They were supposed to be sitting on the end of the bench tonight.
In the preseason, when college basketball experts discussed Michigan's upcoming year, the names "Aubrey Dawkins," "Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman," and "Max Bielfeldt" were rarely uttered. If mentioned, it was only to discuss whether freshmen Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman should redshirt or Dan Dakich's obsession with Bielfeldt's calves. They weren't expected to be contributors this season, and they certainly weren't expected to make a significant impact in critical contests in the middle of the Big Ten campaign.
And yet, with Caris LeVert out for the season with a fractured foot, Derrick Walton missing with a re-aggravated sprained toe, and Mark Donnal sidelined with an illness, it was Dawkins (13 points), Abdur-Rahkman (nine points), and Bielfeldt (12 points, nine rebounds), along with Zak Irvin (14 points, 12 rebounds), that willed Michigan to a comfortable 58-44 win over Nebraska, improving their conference record to 6-3.
Dawkins was the star of what was an excruciatingly ugly first half. While both the Wolverines and the Cornhuskers tossed up brick after brick, Dawkins again displayed that he is a very capable spot-up shooter. He drilled all three of his triples and two other midrange jumpers off of curl cuts to tally 13 first-half points, whereas every other player on the floor combined to shoot 11-of-43 from the field (25.6 pct.) in the first 20 minutes. It was Dawkins' shooting touch that gave Michigan a 23-18 lead heading into the break.
Though Dawkins wouldn't add another point to his name, it was his defensive play that sparked a huge Michigan scoring run to open the second half. On Nebraska's first possession after halftime, Dawkins came over in Michigan's 1-3-1 zone and denied Benny Parker's layup at the rim. Abdur-Rahkman corralled the rebound and took off in the other direction, finishing a fastbreak layup. For the next five minutes thereafter, Michigan took it to Nebraska, hitting most of its open looks while its 1-3-1 zone stifled any offensive rhythm the Huskers tried to generate. The result was a 15-2 run for the Wolverines to open the second half. And, just like that, Michigan had a 38-20 lead.
The Huskers attempted to cut into Michigan's sizable lead and cobble together a comeback, but they would never get within eight points. Each time Nebraska made a mini run, it was Abdur-Rahkman or Bielfeldt that would put an end to it. When Nebraska had snipped six points off of Michigan's 17-point lead, Abdur-Rahkman answered with a 5-0 run of his own after finishing through contact twice while driving down the lane. And then there was Bielfeldt, who didn't hesitate to take and make two mid-range shots late in the second half to maintain Michigan's double-digit before his slam off this wonderful drop-back pass from Spike Albrecht sealed the deal with three minutes left:
Michigan also attained such a wide lead thanks to its defense. While the Wolverines varied their schemes throughout much like they did against Wisconsin, Nebraska struggled with whatever defense Michigan ran, clanking close-range shots off the rim and misfiring on numerous threes. And a big reason for this was because the Huskers' go-to player, Terran Petteway, chucked up 11 shots and made only one, registering only seven points. Accordingly, the Huskers tallied only 44 points, failed to reach 0.80 points per possession (0.77 PPP), and made only 15-of-49 shots (30.6 pct.) all night. Oof.
Maybe Michigan's defense, which is now the best in Big Ten play, isn't half-bad after all.
But tonight wasn't about Michigan's defense or even Irvin's impressive double-double. Tonight was about how Dawkins, Abdur-Rahkman, and Bielfeldt stepped on the floor and stepped up when their team needed them to. It is because of them that Michigan now stands at 6-3 in the Big Ten with a difficult stretch looming that will determine the Wolverines' fate this season. Usually, in such a situation, a coach would be concerned that he would need to give extended minutes to three players that were supposed to ride the pine this season. But, as we just witnessed, that may not be a problem for Michigan.