NEW YORK — Standing at just 6-foot-3, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman isn’t exactly a force in the paint, but the sophomore guard looked like one at times on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
With the Michigan men’s basketball team clinging to a not-too-comfortable seven-point lead early in the second half against Penn State, Abdur-Rahkman drove to the basket and had his shot blocked by the Nittany Lions’ Brandon Taylor. But instead of abandoning the play, Abdur-Rahkman calmly grabbed the ball back for an offensive rebound and skillfully weaved through multiple defenders for a successful second layup.
And then late in the second half, after Penn State fought back to within five points, Abdur-Rahkman converted another contested layup off a perfect pass from junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. to bring Michigan fans to their feet in the divided Garden.
It was that kind of day for the young guard, who Michigan coach John Beilein has frequently praised for his “East Coast”-style scoring ability. Abdur-Rahkman — who wouldn’t even be in the starting lineup if not for senior guard Caris LeVert’s nagging lower-leg injury — finished the game with 15 points and five rebounds, including two offensive boards that he followed up with baskets.
Abdur-Rahkman’s impeccable post awareness isn’t a new sight for the Wolverines, but it was especially helpful in a game where the Wolverines made just six 3-pointers and had a rare size advantage over their opponent.
“We couldn’t get a basket except for him (early on),” Beilein said. “Those were those East Coast baskets I talk about. He gets into a seam, he pivots like three or four times — the ‘Ali Shuffle’ — and then he ends up finding something. He’s really good at getting his feet in the lane, getting balance.”
With shots not falling from the outside like they did in Michigan’s first matchup with Penn State on Jan. 2 — when the Wolverines made 10 3-pointers in the first half — Beilein knew that attacking the rim was his best option.
“We’re gonna take what people give us,” Beilein said, “and (the Nittany Lions) were switching a lot of screens. We’ve been seeing it over and over and over again, and we’re still scoring points, so we’re finding new things to do. The emphasis has been to take the ball to the basket on the big guys when they do switch, or throw it in to (our) big man, or just rebound from (our) big man — he can either get some offensive rebounds or keep it alive, push it back out.”
Saturday, Michigan tended toward the first option, with Abdur-Rahkman leading the charge.
The overall battle in the paint was close — both teams scored 34 points down low, and Penn State actually outrebounded Michigan 36-34. But most of the game’s big plays at the rim — including multiple converted and-1s from junior forwards Zak Irvin and Mark Donnal and, of course, Abdur-Rahkman’s impressive layups — came from the Wolverines.
“(Abdur-Rahkman) has got a great feel around the basket for a guard,” Beilein said. “Obviously, he’s from the state of Pennsylvania, so it’s big for him when he plays his home state. He’s really been a guy that I’ve watched just embrace any challenges we have — steadily, just get more of a mindset that, ‘College basketball is rough and tough, and I’ve gotta roll up my sleeves if I wanna play.’ ”