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Game Preview: Rutgers at no. 3 Michigan

Includes how to watch, stats, Steve Pikiell’s pregame thoughts and keys to victory.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Michigan Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers (12-7; 8-7) at No. 3 Michigan (14-1; 9-1)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tip-off: Thursday, February 18 at 9:00 p.m. ET

TV: FS1 - Brandon Gaudin and Nick Bahe

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/Sirius 83/XM 83, Jerry Recco & Jordan Ozer; WRSU 88.7 FM - Dylan Allen and Brant Wolff

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 26, which is the same spot they were in before a 14 point win over Northwestern last Saturday. Michigan is 3, which is one spot better since a 8 point win over Wisconsin on Sunday.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 110.6 (56th) Defense 90.6 (12th); Michigan - Offense 118.8 (7th) Defense 89.3 (8th)

KenPom Prediction: Michigan 73 Rutgers 64. Rutgers is given a 22% chance to win.

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Michigan -10

Series History: Michigan leads the all-time series 13-0, including a series sweep last season.

Michigan SB Nation Site: Maize n Brew

Key Contributors

Michigan - 6’7” senior Isaiah Livers (15.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 49.0% FG, 45.7% 3-pt FG); 7’1” freshman Hunter Dickinson (14.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks. 66.4% FG); 6’9” sophomore Franz Wagner (12.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.2 blocks, 50.0% FG, 33.3% 3-pt FG); 6’1” senior Eli Brooks (8.8 points, 3.4 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 35.3% 3-pt FG); 6’5” senior Chaundee Brown Jr. (8.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 38.2% 3-pt FG); 5’11” grad senior Mike Smith (8.2 points, 5.6 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 48.6% 3-pt FG); 6’10” grad senior Austin Davis (6.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 67.5% FG): 6’8” junior Brandon Johns Jr. (4.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 64.9% FG)

Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (16.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 32.7% 3-pt FG); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (14.1 points, 3.5 assists, 1.9 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 38.9% 3-pt FG); 6’4” Geo Baker (10.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 steals); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (9.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 34.5 % 3-pt FG); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (8.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 1.3 steals, 66.7% FG); 6’7” junior Caleb McConnell (6.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.6 steals); 6’6” sophomore Paul Mulcahy (5.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 37.1% 3-pt FG); 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (4.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 68.6% FG)

Injury Updates

Neither team has any significant injury issues.

About Michigan

When thinking of anything derogatory to say about this Michigan basketball team, I will channel Rocky Balboa by saying, “Yeah. They’re great.” Juwan Howard has proven to be a very good coach in just his second season on the job at any level. The Wolverines are putting together an impressive campaign and are a complete team. They are a great shooting team, have tremendous length and have rarely been tested. In 14 victories, only two have been by single digits, including its first game back on Sunday against Wisconsin after a three week break due to COVID-19. They trailed by double digits in the second half, but were able to storm back and shake off the rust quicker than expected.

Michigan is averaging 78.9 points per game and are holding opponents to just 64.9 points per game. They are shooting 50.2% from the floor, 37.9% from three-point range and 76.7% from the free throw line. The Wolverines are holding opponents to just 37.5% shooting and average 5.3 blocks per game.

In Big Ten play, Michigan is third in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency. Offensively, they have the best effective field goal shooting percentage and free throw shooting percentage in league action, as well as the second best two-point and three-point shooting percentages. However, they are just 11th in free throw rate and 12th in turnover rate. Defensively, they are holding conference opponents to the lowest effective field goal shooting percentage, two-point shooting percentage and free throw rate in conference play. They also have the second best block rate. The Wolverines are just 12th in both defensive turnover rate and steal rate.

Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner pose a lot of problems along the perimeter with their size and shooting ability. Hunter Dickinson has been an impact freshman and is a valuable rim defender. Eli Brooks and Mike Smith are smaller, quicker guards that can both score and distribute the rock well. Chaundee Brown is an experienced, tough player who has the potential to have a big scoring night, even if his focus on this team is defense and rebounding. Austin Davis and Brandon Johns Jr. bring size and take high percentage shots off the bench. This is as good a eight man rotation in the country minus Gonzaga and Baylor. They are versatile, are committed to both ends of the floor, share the basketball and consistently execute off of great shot selection.

Rutgers Notes

Rutgers is averaging 71.8 points per game and they are allowing 67.9 points per contest. Overall, the Scarlet Knights are shooting 46.1% from the floor, 32.5% from three-point range and 61.6% from the foul line. In Big Ten play, they are currently 7th in offensive efficiency and 6th in defensive efficiency. Offensively, while they are 4th in turnover rate and 5th in two-point shooting percentage, they rank 12th in free throw rate and 13th in free throw shooting percentage. Defensively, Rutgers has the best steal rate and block rate, as well as 2nd in turnover rate and 3rd in two-point field goal percentage defense. However, they are 13th in opponent offensive rebounding rate.

Steve Pikiell Pregame Quotes

The strengths of Michigan

“Physically, they are real big and they do a great job of challenging you at the rim and the amazing thing is they do it without fouling too. Really well coached. It is a really good basketball team, it really is. They have good players at every position and a bench that is strong. They are very athletic and added a few pieces to make them more athletic. They got great size too. Their size at the rim, they lead the league in blocked shots. They blocked a lot of our shots the last two years. And you don’t get to the free-throw line so you really got to earn your points against them. And every year, Michigan is good offensively. That’s another problem. You have problems at both ends of the floor.”

On the possibility of playing Myles Johnson & Cliff Omoruyi together

“Some games are maybe more suited for that. A lot depends on foul trouble and we have been in it lately. But we are doing it more in practice; depends on foul trouble, depends on how the whistles are blown and a lot of different things. But it is something we have been using more and we’ll see when we can utilize it to help us in a game.”

On offensive approach against Michigan’s stingy defense

“We can’t reinvent the wheel with a couple days to prepare. We will put in some new things that we think we can take advantage of, but they’ve seen everything. I’ve watched all the tapes. They’ve lost one game and they have played a really good schedule. It is a basketball team that causes many problems against everybody so we got to play great defense, first and foremost. We can’t throw them the ball. They jump in lanes and get pick six’s going down the other end of the court. We have to do a great job of not turning the ball over and one of the most important keys. Finishing the plays that we do get near the rim. Finish open shots that we get. We’ve done a good job from the free throw line too. That will be an important key to this in how the whistle is being blown.”

On the challenge of beating Michigan for the first time in program history

“This is a national championship-caliber team so you got to play great. It would be great, another thing that we haven’t done. It would be great for our guys. But the task is hard and we are going to have to play really good basketball.”

For more of what Steve Pikiell said before this game, click here.

Keys to Victory

This is the most difficult challenge of the season for Rutgers and the truth is they need to play at its best to win this game. Anything less and it’s not going to be enough. Michigan is so dangerous on the offensive end and make things so difficult on the defensive end. Aside from how good the Wolverines are, they just happen to be a bad matchup for Rutgers based on their size and style of play. They’ve had RU’s number even before becoming Big Ten foes, going as far back as the 1976 Final Four and 2004 NIT Championship.

Michigan does a great job with spacing within its offense and it stretches out the defense. Rutgers needs to be really focused with on the ball pressure and not get beat off the bounce. If they can’t keep the ball handler in front of them, it forces defenders to help on penetration, leaving shooters open for high percentage looks. If Rutgers gets knocked back on their heels defensively early, it could be a long night.

The glimmer of hope is that Michigan turns it over a lot and Rutgers forces a lot of steals. Michigan had 20 turnovers in its only loss at Minnesota, who forced 12 steals in the upset. This is an area that RU must take advantage of and convert mistakes into high percentage looks and easy baskets. Limiting possessions and also not allowing multiple shots per possession is key to making this game a grind. Rutgers outrebounded Michigan in both meetings last season and certainly need to be active on the glass once again. They have struggled as a team in keeping opponents off of the offensive boards this season and they need to tighten that up if they want to knock off the Wolverines. This is a game Rutgers needs to play in the sixties to have a chance to win. If it becomes a shootout, they have no chance.

The two most important matchups in my view are Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner against Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell. I think Harper Jr. will start on Livers but he could rotate with McConnell by switching to Wagner throughout the game. Either way, containing them both from three-point range is key. Livers and Wagner were just 3 of 11 combined from behind the arc in Michigan’s lone loss of the season. While Hunter Dickinson is a very productive player inside and it’s important to Myles Johnson on the court and out of foul trouble, I think the best path to victory for Rutgers is slowing down Livers and Wagner. McConnell is a cooler and has shown to be so valuable on the defensive end. As much has been made about Harper Jr.’s struggles shooting from three, his defense this season is another concern, as it hasn’t been at the level he played last season. However, he is a competitive player and Thursday is a chance for him to prove himself as an all-league player on both ends of the floor. He really does seem close to breaking out and it would be great timing it if happened in this game.

While Michigan has the top two-point field goal percentage defense in the country and make it so hard to score in the paint, Rutgers can’t abandon what they do best. They aren’t going to win this game by shooting 25-30 threes. Too often the Scarlet Knights fall into the trap of shooting too many threes at the start of games before establishing the post. They fell behind Northwestern on Saturday by missing its first seven attempts from deep despite their clear advantage inside. They can’t make that mistake against Michigan or this game will be over before the first media timeout. Don’t get me wrong, they have to make some threes to beat an elite team like Michigan, but they need to be more selective and get better looks within the flow of the offense.

Discipline on offense, sharing the basketball, and going strong to the rim is crucial. Michigan is fantastic at not fouling when opponents penetrate the paint and that’s why I think Rutgers needs to focus on mid-range shots. It’s actually something I think they should doing more of regularly, but particularly in this game. Geo Baker, Montez Mathis and Jacob Young need to drive with their heads up to be able to pull up 8 to 12 feet from the basket, rather then getting sucked in and not having any room or angle to shoot near the rim among the trees of Michigan. Harper Jr. needs to have urgency in the lane with the ball and use his body the way he is capable of. Feeding Myles Johnson early and making Dickinson defend him from the start is important too. Rutgers needs to be physical without being reckless or it will lead to turnovers and mistakes.

Lastly, RU has to convert from the foul line. They are shooting 72.4% on 98 attempts over the past six games. In four of those contests, which were wins over Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern, the Scarlet Knights were 54 of 70 for 77.1% shooting from the line. If Rutgers wants to upset Michigan, they need to convert from the charity stripe at a high clip. Getting there will be important too and creating contact on penetration is key, but as mentioned previously, it can’t be in spite of getting caught stuck on the baseline with no clear shot. Harper Jr. is key again to this, as he is an impressive 22 of 27 for 81.5% from the free throw line over the past six games. His ability to draw contact and convert from the line is a weapon Rutgers needs to draw.

One other note is that Michigan hasn’t played Iowa, Illinois or Ohio State, the other top teams in the Big Ten. Rutgers has played them a total of five times (1-4). Michigan has played a competitive schedule, but they haven’t had any down to the wire type games against top competition yet. Perhaps Rutgers being more battle tested plays into its favor if this is a close game down the stretch.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the twentieth game of the season, I selected “Heroes” by David Bowie.

The lyrics include “We can beat them, just for one day. We can be heroes, just for one day.” Also “We could steal time just for one day. We can be heroes for ever and ever.”

Michigan is the best team in the Big Ten and the third best team in the country. No matter what happens on Thursday, those facts will remain. However, Rutgers only needs to be better just for one day.

It will be very difficult to achieve that and the odds are clearly against that happening. Even so, there is a clear path to victory.

A complete defensive performance is something that team is capable of. Being opportunistic in transition while remaining disciplined on the offensive end is an area they need to better with. Paul Mulcahy and Geo Baker need to ensure the offense is playing together and not allow carelessness with the basketball. Rutgers can’t allow for sustained runs by Michigan and need to prevent scoring droughts. Harper Jr. and Jacob Young are the best weapons in getting good looks to stop both. Get this game to the last ten minutes of the second half and give Pikiell a fighting chance to call the right chess moves against Howard.

Bottom line, Rutgers needs its best players to step up and all play well to win this game. If it doesn’t happen, it will not weaken the strong position Rutgers is already in regarding its NCAA Tournament resume. However, a win on Thursday would be the highest ranked victory in program history and boost the status of this team with March just around the corner. It’s that dynamic that the players should feel empowered by and enable them to play loose because of it. They’re expected to lose and there will be no harm if they do. But if they win? They’ll be heroes. And if it helps set them on course towards a special run in March, they’ll be heroes for ever and ever.