Shorthanded Michigan falls to Rutgers for first time in program history

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Piscataway, N.J. — As Michigan jumped back into Big Ten play, it faced a less than ideal situation.

No Frankie Collins. No Brandon Johns Jr. No Terrance Williams II. The three pieces of the rotation were among five Wolverines who didn’t make the trip to Rutgers due to medical reasons.

On top of that, sophomore guard Zeb Jackson didn’t travel due to “personal reasons,” according to a Michigan spokesperson, which left Michigan even thinner in the backcourt and with less depth on the bench.

The losses coupled with too many defensive mistakes and another cold 3-point shooting night were tough to overcome as the shorthanded Wolverines fell to the Scarlet Knights for the first time in program history, 75-67, Tuesday at Jersey Mike’s Arena.

Michigan guard DeVante' Jones (12) has his shot blocked by Rutgers center Clifford Omoruyi (11) during the first half.

Michigan entered the game with a 14-0 all-time record against Rutgers and 9-0 since joining the Big Ten.

“All hands on deck. With the eight guys (who played), I felt we had plenty to go out here and compete and get a victory," said coach Juwan Howard, who added the team is dealing with a “medical issue” and didn’t offer any specifics.

"Unfortunately, we came up short, but I love how all eight guys competed tonight. We practiced all week without those guys that are not here, and we had really good prep leading up to this.”

Sophomore center Hunter Dickinson had 25 points to lead Michigan (7-6, 1-2 Big Ten), which shot 20% from 3-point range (3-for-15), trailed by double digits much of the second half and never led.

Freshman forward Caleb Houstan scored 12 but struggled with his shot (4-for-13), while freshman forward Moussa Diabate added 15 points and nine rebounds and had to be restrained by teammates from going after Rutgers' players during the postgame handshake line.

Diabate and the Wolverines showed some fight during the game when they cut a 16-point deficit down to nine at the end of the first half. But the deficit quickly reached double figures again as the Wolverines struggled to take care of the ball out of the break.

They turned it over four times in roughly five minutes, which led to empty trips and a pair of a fast-break layups that the Scarlet Knights used to take a 48-34 lead with 14:43 remaining. Rutgers continued to add some distance, following a missed dunk by Diabate with a corner 3-pointer by Caleb McConnell to make it 53-36 at the 13:13 mark.

Michigan pushed back with a 9-2 run and attacked the interior with a string of layups from Dickinson, Houstan and Diabate to pull within 55-45 with 9:04 to play. But each time the Wolverines threatened and eventually cut it to single digits, the Scarlet Knights countered with basket to keep them at bay.

When Diabate hit a corner 3-pointer to make it a seven-point game, McConnell answered with a 3-pointer of his own. When Dickinson threw down a dunk that cut it to eight, Geo Baker responded with a deep ball.

When Diabate scored on a layup, Rutgers followed with a dunk from Clifford Omoruyi. Then when Dickinson made two free throws to make it a nine-point game, Baker essentially provided the dagger with a tough step-back jumper to make it 70-59 with 2:57 remaining.

Michigan made one final charge and managed to cut the lead to seven with 34 seconds left, but it proved to be too little too late as Rutgers put the game away at the free-throw line.

“There were some moments where their guy got open, they made the shot, whether it was a defensive breakdown or not. The ball swung to that player that was open and he made the shot,” Howard said.

“It's been like that throughout the year — the Central Florida game, North Carolina game, Minnesota game. We'll get better. I know we will. Our guys are working hard, growing and getting better game by game.”

Baker finished with 27 points and Harper added 20 points for Rutgers (8-5, 2-1), which shot 48.2% from the field (27-for-56) and made a season-high 11 3-pointers.

Rutgers forward Ron Harper Jr. (24) celebrates with guard Geo Baker (0) after Harper Jr. made a 3-point basket during the first half.

All five Michigan starters played between 31 and 38 minutes. With freshman guard Kobe Bufkin the only regular rotation player available, Howard went deeper into his bench and turned to sophomore guard Jace Howard (eight minutes) and senior guard Adrien Nunez (four minutes).

In addition to Collins, Jackson, Johns and Williams, senior walk-on forward Jaron Faulds and video analyst Jaaron Simmons didn’t travel to Rutgers for medical reasons.

According to Dickinson, several Wolverines tested positive for COVID-19 when the team returned from its game at Central Florida on Dec. 31. The Wolverines traveled to Orlando three days before that contest.

“Terrance, Frankie, Brandon are great players and they contributed for us a lot, so missing them hurt,” said Dickinson, who noted he's tested negative three times since the team returned from Florida.

“Jaron not being on the scout team to prepare us hurt. (Not having) Jaaron, the video guy giving all the scouting stuff, set us back. We were dealing with stuff, but at the end of the day we’re a team — we've got 17 players.”

Rutgers showed no sympathy for Michigan as the Wolverines came out flat. They missed several point-blank shots at the rim. They had bad defensive moments and blown assignments that led to open looks from beyond the arc. It didn’t take long for the deficit to reach double digits.

The Scarlet Knights knocked down eight of their first 10 shots, with five makes coming from 3-point range. Two were contested but still dropped — on a deep heave from Baker and a ridiculous shot from Harper that beat the shot clock — putting Michigan in a 22-11 hole with 12:22 left in the first half.

The Wolverines continued to make mistakes and struggled to finish at the rim. Houstan threw the ball away when Dickinson was open in the post and would’ve had an easy bucket. The defense lost Harper in transition and he buried an open 3-pointer, giving Rutgers a 29-15 lead at the 8:28 mark and forcing a Michigan timeout.

After Dickinson threw down a dunk and scored another bucket while being triple-teamed to cut it to 10, Rutgers continued to shred the Wolverines’ half-court defense. The Scarlet Knights scored three straight baskets — the last coming on an open jam by Omoruyi — to pull ahead, 35-19, and force another Michigan timeout at the 4:51 mark.

The Wolverines started to claw back and closed the half with an 11-4 run to cut it to single digits. Fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks (11 points) keyed the spurt with seven straight points on a 3-pointer, step-back jumper and layup to whittle Rutgers’ lead to 39-30 at the break.

That momentum didn't carry over as the Wolverines left with their third loss in four games and hoping they'll be back at full strength for Saturday’s rivalry matchup against Michigan State.

“My prayers and my heart are with our players. Hopefully they get healthy soon,” Howard said.

“I’m not even thinking about what’s going to happen this weekend. I take it one game at a time. I don’t look ahead. I just hope and pray I wake up tomorrow, and all of us do, during these tough, challenging times.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins