UM’s forgotten man, Abdur-Rahkman, a silent force

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer talks with guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman during the Michigan workout.

Kansas City, Mo. — As Michigan’s locker-room doors opened and the media filed in, crowds quickly began to form around starters Derrick Walton Jr., D.J. Wilson, Zak Irvin and Moritz Wagner.

But just a couple lockers to the right of Wilson was starting guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, sitting by himself, and staring at his phone.

It was a fitting example of how overlooked Abdur-Rahkman has been throughout Michigan’s postseason run, which continues tonight with its Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament game against No. 3 seed Oregon at the Sprint Center.

Since the start of the Big Ten tournament, Abdur-Rahkman is averaging 9.7 points on 51.2-percent shooting, 3.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 steals in 35.2 minutes over the past six games.

“People always talk about energy and scoring and all that stuff and Muhammad, first of all, he does all the little stuff that doesn’t show up in the box score,” Wagner said. “He’s being very aggressive offensively, he’s taking the ball to the hoop the best on this team. His aggressive mindset is helping a lot and defensively he’s our stopper. He takes the best player and gives him a hard time every time.

“Even though (Louisville’s) Donovan Mitchell scored 19 points last game, he had a hard time and I think he’s doing a tremendous job of that.”

In No. 7 Michigan’s narrow first-round win over No. 10 seed Oklahoma State, Abdur-Rahkman was tasked with guarding Cowboys guard Phil Forte III, the team’s top 3-point shooter who averaged almost three made 3-pointers per game. Forte finished with 12 points on 4-for-9 shooting and was only 1-for-4 from beyond the arc in 34 minutes, all below his season marks.

“Coach (John Beilein) was asked the other day on air is there anybody off the radar screen that has been an unsung hero? He thought for a minute and said, ‘Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman,’” Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer said. “His ability to take a position and defend it, whether it’s (Indiana star) James Blackmon or Forte. Forte was a guy that everybody said to us if he gets seven 3s off, he’s going to make three. If he gets 10 off, he’s going to make five. And he made one shot from 3.”

Abdur-Rahkman said he goes into each and every game with the same mindset that he’s not going to let anyone score on him. Then, as the game wears on, he can turn into a facilitator or scorer, whatever the team needs.

“I like the challenge of guarding a team’s better players, hottest guys at that time,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “That satisfaction of holding them to a couple shots or making them shoot a bad percentage is satisfying.

“I think when I get a stop or sometimes a steal or a charge or anything like that, we all feed off each other.

“But when somebody gets a stop on defense, I think we feed off that more and get more of the excitement and energy going into offense and it continues to carry back and forth, offense and defense.”

Offensively, Abdur-Rahkman is as capable and vital to Michigan’s success.

He’s an efficient shooter (career-high 47 percent), reliable on free throws (76.5 percent), and his ability to relentless attack the rim and collapse the defense helps open up 3-point looks for the rest of the team.

Abdur-Rahkman even has posted two of his three highest-scoring games of the year during the postseason, with a season-high 17 points against Illinois in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament and a quiet 16 points against Oklahoma State.

“He has no fear when he takes the court,” Meyer said. “I always tell him I love coaching you because your game travels. We can play at (Purdue’s) Mackey Arena, we can play in (Michigan State’s) Breslin (Center), wherever we play, your game travels because it plays downhill and he’s got elite speed, too.”

Senior guard Andrew Dakich said Abdur-Rahkman is by far the most athletic player on the team and can get loud at times — contrary to his even-keeled demeanor with the media — following a huge play, but tends to let his game speak for itself.

But with so many offensive weapons — Walton recording 26 points and 11 assists one game, and Wagner scored a career-high 26 the next — there’s only so much room in the spotlight.

“Muhammad has been consistent throughout this whole thing and has been playing so well on both sides of the floor,” Irvin said. “He is a little bit undervalued. We really value him on this team and what he’s capable of. He’s been so consistent.”

And that consistency is perhaps Abdur-Rahkman’s greatest asset. With several players capable of going off offensively at any time, Michigan knows it can count on Abdur-Rahkman to do the dirty work and whatever else needs to be done.

“When you need some guy to step up on either end of the floor, we know that he’s going to do that whether he does it defensively or him getting to the basket,” Irvin said. “His ability to get to the basket is something special and now his ability to be able to shoot the 3, too, he’s really become an all-around player.”

No questions asked.

Michigan vs. Oregon

What: Michigan vs. Oregon in a semifinal of the Midwest Region.

When: 7:09, Thursday

TV/radio: CBS/WWJ 950

Seedings/records: No. 7 Michigan 26-11, No. 3 Oregon 31-5

At stake: Spot in Midwest Region final against Kansas-Purdue winner