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Rutgers Basketball Game 29 Preview: Michigan

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What Does Rutgers Have To Do to Pull The Upset?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch & Listen

Michigan (17-10; 7-7) At Rutgers (13-15; 2-13)

Where: The RAC

Tip-off: Wednesday, February 22nd at 6:30 p.m. ET

TV: BTN - Brandon Gaudin and Shon Morris

Radio: WCTC 1450 AM & WOR 710 AM - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #127; Michigan #27

KenPom Prediction: Michigan 68 Rutgers 62; Rutgers is given a 30% chance of winning.

Series History: Michigan leads the series 8-0 all-time, including wins in the 1976 Final Four and 2004 NIT Final.

About Michigan

Statistically speaking, Michigan has the top adjusted offensive rating in the Big Ten by a fair margin, but is also 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency. After starting just 2-4 in conference play, they’ve now won 5 of their 8 games, including home wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin. However, they’ve struggled on the road in league play, coming to the RAC with just a 1-5 record, including two overtime losses. They also lost their only two non-conference road games to South Carolina and UCLA.

As a team, they mostly play a seven man rotation and they are all very good shooters. They lead the Big Ten in shooting 56% from two-point range and 6th in the country in free throw percentage at 78%. Michigan rarely gives away the ball on offense, having the 5th best turnover rate in the country. They are an excellent offensive team, as is common with John Beilein coached teams. However, another common theme is they are a finesse team that isn’t stout on the boards and their opponents shoot for a high percentage against them. The one thing they do well on defense is force a lot of turnovers.

Here is a breakdown of their key players:

Derrick Walton Jr. - The senior guard leads the team in scoring, assists, steals and at 6’1” is their second leading rebounder. He averages 14.4 points, 4.7 boards, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steals and is lights out from the free throw line, making 88% on a team high 113 attempts. Walton is a major threat from three-point range as well, making 43% from deep on 153 attempts. He has scored 20+ in six league games so far this season.

Zak Irvin - Also a senior, he averages 12.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 0.9 steals per game. He is third on the team in three-point attempts, but is the only player in the seven man rotation that shoots below 39% from deep, making only 31%.

Moritz Wagner - The 6’11” sophomore from Germany has blossomed this season and is averaging 12.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 0.9 steals. He is one of the best shooters on the team, as he is hitting 57% from the field and 43% from behind the arc.

DJ Wilson - The 6’10” junior is also a great shooter for a big man, averaging 55% from the floor, 83% from the free throw line, and 39% from three-point range. He is also the leading rebounder and shot blocker on the team, averaging 5.6 boards and 1.4 blocks, while fourth in scoring at 10.4 points.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman - The junior guard has been scoring more of late, averaging 12+ points a game in the last five contests. He isn’t as prolific from behind the arc as some of his teammates, but he still shoots 39% from deep.

Duncan Robinson - The 6’8 senior wing is a rare Division III transfer and is a great shooter, making 41% from three-point range, where he is second on the team in attempts. He is also a great free throw shooter, averaging 81% from the line.

Mark Donnal - The 6’9” senior is the only regular to average less than 20 minutes per game, but he is a highly efficient player when he is on the floor. He is averaging 65% shooting from the field, but hasn’t been much of a factor in the past five games, scoring only a combined 9 points.

Keys To The Game

Make This A Battle

Michigan is coming off a tough overtime loss at Minnesota on Sunday night in a game where four of their starters played between 39-40 minutes each. Although Rutgers is looking to bounce back from their own difficult loss on the road to Northwestern, only Corey Sanders, Mike Williams and Nigel Johnson played more than 23 minutes. As big as Michigan is, they are a perimeter oriented team and not imposing in the paint. Rutgers needs to play with an edge tonight and set the tone early, making this a physical game. Deshawn Freeman and CJ Gettys need to own the paint and the guards need to attack the rim at will. Although Rutgers has been shooting from the perimeter better of late, they need to make this a game in the paint to win. Finishing at a high rate within 5 feet of the basket tonight is so important. They have no chance if they attempt to trade jump shots with Michigan.

Crash The Glass

Michigan only averages 29 rebounds a game, but it involves a two-part explanation. Part of the reason they only rebound that much and are last in the conference in grabbing offensive rebounding is because they lead the Big Ten in shooting 48% from the field. They make so many shots, their opportunities are less. However, that doesn’t change the fact they are a finesse team and aren’t built to be a rough and tumble rebounding team. Rutgers is the opposite and need to impose their will in the paint. They need to limit second chance opportunities, while taking advantage in that area on offense. It’s not like the Scarlet Knights can ever afford to miss high percentage shots near the rim, but tonight they MUST be efficient within 5 feet of the basket.

Defend The Three

Michigan is tied with Purdue for the Big Ten lead in 9.1 made three’s per game. They are averaging 39% in league play, while Rutgers is tops in the conference in holding opponents to just under 32% from three-point range. It’s strength versus strength. Rutgers did a good job against Purdue, who made just 8 of 27 for 30%. The difference was being unable to contain the frontcourt of Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. Michigan isn’t nearly as imposing on the blocks, so containing them on the perimeter will be key. Don’t be surprised if Rutgers plays more zone than usual in halfcourt tonight, so their frontcourt can pack the paint and not have to pick up their man on the perimeter.

Limit Open Looks & Contest Everything

Michigan leads the Big Ten in shooting 48% from the field. They are actually shooting 56% from two-point range, which is downright filthy. A big reason for Rutgers being so much more competitive this season has been from their drastically improved defensive play. They’ve held teams like Nebraska and Wisconsin without a field goal for 10+ minute stretches this season. Expecting that type of result tonight is unrealistic, but Rutgers needs to play close to their best on the defensive end as they have all year in this game. Michigan will have a huge size advantage on the perimeter, but Rutgers can compensate with peskiness, as the backcourt of Sanders, Johnson, and Williams need to be everywhere and create constant ball pressure. Any letdown for multiple possessions on the defensive end tonight and Michigan will make them pay.

Always Be Closing

I wrote about some recent trends for Rutgers and highlighted a major reason they are struggling down the stretch in close games here. There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that Rutgers has been abysmal from the free throw line. It’s unreasonable to expect significant improvement the rest of the season, but if they can be competent and shoot around 65% tonight, it will certainly help. Just as important though, they must be able to generate offense in the last four minutes of the game. Someone else other than Corey Sanders is going to have to step up and score, because teams are focusing on him in the closing minutes, forcing him into difficult shots. If it’s a close game late, Rutgers will have the crowd on their side, but it will come down to execution. After being so close in several recent games, let’s hope this team can get over the hump tonight.

In The Bonus

There were a lot of complaints about the ESPNU broadcast crew from Saturday’s game at Northwestern. Personally, I was going nuts every time they referred to Nigel Johnson as Corey Sanders. The good news is the BTN crew tonight includes Shon Morris, an underrated color analyst, who has been speaking positively on Rutgers all season. He even said on BTN Live last week that Pikiell should be seriously considered for Big Ten Coach of the Year here:

In terms of the home crowd, as I wrote yesterday, this team deserves support in their last three games at the RAC this season. While Rutgers has not played well in home losses to Penn State and Iowa, they have been playing better of late and might be close to turning the corner. A raucous RAC could give them the push to do just that. If Rutgers can pick up their first ever win tonight against Michigan, it will certainly make the final two home games even more interesting.