When sophomore forward Kameron Chatman jumped up for an offensive rebound midway through the second half in the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against Northwestern on Wednesday, Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin rose, too, from their spots on the bench.
The junior and senior guards popped out of their seats, fired up and animated, yelling encouragement at their younger teammate as he grabbed the offensive board and then drew a foul in the paint. Chatman sank both of his free throws to give the Wolverines (10-6 Big Ten, 20-9 overall) their first lead of the game en route to a comeback win over the Wildcats.
With Irvin having an off night shooting and LeVert missing his 14th game of the season due to a lower-left-leg injury, Chatman bodying in for a rebound and coming through from the charity stripe was a welcome sight for the elder players.
Chatman’s two free throws were part of a 19-point effort from Michigan’s bench Wednesday, taking some of the pressure off of Irvin and junior guard Derrick Walton Jr., who have sometimes been the Wolverines’ only reliable options with LeVert out.
“We play team basketball regardless of what’s going on,” Walton said. “I don’t think it’s really reliant on me or Zak, it just so happens that we’ve been playing well. Guys like (sophomore guards Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman), they’re doing smaller things that are really starting to help.”
Dawkins tallied 11 points after coming off the bench for Irvin. He sank four field goals and was a perfect 3-for-3 from deep. He also did work on the boards, grabbing a game-high seven rebounds.
Sophomore forward Ricky Doyle also added to the bench’s production. Doyle came in for junior forward Mark Donnal late in the second half after Donnal picked up his fourth foul, and he sank two late free throws down the stretch to help Michigan ice the game. Doyle finished with six points and two boards.
“The bench was huge today,” Beilein said after the win. “Everything from Kam just getting in there and getting the rebound and making the foul shots, Ricky making those foul shots at the end, obviously Aubrey was a catalyst again for us.”
On defense, Michigan held Northwestern’s bench to just 12 points, marking the first time since the Wolverines’ loss to Michigan State three weeks ago that they’ve had better bench production against an opponent. Coming into Wednesday’s game, Michigan’s bench had been outscored, 80-41, in its previous four games.
Unheralded starters such as Abdur-Rahkman and Donnal have had major contributions, too. Abdur-Rahkman led Michigan with 19 points Wednesday, and Donnal had 17 and 25 points against Ohio State and Maryland, respectively. But with the Wolverines’ lack of depth due to injuries, it’s more important now that they get production outside of their starting five.
Last season, when Michigan was plagued by injuries, the bench was also a huge factor. The Wolverines’ non-starters played 38 percent of the team’s minutes last year and have played 33 percent of their minutes this year. In comparison, during Michigan’s Final Four run in the 2012-13 season, it was more reliant on its starting five, with the bench accounting for just 20 percent of its minutes.
“You see all of our good teams over the years, we had a bench that could come off and just get us some baskets,” Beilein said. “(Senior guard Spike Albrecht) would find somebody open, he would do something. (Former Michigan players) Jordan Morgan or Jon Horford would come off the bench and get something done, so that’s key for us. They’re earning the trust every day. We continue to work with them, and they’re doing it.”
With just two regular-season games left and then the potential of playing multiple games on consecutive days in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan’s bench could be the difference between staying on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament and locking in a spot on Selection Sunday.