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Michigan in Great Position Halfway Through Conference Season

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

After major roster turnover at the end of last season, Michigan was expected to take a step back this year. This included two seniors who were in the top-three minutes played in the country (Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr.), a John Beilein NBA-special early departure (D.J. Wilson) and two impact graduate transfers (Mark Donnal, and hello there efficient-as-hell, Andrew Dakich). Instead, Michigan finds itself at 17-5 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten halfway through the conference season.

This is in major part to John Beilein’s (mostly) steady eight man rotation finding a seemingly new star in every victory. Against Nebraska, it was clear the Wolverines were clearly exhausted. They fell victim to the disastrous Jim Delany scheduling, in which the Wolverines were forced to play four games in eight days. The Cornhuskers had just come off an emotional home victory against Illinois, and continued that spark to completely steamroll Michigan.

Tim Miles’ emphasis on switching everything paid major dividends, as catalyst Isaiah Roby completely neutralized Moritz Wagner and finished 6-7 shooting for 14 points. After Michigan had mostly held serve against the teams they were supposed to beat, Pinnacle Bank Arena and the Huskers simply proved to be too much.

On Sunday, Michigan received a visit from “New York’s Big Ten team”, the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have been far more competitive this year than in year’s past, and love to muddy up the game if possible. The Scarlet Knights jumped out to an early 8-2 lead, but were outscored 60-39 for the remaining 34 minutes.

Moritz Wagner paced the Wolverines with 16 points including two three-pointers, while sharpshooter Duncan Robinson finally found his range and knocked down four three-pointers himself. It was Robinson’s best game in a while, and the redshirt senior also grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists in 30 minutes. Robinson is probably a step too slow and a bit too weak to have a major impact against the best teams in the country, but his shooting prowess and overall awareness on the court make him a valuable play against the worse teams in the Big Ten.

Last Monday’s hero Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was quiet again, finishing with only nine points against Nebraska and six against Rutgers. The senior is shooting 12-43 in his last five games for a putrid 28%. MAAR will remain a presence on the floor for around 35 minutes per game because of his ball-handling and defense, but it’s frustrating to see him struggle so mightily shooting the ball.

MAAR’s shooting woes have opened the door for swagger machine Jordan Poole to earn more minutes. I documented Poole’s shooting prowess against Maryland last week, but his passing ability appears to get better every game and he’s working on not getting beat on backdoor cuts multiple times a game. Pairing Poole and Robinson with Wagner and a few playmakers give Michigan five legit offensive threats and greatly improves spacing on the floor.

Because Michigan had two rather lackluster performances, I’m skipping awards for the week. Michigan finally gets some rest before their biggest remaining test of the season, a road trip to Purdue.

The Week Ahead

Playing Purdue anywhere in the United States has proved to be quite the challenge. In fact, the Boilermakers are perfect, going 18-0 in such games, including 14 of those games by double figures. I watched most of their recent tilt against Iowa, and it’s hard to fathom the best method to beat this team right now. P.J. Thomson and Carsen Edwards form the best diminutive backcourt in the country, while Dakota Mathias and Vince Edwards are a nightmare on the wing.

Surprisingly, center Isaac Haas actually seems like a detriment on the floor right now. Haas is one of the largest humans I’ve ever seen in person, standing at a legit 7’2” and weighing nearly 300 pounds. At that size, you’d think Haas would dunk everything in his way. But the Boilermakers have become such a good passing and shooting team that post touches to Haas actually slow down the offense. That’s how Haas only finished with one field goal attempt in 18 minutes against Iowa.

If I’m Purdue, I’m moving Matt Haarms into the starting lineup. Haarms is a better shooter, passer and helps space the floor better. Haas seems like a more viable option off the bench, where he can dominate the second unit with less prolific scorers Nojel Eastern, Grady Eifert and shooter Ryan Cline.

For Michigan to win this game, much like against Michigan State, they’ll have to play their best game of the season. Purdue thrashed Wisconsin in their last game at Mackey Arena, and allowing the Boilermakers to get off to a hot start could doom trouble. This is a game where Michigan will probably have to hit 11 or 12 three-pointers to stay in the game, and turnovers could make or break the Wolverines.

Four days later, Michigan welcomes major disappointment Northwestern to Crisler Center. The Wildcats’ preseason ranking has completely vanished, as an early season blowout loss to Texas Tech was further compounded by consecutive losses to Nebraska and Penn State. Chris Collins has shortened his rotation, playing only six guys more than six minutes against Penn State. Bryant McIntosh is still dangerous running the show, while Vic Law, Gavin Skelly, Scottie Lindsey and freshman Anthony Gaines do the heavy lifting on the wing.

I’d expect Michigan to go 1-1 in this stretch, losing a close one to Purdue before comfortably taking care of business against Northwestern. A win over the Boilermakers would be massive to all-but-ensure a top four finish in the Big Ten, while beating Northwestern would simply be “holding serve” at home. Look for Michigan to come out refreshed in both games after significant rest, with a great chance to score two important victories in the Big Ten.