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Michigan 54, Rutgers 50: Five Takeaways

With Caris LeVert out for the season, Zak Irvin missing most of the first half in foul trouble, Derrick Walton not making a shot until the final minutes, and two walk-ons playing at the SAME TIME, Michigan beat Rutgers on the road, 54-50. Here are our five takeaways.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

1. The tone of the season has completely shifted now that Caris LeVert is out for the rest of the year.

There was something different about Michigan's game against Rutgers last night.

Since December 6th, when NJIT strolled into Ann Arbor and stunned the Wolverines, Michigan has been stuck in quicksand. No matter how much effort the Wolverines gave or how hard they tried to break free from their struggles, their inconsistent performances consistently sucked them down. And, as Michigan sunk deeper and deeper, there was a realization that its preseason goals of being a legitimate Big Ten contender or even an NCAA Tournament team were slipping away, which led only to frustration and discouragement. And then, on Sunday afternoon, when it was announced that Caris LeVert would miss the rest of the season with a fractured left foot, it felt like that was the moment when Michigan fully submerged into the quicksand. The season felt over.

But, with LeVert out and much of the team dealing with various ailments and illnesses, there are no more expectations for this team, and, accordingly, the quicksand is nowhere to be found. Last night's game wasn't about fretting over Michigan's odds to receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Last night's game was about yearning to see a ragtag group of Wolverines that had been punched in the gut over and over this season just scrap, claw, and fight to win a game. It was about effort and determination, not wins and results, though no one would complain if a Michigan victory was earned along the way.

And guess what? although it was mostly ugly, it was oddly a very fun game to watch.

It was enjoyable watching Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin adjust to their new roles as the team's go-to players. It was enjoyable watching unheralded freshman Aubrey Dawkins once again flash some raw, natural ability that John Beilein will be able to develop this and future seasons. It was enjoyable watching undersized Max Bielfeldt, who, after being named the one to replace LeVert as Michigan's second captain, will now be known as "Captain Moose," crash the offensive glass and make impactful plays. It was enjoyable watching three freshmen (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Kameron Chatman, and Mark Donnal) and two walk-ons (Sean Lonergan and Andrew Dakich) take it to Rutgers for a 3.5-minute stretch in the first half, which included Lonergan weaving through the middle of the lane and finishing a challenging layup at the bucket!

There is always the miracle chance Beilein could submit his best coaching job yet and somehow lead this team to an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. If it happens, amazing! It'd be one of the best stories in college basketball. But there's no need to stress about it anymore. Instead, let's just have fun and enjoy watching these kids develop and grow.

2. After throwing up a ton of bricks most of the night, Michigan heated up at the perfect moment late.

As enjoyable as it was watching these Michigan underdogs compete and eke out a road win against Rutgers, the offense was still horrendous most of the time, which is what tends to happen to most offenses that suddenly lose their star scorer. In the first 32 minutes, Michigan scored only 34 points in 46 possessions for an abominable offensive efficiency of 0.739 points per possession. The Wolverines just kept tossing up bricks, mostly from long distance, and very few shots dropped through the cylinder. In fact, from the 17:21 mark to the 7:56 mark of the second half, Michigan made only 1-of-8 shots, allowing Rutgers to embark on a 15-2 spree that gave the Scarlet Knights a 40-34 lead. It seemed Michigan's ice-cold shooting (35.0 eFG% at that moment) would do them in.

But, after Rutgers star Myles Mack was a tad long on a three that would have pushed the Knights' lead to nine points and blown the roof off of the RAC, the tide turned, and Michigan suddenly lit up from deep. On the ensuing two Michigan possessions, which sandwiched two Mack free throws, Aubrey Dawkins drilled a three in transition and Spike Albrecht scooped in a left-handed layup to cut the deficit to three. And then Derrick Walton, who'd missed all five of his prior shots, which were all threes, did this:

On the next trip, after grabbing an offensive rebound, Max Bielfeldt did this:


The result: Michigan tallied 20 points in its final 11 possessions for a rate of 1.818 points per possession in the final eight minutes after averaging only 0.739 points per possession in the first 32 minutes. The sudden scoring surge did the trick for Michigan, turning a six-point deficit into a lead that was as large as eight points before Rutgers cemented Michigan's margin of victory at four with a meaningless triple in the final seconds.

It's nice to know Michigan can still have its scoring flurries with Caris LeVert out.

3. Michigan and Rutgers were near-twins in last night's game except for one area: free throws.

Overall, Michigan and Rutgers were near-twins of each other last night. Michigan shot about 35 percent from the field; Rutgers also shot about 35 percent from the field. Michigan shot about 30 percent from downtown; Rutgers also shot about 30 percent from downtown. Michigan attempted 14 free throws; Rutgers also attempted 14 free throws. Michigan turned over the basketball 11 times; Rutgers also turned over the basketball 11 times. Accordingly, Michigan and Rutgers had nearly identical numbers in all four factors -- the distinct, independent skills needed to win basketball games:

Michigan-Rutgers' Four Factors
Michigan Rutgers
Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) 42.9% 40.6%
Offensive Rebounding Rate (OReb%) 31.2% 35.1%
Turnover Rate (TO%) 19.2% 19.2%
Free Throw Rate (FTR) 28.6% 26.4%

It's truly one of the oddest four-factors analyses I've ever seen.

So what was the difference between Michigan and Rutgers? Free-throw shooting. Michigan and Rutgers may have earned trips to the line as frequently as the other, but only Michigan capitalized. Michigan made 12-of-14 free throws, while Rutgers converted only 7-of-14. Thus, Michigan made five more freebies in a game that it won by four points when every other critical statistical category was even. That's the ball game right there.

What stood out, too, was that Michigan made its free throws when it really needed them to fall. Trailing by two scores in the final minute, Rutgers had no choice but to foul if it wanted to have a fighter's chance at sending the game to overtime or even winning in regulation. Rutgers fouled Michigan three times while Michigan was in the pressure-packed one-and-one bonus. Not only did Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin make the first free throw to earn the additional free throw each time, they also connected on the second free throw each time, too. These six free throws prevented any chance of a last-minute comeback by the Scarlet Knights and secured the road win for the Wolverines.

4. Max Bielfeldt and Aubrey Dawkins deserve the spotlight for stepping up in a big way last night.

Entering last night's contest, all of the talk was about Caris LeVert's fractured foot, the other injuries and illnesses that were bothering various Wolverines, and which players would step up to fill the void. Derrick Walton (12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists) and Zak Irvin (10 points) were expected to lead, but Max Bielfeldt (8 points, 8 rebounds) and Aubrey Dawkins (11 points, 3 rebounds) were no guarantees to be producers.

At this point of his career, Bielfeldt is not expected to be a reliable contributor on either end of the floor. Much of the time, when Bielfeldt subs in, he isn't a scoring threat and struggles to body up defensively against many bigger Big Ten centers. However, every once in awhile, he has one of those games in which he shines, and last night was one of those games. He was all over the glass, hauling in a career-high eight rebounds and keeping Michigan possessions alive with four offensive boards. And none of those rebounds was more important than the one he grabbed in the final few minutes that led to his monumental, back-breaking three-pointer that gave Michigan a six-point edge. It'd be great to see Bielfeldt perform like this more consistently, especially now with Michigan's season and rotations in flux, but it likely won't happen when Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Nigel Hayes come into town on Saturday.

Dawkins once again provided glimpses that he can be the next gem that John Beilein unearthed. Dawkins was way off the radar as a high-school recruit despite being the son of Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins, but those watching last night would not have believed that. Not only has Dawkins demonstrated he can be a sniper behind the three-point line, where he has made 10-of-20 shots in seven Big Ten games, his athleticism has allowed him to make plays around the rim that this Michigan team has been lacking now that Glenn Robinson III is in the NBA. There was the offensive rebound in the first half when Dawkins skied over multiple Scarlet  Knights to grab the ball and then softly put it back up for two points. And then there was his high-flying finish at the rim in transition, which can be seen in this Vine of Dawkins' performance:

Dawkins has taken LeVert's vacated spot in the starting lineup and will see a big boost in his playing time for the rest of the season. With the potential he has shown thus far, Dawkins just may be the most interesting Wolverine to watch the next few weeks.

5. Will John Beilein ever stop auto-benching his guards and wings?

John Beilein is an elite college basketball coach, but there are three pet peeves I have with regards to his game management. The first is his insistence not to guard the inbounder when the opponent, trailing by one score, needs to travel the length of the court in a few seconds. I don't think I need to extrapolate why I feel this way. The second is his preference to not foul when Michigan has a three-point lead in the final seconds and take his chances that the opponent will miss its game-tying triple. And the third is his strict adherence to the belief all players with two fouls must sit until halftime.

I'm going to talk about the third pet peeve.

Zak Irvin, though he has had his issues this season, is still one of Michigan's best players. He's a guy that needs to be on the floor for more than 30 minutes every night. Yet, when Irvin picked up his second foul just four minutes into last night's game against Rutgers, Beilein yanked Irvin out and sat him on the bench. This move is fine because a coach doesn't want to risk his player earning his third foul in the first 10 minutes or so of the first half. However, because Irvin commits only 1.5 fouls per 40 minutes played, the odds of Irvin fouling out are still slim. And, because he's one of Michigan's best players, the correct move would have been to reinsert Irvin after the 10-minute mark of the first half.

Instead, Beilein was so worried about Irvin, a player who rarely commits fouls, fouling out that he kept Irvin on the bench for the final 16 minutes of the first half. Guess what? The effect of doing that is very similar to the effect of Irvin fouling out. Rather than play 33 to 35 minutes, Irvin played only 24. Not only would have having one of Michigan's best players on the court for those 10 or so minutes been beneficial for an offense that was struggling to score, those minutes were allotted to walk-ons Sean Lonergan and Andrew Dakich, whose redshirt Beilein decided to burn rather than reinsert Irvin with two fouls in the first half. The kicker? Irvin didn't commit another foul for the rest of the game.

With Michigan's roster depleted or at least affected by health concerns, depth is a serious problem, and Beilein cannot afford to make many, if any, errors with regards to team and game management. This would be the perfect time for Beilein to realize that auto-benching all of his players with two fouls until halftime is not always the smartest move. Alas, I know Beilein isn't going to change his ways now. But it'll still be my pet peeve.