After eight and a half seasons coaching in the Big Ten, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein has learned not to take any game for granted.
When Minnesota and its winless Big Ten record came into Crisler Center last week and the Wolverines struggled to secure a slim five-point victory, Beilein merely shrugged. He knows that in this conference, any team can beat him on any given night.
So when Rutgers came to Ann Arbor seeking its first Big Ten win Wednesday night, Beilein knew better than to look past it. Sure enough, Michigan started slow again — but this time, it woke up more quickly.
Despite missing their first five shots and not taking the lead until late in the first half, the Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 16-5 overall) took over the game with a 12-0 run in the first frame and cruised to a 68-57 victory. In contrast to the win over the Golden Gophers — in which junior forward Zak Irvin and junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. almost single-handedly took over the game — multiple Michigan players stepped up their play in the winning effort.
Redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson led the way with 18 points on four 3-pointers, sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins spurred the first-half offensive resurgence and finished with 11 points, and Irvin flirted with a triple-double with a final line of eight points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
Though the Wolverines finished with four double-digit scorers, things didn’t look so easy in the beginning. In fact, Beilein had a bad feeling before the game even started — just minutes before the game, his scouting report, which was between four and five pages, went missing.
“I always religiously go over it one more time, and I couldn’t find it,” Beilein said. “That was a bad omen to start, because after 1,100 games, I have the same ritual, and I couldn’t find it.”
That bad luck quickly spread to the court, where Michigan shot just 25 percent (including 1-for-6 from 3-point range) in the first 12 minutes of the game. The Wolverines managed to stay in the game thanks to nine first-half Rutgers turnovers — including one Scarlet Knight falling out of bounds with the ball and another throwing a pass into the first row of courtside seats near the basket.
“When you get in those situations (where shots aren’t falling), you have to manufacture energy,” Beilein said. “When you’re missing shots, it can take a lot out of you. You just can’t put your head down and wallow in it.”
With Rutgers (0-8, 6-15) clinging to a 16-12 lead at the penultimate first-half media timeout, Dawkins — who dropped a career-high 31 points against Rutgers at Crisler Center last season — was the one to manufacture that energy. After Dawkins cut into the lead with a 3-pointer and a two-handed slam dunk, junior forward Mark Donnal emphatically blocked a shot and later found Dawkins for a wide-open 3 on the other end for his eighth straight point to tie the game at 20.
Dawkins’ spark propelled the Wolverines to a 12-0 run, with Irvin and Robinson both hitting 3-pointers to give Michigan a seven-point lead at the half.
Walton hit two straight 3-pointers soon after the break to push the lead to 12, but Rutgers marched right back with a 7-0 run. The teams traded offense for the next several minutes before sophomore forward Ricky Doyle hit two straight layups, Dawkins and Robinson nailed two more triples and Walton converted three straight free throws to extend the lead to a game-high 14 points — a deficit the Scarlet Knights couldn’t erase.
Michigan achieved its desired outcome despite taking an ugly path to get there, but the Wolverines have now had a little too much trouble pulling away from two bottom-dwelling conference opponents, and the players have taken notice.
“We’re gonna really learn from this one,” Walton said. “Probably more than a lot of other games. Shots are not gonna fall all the time — we can’t play flat on defense.”