| Detroit Free Press
Michigan basketball’s Mike Smith: Our defense was key to win over Rutgers
Michigan Wolverines guard Mike Smith speaks to the media after the 71-64 win over Rutgers on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, at Crisler Center.,
Michigan athletics, Detroit Free Press
Michigan basketball‘s win over Rutgers was far from pretty.
The Wolverines went 5½ minutes without scoring in the second half. Over 6 minutes elapsed without a made field goal. A double-digit lead dwindled over the course of the final 10 minutes.
Yet none of that seemed to impact how the Scarlet Knights’ head coach regarded his opponent.
“They’re a good basketball team,” said Steve Pikiell. “That’s as good of a team as I’ve played in my five years here in this league.”
Michigan did not play to its potential on Thursday night. Yet the third-ranked Wolverines’ dream season continued unabated with a 71-64 win over Rutgers. With a 10-1 record in Big Ten play, they still sit atop the conference standings. According to Fox Sports, it is Michigan’s best start to conference play since 1976-77.
Despite the recent two-week pause that led to a 23-day layoff between games, Michigan is back to where it used to be: Winning Big Ten games with relative ease.
On Sunday, the Wolverines staged a furious second-half comeback at Wisconsin, outscoring the Badgers by 20 points to win comfortably in Madison. Thursday night, U-M played its first game at Crisler Center since Jan. 19, and sucked the air out of Rutgers’ offense. The Scarlet Knights shot 25 of 62 from the field (40.3%), forced to toss up a barrage of mid-range jumpers that, more often than not, missed the mark.
Ron Harper, the team’s leading scorer, shot 3 of 10. Guard Geo Baker, the third-leading scorer, shot 3 of 12 and missed his final six attempts.
“Our defense was great,” said Juwan Howard. “There was a time when we went through a tough stretch where we didn’t score, but we didn’t stop defending on the other end. And that’s a sign, in my opinion of a team that’s growing, doing whatever they can to compete out there, no matter if the ball’s going in the basket or not, and not making a compound mistake on the other end of the floor.
“That says a lot about the growth in this group. I looked at the box score and I saw that Rutgers shot 40% from the field and also 25% from 3. That was a damn good job defensively.”
Offensively was a different story. In the second half, Michigan made just 9 of 22 shots and turned the ball over on 25.8% of its possessions. Yet the defense did more than enough to stave off Rutgers’ comeback attempt. And the Wolverines still had three separate players reach double digits, led by Franz Wagner, who scored a game-high 20 points on 6 of 9 shooting and looked every bit the part of a future first-round draft pick.
The multi-faceted attack was, yet again, a testament to the talent of Michigan’s offense. The team’s two leading scorers, Hunter Dickinson and Isaiah Livers, combined to shoot 7 of 20 (35%) from the field. Yet the Wolverines had more than enough scoring to win.
That has been a key characteristic of this team all season. When one starter has a quiet game, another steps up in their place. Dickinson, the leading contender for Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, has fallen off the torrid pace he set by scoring in double digits through his first 11 games. In the five contests since, Dickinson has seen far greater defensive attention (often in the form of double teams) and has averaged just 8.2 points on 44% shooting. Dickinson even sat for the final 4:16 of Thursday’s game. The Wolverines won relatively comfortably, anyway.
Michigan’s defense (No. 7 in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom.com) remains the stingiest in the conference. The offense (also No. 7 in adjusted efficiency) features a balanced attack with one of the conference’s top centers, two star wings with NBA futures and a steady, veteran backcourt.
Thursday’s win had an air of inevitability. At some point, the Wolverines were going to make their run and pull away. And they did. The question now becomes: Just how far can this team go?
If you ask Rutgers’ coach, the answer would likely be, “Pretty far.”
“Against them, you don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Pikiell said. “You gotta take advantage of any opportunity that you can get. They do a really good job with their defense. So efficient. They don’t give you a lot of easy baskets. When you do get some mid-range stuff, you gotta make them and when you get to the rim, you gotta finish and when you get an open look, you gotta finish.
“… Our defense gave us a chance and our offense didn’t allow us to. But again, this is as good a team as I’ve seen in five years. So it’s a good basketball team.”