Beard: Lesser-knowns spark Michigan
Since the preseason, when Wisconsin was ranked No. 3 in the country, it looked to be one of the premier games on Michigan's schedule. Michigan, which won the Big Ten last season, likely would be in a tight race with the Badgers in a game that would be pivotal to both teams' conference-title hopes.
Entering the game, the Wolverines were only a game behind Wisconsin in the standings. Although Wisconsin, ranked sixth this week, has lived up to expectations, UM has struggled so far this season, with a knee-buckling four-game skid in the nonconference season, including losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan.
But in Saturday's 69-64 overtime loss to Wisconsin on ESPN, the depleted Wolverines weren't backing down, overcoming deficits and sticking with the heavily favored Badgers.
At one point, unheralded Michigan 6-foot-4 freshman Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was being guarded by 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky, a contender for national player of the year. But Abdur-Rahkman squared up and knocked down a jumper that brought the Wolverines within two points with 3:32 left in the game.
It was the mismatch of mismatches. But Abdur-Rahkman, a late add to coach John Beilein's recruiting class, won this battle.
In previous years, it would have been Tim Hardaway Jr. or Trey Burke or Nik Stauskas. Two weeks ago, it would have been Caris LeVert.
LeVert will miss the remainder of the season because of a fractured foot suffered last week against Northwestern, but Michigan will fight on, behind a crop of freshmen, including Aubrey Dawkins, who replaced LeVert in the starting lineup.
"With or without (LeVert), we feel like we're able to compete with anybody," said Derrick Walton Jr., who sent the game to overtime with a 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left in regulation. "Most of all, I'm really proud of the younger guys, being able to showcase what they can do in the opportunity they're getting. Tonight and other games proved we can play with anybody."
Many changes in lineup
Along with LeVert's injury and some illnesses, the Wolverines have shuffled their lineup, including walk-ons Andrew Dakich — who burned his redshirt season to play — and Sean Lonergan.
It's partly out of desperation and partly Beilein's punch in the dark to find skilled players to patch the holes left by the departures of five critical — and experienced — pieces in UM's rotation last season.
Beilein had been hesitant to play Abdur-Rahkman and Dawkins extended minutes because they hadn't earned the extra reps in practice, but with only 10 games left in the regular season, Beilein is seeing what he has.
"Every opportunity they get to go out there is good for them and so it's good for us," Beilein said this week on the radio. "They're getting more and more minutes out there, where in hindsight maybe we should have done more with them earlier in the year, but they didn't show it in practice so they don't get that opportunity."
Bigs come up big vs. Badgers
Although he's been hesitant to play three freshmen together, Beilein has shown in the last two games that some of his old rules are out the window. If Michigan is to have a puncher's chance to make any postseason tournament, it'll have to get more off the bench, especially with Zak Irvin's recent shooting slump.
Whether that means playing Abdur-Rahkman increased minutes instead of junior Spike Albrecht, Beilein will have to make some difficult decisions.
"It could be. He's playing really well; that's three games in a row that he's had very positive plays in our games," Beilein said Saturday of Abdur-Rahkman. "That's a good sign.
"He has speed and his quickness and he can rebound from the guard position a little better. We work every day 20 minutes on the different passing drills I want him to learn to do. I like the strides he's making right now. You'll probably see him more in the future."
Abdur-Rahkman tied his season high with nine points against the Badgers and looks to be a candidate for more playing time with more consistent play. After playing more than 10 minutes only twice in UM's first 16 games, he's increased the workload in the last four, and has averaged 7.3 points in his last three games.
Ricky Doyle, who also had an upper-respiratory issues the past two games, bounced back with a good game against Kaminsky, notching four points and five rebounds in 24 minutes. Redshirt freshman Mark Donnal added six points, as Michigan's bigs combined for 19 points and 13 rebounds, going toe-to-toe inside against Wisconsin's more-experienced frontcourt.
"With all the bench guys who are playing more, it's so optimistic to see that," Max Bielfeldt said. "Freshmen, 18 years old, going under the big lights, playing a top-10 team and could have their tail between their legs but they're stepping up and playing so hard — you have to commend them for it."