New York — On a team blessed with an array of shooters, he’s the slasher.
In a system where the 3-point shot rules, he’s the exception.
And on nights like this, and moments like these, when college basketball tends to turn chaotic, he’s an essential piece.
Without Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Michigan simply wouldn’t have an answer — or a catalyst — when the shots aren’t falling and John Beilein’s typically-efficient offense starts failing, as it has in a few too many games this season.
Wednesday’s NCAA Tournament opener was such occasion, as Michigan was laying bricks and appeared to be paving its way to a season-ending loss against Tulsa. Point guard Derrick Walton Jr. was saddled with foul trouble, and Tulsa’s constant switching on defense was causing problems for the rest of Michigan’s perimeter players.
So Beilein turned to the one player who didn’t need help creating action.
“We were trying to get downhill as much we could,” the coach said, “so we went to Muhammad in the second half.”
And it worked, as Rahkman scored 14 of his team-high 16 after halftime, providing more than just a spark as he attacked the basket again and again. The highlight probably was that fading bank shot that put the Wolverines up 55-54 with 3 minutes 54 seconds to go — Beilein rated the degree of difficulty a “nine out of 10” — but there certainly were others. He began the second half with a wicked crossover to shake Tulsa’s Shaquille Harrison before driving for a layup over 6-foot-9 senior Brandon Swannegan, drawing a foul as he went crashing headfirst into the stanchion.
“He’s always comfortable with that, and he can get in there and score over guys and that’s big for him — and big for us,” said Beilein, who has leaned on the sophomore guard more and more since senior Caris LeVert was lost to a season-ending injury early in Big Ten play. “We’ve discovered that in time. Losing Caris has given him more time to work at it, and more time for us to work with him.”
To the rescue
All of it helps buy more time — and space — for the rest of his teammates, which is all some of them really need to bury open jumpers. Without a true post presence, or even something loosely resembling it many nights, that has become a necessity.
“It showed yesterday in the game,” junior Zak Irvin said. “When things weren’t going well, especially when Derrick got in foul trouble, he picked it up for us.
“The coaches are always on him about it, but he has a lot of confidence in himself to do it. And I’m in his ear every now and then, just to let him know how good he is. He’s one of the fastest guys I’ve played with, and he’s got to use that to his advantage, and that’s what he’s been doing lately.”
Abdur-Rahkman has scored in double figures in five consecutive games and seven of the last eight, while averaging nearly 38 minutes. It’s similar to what he did in the second half of his freshman season, with Walton and LeVert sidelined by foot and ankle injuries.
The way he plays, that can take a physical toll, hurling his 6-4, 185-pound frame into harm’s way.
“It may hurt sometimes,” he said, laughing before practice Thursday at the Barclays Center.
But it feels good, just the same. Partly because “it’s kind of contagious,” and lights a fire under others to follow suit. But mostly because it’s what Abdur-Rahkman, though his 3-point accuracy has improved to 34.6 percent this season, does best.
“You’ve just gotta have that relentless mindset, getting to the basket at all costs,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “And finishing with contact, or without contact.”
He says he actually prefers the former.
“When you’re on the ground, and you’re celebrating and then you look at the bench and see them going crazy,” Abdur-Rahkman said, “that’s the best part.”
That’s the part he learned growing up a few hours from where he’ll play today, playing AAU ball in Washington, D.C., and high school hoops in Allentown, Pa. And before that on the playgrounds, where the rules place a premium on a different skill-set: Toughness.
“Physical, getting to the basket, absorbing contact, and still finishing,” said Abdur-Rahkman, whose father named him after the boxing legend he grew up idolizing and later met as a young adult. “That’s one of the things the East Coast does best.”
And today in an East Regional first-round matchup against Notre Dame, he’ll get another chance to show it.
John Niyo and Tony Paul of The Detroit News look ahead to Friday night's NCAA Tournament game against Notre Dame.