Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Isaiah Livers reinjures himself and Zavier Simpson receives a suspension for violation of team policies. While Nebraska isn’t a great team this year, playing without two of your top players on the road had all the makings of a disastrous game. But then it didn’t. Despite the Wolverines playing their first game without Simpson in four years, they had relatively no problem taking care of the Huskers. We saw great performances from Eli Brooks, Franz Wagner, and Brandon Johns Jr. when the team needed it most.
This 2019-2020 Rutgers team is quite the story. A year ago, they finished with a record of 14-17 and 10th in the conference. Their leading scorer, Eugene Omoruyi, then transferred to Oregon. Guard Geo Baker, who is now a junior, is the longest-tenured player on the roster. All signs pointed toward failure but head coach Steve Pikiell had other plans.
Currently, the Scarlet Knights sit at 16-5, 7-3 B1G. They’ve already reached their highest win total since 2006 and are ranked for the first time in 41 years. Maybe most impressively is that this team hasn’t lost at home all year. They have sold out more than half of their home games and attendance overall is up 30% from where it was just two years ago. Rutgers is well on its way dancing for the first time in 29 years.
Zavier Simpson will be making his return while Isaiah Livers is still day-to-day.
What to Watch:
Tough Interior Defense: This may be the biggest difference between these two teams. We have seen the vulnerability of Michigan’s defense on several occasions this year, whether it be poor paint defense or allowing Ayo Dosunmu to score a career-high 27 points. Rutgers, contrarily, allows nothing easy. They rank ninth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. Opposing teams have only shot 43.2% on 2-point attempts. On top of that, they rebound the ball pretty well as a team, limiting opponent’s second-chance points. If the Wolverines want to win this one, they’re going to have to make tough shots and clean the glass well.
Carrying over Tuesday’s performance: Life without Zavier Simpson went surprisingly well for this team on Tuesday. They shot an impressive 50% from the field. They played hard and were aggressive. Notably, Wagner attacked the rim, scoring seven of eight field goals from inside the arc. Brandon Johns Jr., who was back into a starting role with Livers on the shelf, was extremely effective and efficient, scoring 16 points on only six field goal attempts. The Wolverines didn’t shoot the lights out from deep, which by now is something we’ve learned this team doesn’t do at the same rate that previous teams did, but Eli Brooks provided some big shots when they needed it most. Easier said than done, but getting hot from deep makes tomorrow’s game much more winnable.
Bench Impact: The third and fifth leading scorers for Rutgers are actually two players who come off their bench and give the team an offensive boost. I mentioned Geo Baker earlier, who started the season as a starter but was moved to a six-man role at the start of the new year after coming back from a thumb injury. He averages ten points and provides some experience for this young team. The other notable bench presence for the Scarlet Knights is Jacob Young. The junior transfer from Texas sat out last season, but is now making an impact with 8.5 points per game. For the Wolverines, David DeJulius is a name that comes to mind, operating as virtually the only guard off the bench. Featuring a mean jab step and a quick first dribble, he has at times provided a spark for the Wolverines.
Rutgers has had a great year. Consistently finding a way to win games, I don’t think Michigan has enough in the tank for this game. The Scarlet Knights will outplay Michigan physically and hang on late. Rutgers 74-69.
Date: Saturday, February 1, 2020
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York
Time: 4:30 p.m. EST