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Wolverines can’t afford to overlook Rutgers

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — If there’s been one underlying theme in the Big Ten this season, it’s that anything can happen on any given night.

Nothing is guaranteed in the conference. Not even a win against lowly Rutgers.

Despite its league-worst 2-13 record, Rutgers has pushed Wisconsin and Northwestern — two of the top teams in the conference — to the limit. The Scarlet Knights took the Badgers to overtime and the Wildcats to the final seconds before falling short.

Six of Rutgers’ 13 losses in Big Ten play have been by single digits.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Michigan coach John Beilein as the Wolverines look to bounce back from Sunday’s frustrating overtime loss at Minnesota and travel to New Jersey on Wednesday in search of their second true road win of the season.

“Rutgers is just as hungry as us,” Beilein said. “We’re not overlooking anybody and I don’t think that’s ever been a mindset with this team. This is not about the record. This is about getting another road win and getting ourselves into the mix of the Big Ten tournament so that we finish at the top half of the Big Ten. That’s huge to do that.”

In conference play, the Scarlet Knights rank last in scoring offense (59.8 points), scoring margin (minus-11.3), free-throw percentage (54.6 percent), field-goal percentage (38.1 percent), 3-point field-goal percentage (28.8 percent) and assists (nine).

But their one strength just happens to be Michigan’s biggest weakness — offensive rebounding. The Scarlet Knights are averaging 15.1 offensive boards per game.

Beilein said the key to Rutgers’ rebounding success is that it runs a lot of screen action to get guards Corey Sanders (13 points) and Nigel Johnson (11 points) open on the perimeter and sends everyone else crashing the glass.

“They get numbers out of ball screen shots and … they haven’t been a great shooting team thus far,” Beilein said. “When they’ve shot it well, when Sanders shoots it well and gets 25 (points), they win in the Big Ten, so you can’t let them shoot at the same time. It’s a plan that’s very effective to get a good shot and send four guys to the backboard.”

With four games left before the Big Ten tournament, Michigan sits alone in seventh place and is a long shot to move up to the fourth spot and earn a double-bye. It trails Minnesota and Michigan State by a game and fourth-place Northwestern by two.

But with the bigger picture and NCAA Tournament in mind, Wednesday’s contest is perhaps the most vital of those remaining because a loss to Rutgers, which ranks 154th in RPI, would be a severe damaging blow.

“We know the importance of every game and we can’t look on to other games,” senior forward Mark Donnal said. “We know that we need to get a good win at Rutgers, who has given every Big Ten team their toughest game. You look at how they played Wisconsin, how they played a lot of the other teams in the Big Ten, they’re definitely a team that is able to compete and we have to be at our best to be able to beat them.”

Blow the whistle

After a few questionable calls went against Michigan in its overtime loss at Minnesota, Beilein said he wanted to watch the film before making any comment.

When asked Tuesday if he thought the officiating was consistent, Beilein repeatedly noted the referees have “a really tough job to do.”

“What I say to my players and what I say to the director of officials Rick Boyages is completely different to each other. I’ll really fight for us there, but I don’t want that to be any type of crutch for our guys,” Beilein said. “You got to play through all that stuff and that’s it. You have to understand that it’s a difficult game to officiate and they have to make these quick calls.

“Some nights they’re going to have bad nights, too, and I’m not saying they had bad nights. I’m just saying they’re going to have bad nights, too. You can’t let that bother you as far as affecting the game.”

Beilein added he contacted the Big Ten office about reviewing some of the calls, something he typically doesn’t do.

“They do a great job. They look over every single thing,” Beilein said. “I just want the message to go to the officials that when they think we’re crazy they see it on tape. And then I might be wrong, too, and then I say, ‘OK, you’re right. That was a walk or wasn’t a walk.’ I’m right more than they think, though.”

Star gazing

Last week after practice, sophomore center Moritz Wagner, who is from Germany, had the opportunity to meet fellow countryman Dirk Nowitzki when the Pistons hosted the Dallas Mavericks.

After the game, Wagner said the two had a personal conversation for about 10-15 minutes and didn’t talk about anything in particular.

“It was pretty cool,” Wagner said with a beaming smile. “Really nice guy. He has 30,000 reasons to be cocky but he isn’t at all, so that’s really cool. You can have a really cool small talk conversation and it was a very great experience.”

Wagner added the way Nowitzki carried himself didn’t leave him starstruck.

“That’s the coolest thing about him. He doesn’t give you the feeling that he’s the guy he is,” Wagner said. “It could’ve been a conversation I’ve had with any other type of guy that speaks German. It was really cool and he knows a little bit about basketball, obviously, so that was probably the coolest thing about it.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

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Michigan at Rutgers

Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Louis Brown Athletic Center, Piscataway, N.J.

TV/radio: BTN/WWJ 950

Records: Michigan 17-10, 7-7 Big Ten; Rutgers 13-15, 2-13

Outlook: Michigan coach John Beilein is one win from his 500th at the Division I level. … The Wolverines are 9-0 in the all-time series against Rutgers. … The Scarlet Knights rank first in offensive rebounds in Big Ten play at 15.1 per game and last in scoring offense (59.8 points) and field-goal percentage (38.1 percent). Rutgers has lost four straight and seven of its last eight.