WEST LAFAYETTE — Five minutes into the second half of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against Purdue on Thursday night, 7-foot Boilermaker center A.J. Hammons received the ball just outside of the paint. He dribbled once, thrust his backside against junior forward Mark Donnal, bodied himself into the paint, turned around and put away an easy shot.
Three minutes later, 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas used a screen to slip by redshirt freshman forward D.J. Wilson. Teammate P.J. Thompson lobbed up a pass, and Haas threw down a dunk to complete the alley-oop play.
The Wolverines (2-1 Big Ten, 12-4 overall) played each of their four big men in an attempt to combat the 20th-ranked Boilermakers’ size, but Purdue’s (2-1, 14-2) frontcourt proved too much to handle, as Michigan fell, 87-70.
The Boilermakers bullied Michigan’s bigs, outscoring the Wolverines 42-18 in the paint.
Donnal started at the ‘5’ position for the second straight game after impressive performances against Illinois and Penn State. But Michigan coach John Beilein had a short leash on his big men in the first half.
Wilson — who has been Michigan’s last big off the bench this season — was the first one off it Thursday. Wilson replaced Donnal less than two minutes into the contest after Donnal picked up his first foul. But Wilson didn’t last long himself and was replaced by sophomore forward Ricky Doyle after committing a foul of his own. The rotation continued with freshman forward Moritz Wagner subbing in for Doyle and eventually exiting soon after picking up his own foul.
Four minutes. Four different big men. Four fouls.
On the offensive end, both teams struggled to find their respective strokes early on, combining to shoot 2-for-10 from the field in the game’s opening minutes.
Michigan was able to keep pace in the first half, limiting Purdue’s bigs from finishing down low. The Wolverines held a four-point lead with less than five minutes, but a 12-0 Purdue run gave the Boilermakers a 35-28 lead into halftime.
“The first half, I was so proud of the way our guys played defense,” Beilein said. “We were all over the place, we had the right — quick man we call it — when you can get the shooters, when you can give help off somebody. We made it tough for them. Second half, we just were not as good defensively.
“Post defense is something you try to work at. Then you play the best in the country at post offense and it’s an eye opener.”
Michigan’s second-half shooting was not enough to make up for its 10-for-31 first-half clip.
The Wolverines’ big men struggled against Purdue’s size. Hammons tallied 11 points in the frame. After shooting 42 percent from the field in the first half, the Boilermakers went 16-for-21 in the second frame, including 7-for-10 from 3-point range.
As well as being undersized, Michigan was undermanned, too.
Caris LeVert sat out for the second straight game with a left leg injury and did not partake in pregame warmups. Beilein said he shot around earlier in the day and was still in pain.
Sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman started in his place and did his best to fill the shoes of Michigan’s leading scorer. Abdur-Rahkman used a quick dribble drive to penetrate Purdue’s defense and finished 10-for-16 for a game-high and new career-best 25 points.
“We were dialing him up,” Beilein said. “He’s got that ability — I call it an East Coast type of thing — where he can get buckets, in the wind, in the rain, outdoors, indoors, crooked rims, anything. He just finds ways to score.”
But the rest of Michigan’s roster struggled from the field, and Purdue turned defensive rebounds into made baskets on the other end.
Purdue guard Rapheal Davis guarded redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson — Michigan’s best option from deep — and helped limit him to just five attempts from beyond the arc and two makes.
Junior guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin also struggled to find their strokes. Walton went 3-for-9 from the field for 12 points, and Irvin made just two field goals in 38 minutes.
Abdur-Rahkman’s 15 second-half points helped keep Michigan in it, and the Wolverines trailed by just six with five minutes left. But they were never able to close the gap, and another 12-0 run by Purdue put the game out of reach.
“We just tried to (cut the lead) as a team,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “Try to get back into a flow of offense and not be hammered by their defense, just get into our offense, play our game.”
But Michigan’s game wasn’t enough to overcome Purdue’s size on both ends of the court.
“They’re better defensively than us, there’s no question about that,” Beilein said. “We were getting tough baskets. They were getting easy baskets. We answered with it tough — they were getting it easy. Pretty soon, you’re not going to make the tough, they’re going to make the easy.”