Although, the boys from Ann Arbor escaped with a 68-64 win, Rutgers gave them all they could handle. Four Michigan players scored in double-digits, highlighted by a game-high 16 points from Zak Irvin.
Rutgers defense was it’s same-old smothering self, holding the Wolverines six points under their season average. On offense, they had three players score 10+ points; Corey Sanders (15), Mike Williams (14), and Nigel Johnson (12).
It’s been very encouraging to see Rutgers hit more shots from the outside, something they have lacked all year. Numerous times the defense has played well, but the offense couldn’t share the same success. If they can continue their improved outside shooting, the Scarlet Knights could win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament.
Here are the three things we took away from an exciting game in East Piscataway.
What We Learned:
1. Michigan Can Hit The Boards When They Have Too
Coming into Wednesday night’s match-up, the Wolverines knew they were facing one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the Big Ten. On the year, the Scarlet Knights led the entire conference on the glass, averaging 41.1 boards per game.
On the other hand, Michigan is the worst rebounding teams in the Big Ten, grabbing only 29.3 per night.
Michigan beat Rutgers on the boards 40 to 33 and even grabbed 12 offensive rebounds. The Wolverines used their leaping ability to keep missed shots alive on offense, leading to a number of key buckets.
Although, it was a team effort, as every starter had at least 5 rebounds, 6-foot-10 forward D.J Wilson grabbed a game-high 11 boards, including 6 on offense. Wilson’s impressive rebounding performance nearly doubled his season average (5.7 rpg).
2. The RAC Is Back
Once upon a time, the RAC was one of the loudest places in the Big East and opposing coaches hated to play there.
Former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun once said, “It's appropriately named because back in the olden days, the rack served as a torture device. It's always been a difficult building to play in for us."
Since joining the Big Ten, it hasn’t been a torture device at all. In fact, last year the RAC only housed an average of 4,653 fans per home game. Also, the fans who showed up rarely had a chance to get loud, since last year’s team was routinely getting blown out.
Wednesday night’s game was different, though, and it has been for most of their conference home games this year. Steve Pikiell is putting the program back on the map and having a home-court advantage is crucial in the Big Ten.
Watching the game on the Big Ten Network, you could hear the Rutgers crowd pop as clear as day through the television. When the ref missed a call on Michigan, it sent all 5,000+ fans into a collective grumble that was as loud as I’ve ever heard sitting on my couch. It’s nice to see that fans are ‘Packing The Rac’ again, and it’s also nice that they’re actually paying attention.
The announced attendance was 5,369 people.
3. Rutgers Is Going To Be Dangerous In The Near Future
The Scarlet Knights played good enough to win on Wednesday night, but couldn’t close the deal. However, they’re gaining valuable experience for the future and will eventually win these kind of games.
Next season, Rutgers should have the majority of their team back. Only fifth-year senior C.J Gettys will be lost to graduation, leaving only Corey Sanders status in limbo. Last year, he tested the NBA Draft waters before eventually returning, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he did the same thing after this year.
If Sanders does return, the cupboard will be fully stocked for 2017-18. Eight of the nine Rutgers rotation players will be back, including double-digit scorers Nigel Johnson, Mike Williams, and Deshawn Freeman.
Johnson, Williams, and Freeman will all be seniors next year, giving them one last shot to make the NCAA Tournament.
On The Horizon:
Coming up, the Scarlet Knights will stay at home for the last two games before the conference tournament. They will play Maryland on February 28th and Illinois in the season-finale on March 4th.
The Wolverines will look to get off the bubble in their final three games, but it won’t be easy. Their next game is at home against Purdue, followed by road games at upstart Northwestern and against a dangerous Nebraska team.