The Michigan men’s basketball team traveled to Piscataway to face Rutgers on Tuesday, marking the beginning of a pivotal four-game gauntlet in Big Ten play. The Wolverines hoped to come away with a win and spark turnaround in a thus-far lackluster season.
But by the time they left the arena, it was clear the issues that have hampered them all season are nowhere close to being solved.
Michigan (7-6 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) was humbled by the Scarlet Knights (8-5, 2-1), falling 75-67. The win marked Rutgers’ first victory over the Wolverines in program history.
With Michigan having five players unavailable due to medical reasons, there was extra pressure on the starters to perform. But in the early going, the Wolverines only made matters more difficult for their depleted squad; they looked timid and watched several point-blank shots rim out.
Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights came out red hot. Led by its dynamic duo of guard Geo Baker and forward Ron Harper Jr., they put on an effective attack: Rutgers looked aggressive on the offensive end and confidently pulled up from all over the floor.
“They got hot early,” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said. “They made some tough shots. … We were down early, and it’s hard to come back from that.”
The Scarlet Knights had not been a prolific three-point shooting team coming into the matchup — shooting just over 30% from the field — but they found their touch against Michigan, making five of their first six threes, including several wide-open looks. By the under-twelve timeout, it looked like the Wolverines might be in for a long night. Michigan trailed 22-11 and was shooting an unimpressive 4-of-13 from the field.
“They hit some bombs, man, made some deep deep threes,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “They hit them early, and of course that generated some confidence within those players, as well as got the fans into it. And there were also some times where we did have a defensive breakdown to allow some open threes. Those are teachable moments and we’ll continue to keep teaching.”
Much of the first half was an avalanche, as the Wolverines’ plethora of problems piled up and threatened to bury them. The lackluster defense continued to struggle. So too did their disjointed offense, which generated just one second chance opportunity in the first half and could not find any rhythm. With just under five minutes left in the half, the Wolverines continued to lag behind, down 35-19.
Late in the first half, momentum finally appeared to turn. Brooks clawed them back in it, going on a personal 7-0 run. Rutgers cooled down offensively, and Michigan began to string together some makes, trimming the lead to just 39-30 heading into the break.
But instead of building on the momentum, the Wolverines came out of the locker room completely flat. In the first 6:30 minutes of the half, Michigan had just six points while amassing four turnovers and fell behind by double digits once again, 53-36. Rutgers’ production from the field continued to taper off from its first half explosion, but the Wolverines could not find a way to close the gap. Everytime they cut the lead down, they’d give up a crushing bucket on the other end to make a comeback effort more futile.
“There were some moments where, whether a guy got open… whether we had a defensive breakdown, the ball swung to that player that was open and he made the shot,” Howard said. “It’s been like that throughout the year, when I look at the Central Florida game, the North Carolina game, the Minnesota game.”
With 6:17 left on the clock, freshman forward Moussa Diabate drained a rare three from the corner to make it a 60-53 game. But Rutgers immediately answered, knocking down a three of its own on the other end. The next possession, sophomore center Hunter Dickinson slammed home a dunk, but the Wolverines surrendered another three-pointer just seconds later.
As the clock ticked down, it was clear there would be no miraculous comeback.
A Michigan team that had come into the season with a top-10 ranking and Final Four expectations never found its footing against Rutgers and suffered yet another loss. It was an all-too-familiar feeling for the Wolverines this season, and with two top-ten matchups looming, there’s no immediate reprieve in sight for a reeling Michigan squad.