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Michigan Picks Up Pair of Massive Non-Conference Wins

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

With just over five minutes left in the second half, panic started to set in for Michigan in Austin. The Wolverines had seen this movie before, letting a double-digit lead slip only eight days earlier in Columbus. Moritz Wagner was out, and the offense completely sputtered.

Then Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman banked in a 3 to put the game on ice.

Michigan had two late key plays to help truly seal it, including a massive Jon Teske block and Texas forward Dylan Osetkowski performing a WWE move on Charles Matthews for an offensive foul. Seriously, can we talk about how that was such a blatant flagrant 1 or 2 and the refs just completely let it slide? Osetkowski had been physical with Michigan’s forwards all night, especially senior Duncan Robinson. But the elbow at Matthews’ neck? That absolutely should have been reprimanded and was completely ignored.

However, Michigan was fortunate to slide out of Austin with a 59-52 victory over Texas, the largest non-conference victory for John Beilein’s group in quite some time. A major part of this is due to Abdur-Rahkman, whose slinky drives and timely 3-pointers created 17 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. On the other side of the ball, Michigan’s defense was excellent. Texas only shot 36.5% from the floor, 25% from 3 and managed only six offensive rebounds.

While the Texas win was the major catapult to closing out 2017 strong, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the UCLA game. The Bruins were getting quality shots, Thomas Welsh looked like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Michigan looked helpless. UCLA took a three point halftime lead and extended it to 15 with just under 15 minutes to play. Frankly, Michigan’s season looked dead in the water.

A Charles Matthews 8-0 run brought the Wolverines within seven, as Michigan kept clawing back but couldn’t outscore UCLA’s high-octane offense. After Gyorgy Goloman split a pair of free throws, John Beilein ran a great play to get Eli Brooks a look at the basket. Brooks, who Beilein said after the game hadn’t made two consecutive free throws all year, calmly knocked both down to send the game to overtime.

In the extra session, UCLA was completely deflated. It was all Michigan from the jump, as Zavier Simpson and Matthews buried back-to-back 3’s within the first minute. Michigan ended up scoring 13 points in overtime to UCLA’s four, and gave the Wolverines the first of what was ultimately two major victories in the last seven days.

MVPs of the Week: Moritz Wagner and Charles Matthews

Without these two, Michigan gets run out of the gym by UCLA. I mentioned the Matthews 8-0 run above, and while Thomas Welsh manhandled Wagner on one side of the floor, the German forward more than held his own. Wagner’s 23 points on 10-16 shooting is extremely efficient, but I’d like to see him make a more concerted effort on the glass going forward (only three rebounds each against UCLA and Texas). Against the Longhorns, Wagner didn’t play the final seven minutes but had two massive back-to-back 3’s that help stretch the lead mid-way through the second half.

Matthews is still Michigan’s focal point on offense, and for the most part he seems pretty comfortable in that role. The 2-10 free throw shooting against UCLA is something that Beilein will undoubtedly address, but it’s hard to knock him too much given that he’s averaging nearly 15 points and five rebounds per game.

Surprise of the Week: Zavier Simpson

Zavier with a Z finally gets his praise after the last week. The diminutive point guard was dynamite down the stretch against UCLA, finishing with 15 points and four steals in 24 hard-earned minutes. Against Texas, Simpson only finished with four points, four assists and three rebounds in 26 minutes, but it’s clear that Beilein is beginning to trust the sophomore more each game. It’ll be interesting to see if a leader emerges from the pack between Simpson and Brooks or if Beilein opts to go with the hot-hand or defensive presence game to game.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman Highlight Play(s) of the Week

Since MAAR had a terrible game against UCLA, I can’t merit an MVP award for him this week. However, he had two great plays against Texas that both deserve a shoutout. In the first one, Simpson starts with the ball just inside the 3-point line. Abdur-Rahkman sharply cuts around a Wagner screen, darts into the lane and throws down a thunderous one-handed slam (1:02).

A few minutes later, Abdur-Rahkman starts outside the three-point line, drives into the middle of the lane, spins, and puts up a nifty left-handed layup that barely grazes the rim over behemoth Mohamed Bamba (1:55). Both of these moves show how good MAAR can be at both getting into the lane and finishing over bigger players. Can he find consistency with Matthews and Wagner getting the majority of the touches? That remains to be seen, but take nothing away from his performance deep in the heart of Texas.

The Week Ahead

Michigan finds itself in a “easy-on-paper” game against Detroit-Mercy tomorrow, but the Wolverines won’t be taking the Titans lightly. Detroit is led by former Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander, a guy who knows the Wolverines’ system extremely well. Add in the fact that Detroit’s second leading scorer is Michigan transfer Kam Chatman, averaging nearly 18 points and eight rebounds, and there’s definitely some intrigue. Chatman will go down in folklore as the guy who sent the Wolverines to the 2016 NCAA Tournament. But he wasn’t even supposed to get the shot, as Derrick Walton only passed the ball thinking Aubrey Dawkins was in the corner instead.

Michigan’s game against Detroit is part of a double-header at Little Caesars Arena, the new home for both the Pistons and Red Wings. It should be a great atmosphere for basketball, especially with Michigan State and Oakland as the second game. On Thursday, Michigan plays Alabama A&M. The Bulldogs are 0-10 and don’t have a guy on their roster bigger than 6’9”. Not exactly the type of competition you’re looking for heading into Big Ten play, but should be a win nonetheless. Enjoy the hoops!