The Michigan men’s basketball team has struggled to find an identity this season, and in the absence of their two senior stars, the Wolverines have taken on a few traits they would prefer to live without.
Among them recently has been a propensity to fall victim to game-ending runs, which happened twice in a five-day span earlier this month in home losses to Indiana and Michigan State.
The Wolverines twice seemed destined to suffer a third such run on Wednesday, until sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman stepped in.
Michigan began the game shooting 0-for-8 from the field and trailed, 10-0, after six minutes of play. Junior forward Zak Irvin finally broke the drought with a layup, but down 13-2, it was Abdur-Rahkman who continued to chip away.
“It’s what we don’t have,” said Michigan coach John Beilein of Abdur-Rahkman’s run-stopping effort. “It’s something that (senior guard Caris LeVert) certainly did for us.”
Abdur-Rahkman scored Michigan’s next six points to whittle the deficit and finished with 19 points, three rebounds and a pair of assists.
“The coaches are emphasizing that I have to get downhill and get to the basket,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “Even Caris encourages me to be aggressive.”
The timing of Abdur-Rahkman’s 19 points proved just as important as the points themselves, as Michigan fell victim to another run — this one 8-0 — to begin the second half.
For the second time, the player of the night put a stop to the Wildcats’ momentum, this time with a slashing layup, then a lightning-quick leftward spin to reach the rim minutes later.
“Credit (Abdur)-Rahkman,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “I thought he was tremendous. His ability to drive the ball, get by our guys, get to the basket, draw fouls. … If he did miss, we were in rotations so they got offensive rebounds. I thought he played a great game, and was a big difference.”
The Wolverines’ mentality has changed in light of the embarrassing losses to Indiana and Michigan State, and so has their position on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Nonetheless, Abdur-Rahkman says he hasn’t taken the responsibility intentionally.
On a night Michigan wasn’t hitting from 3-point range, however, the Wolverines had few other options than to lean on the player equipped with moves Beilein refers to as the “Ali Shuffle.”
“I just know we have to get to the basket,” Abdur-Rahkman said, acknowledging his goal Wednesday was to “get downhill and just try to finish or get a foul and stop the run.”
Scoring in the paint has never been Beilein’s concern, however — it’s Abdur-Rahkman’s room for improvement in his distribution game that has kept him from having his number called on set plays more often.
After practices, Beilein said Wednesday, he and Michigan’s assistant coaches run Abdur-Rahkman through “a steady diet of reads in the ball screen,” the keystone of Michigan’s perimeter-driven offense.
“Because his assist numbers weren’t what we’d like them to be, we were hesitant to put him in situations where he’s got to make a lot of reads,” Beilein said.
Then again, sometimes the potential for distribution isn’t what counts most.
“Reading is one thing,” Beilein said. “He also can just take the ball to the basket and get a hoop.”
Entering the season, LeVert was expected to be the player Michigan could rely on for a basket when the rest of its offense wasn’t executing. Though Irvin and junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. have shown periodic flashes of that takeover ability, the biggest value in Abdur-Rahkman’s play this season is his emergence as another go-to option.
With the two juniors suffering from fatigue entering Wednesday’s game, Beilein dialed up Abdur-Rahkman far more than he has in most games this season, and the decision paid off.
“Muhammad is becoming a guy that just gets there,” Beilein said. “I’d like to have more of those guys. We thought we had it with Caris, and hopefully the rest of our guys can grow.”