right now with defense,” Beilein said. “We talked about — ‘Are you going to be a thermometer or the thermostat? Are you going to be the one who reads the temperature or are you going to set the temperature?’
“…‘Set the temperature today. Go out there and you gotta show everybody how hard we’ve got to play, because if you’re just playing and you don’t have that extra bit right there, everybody will probably follow that.’
“I just thought it was really a great play from him, and one that really helped us win the game.”
From there, Michigan began to pull away, eking out another uneven victory, 72-65, and a 2-0 start to the season. It’s another bumpy perfomance, but, according to Beilein, it is all part of a longer process.
“I have some confidence the sun’s going to rise tomorrow, and we’re going to get better,” he said. “I’m just saying it’s going to be a journey.”