Michigan’s re-acclimation period lasted just 20 minutes.
After a sluggish first half in Madison, the Wolverines blew by Wisconsin Sunday, winning 67-59 and announcing to the nation that they’re back and not only in a literal sense. But the hard part isn’t over quite yet.
Thursday night, the Wolverines host Rutgers, a team that they haven’t lost to since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten. But don’t be fooled: this year’s Rutgers team is its best since becoming a member of the conference.
Rutgers came out of the gates strong before dropping five straight games at the beginning of Big Ten play. It has since turned things more or less around by beating up on the mediocre half of the conference. The Scarlet Knights enter Thursday’s game with some terrific backcourt and wing talent, one of the best defensive bigs in the Big Ten and a defense that ranks 13th nationally per KenPom (although they’re just sixth when only counting conference games).
Ron Harper Jr. is a hybrid guard/forward averaging 16.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on an offensive rating of 113. He’s a mismatch at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds who can score inside and out, and if the Scarlet Knights need a bucket, he’s likely the guy they’ll feed first. Jacob Young is a more easily defined player than Harper. The 6-foot-2 senior point guard is one of the fastest players in the entire nation, and uses that quickness to score (14.1 ppg), make plays (3.5 apg) and pick opponents’ pockets (1.8 spg). He does turn the ball over 3.1 times per game, though.
Geo Baker, a 6-foot-4 senior, was the leading man on two not-great Rutgers teams as a freshman and sophomore, and his low shooting percentages belied a real ability to create and hit tough shots off the dribble. With Harper and Young taking the lead this year, Baker’s been able to slip into the backseat, where he’s scoring (10.1 ppg) and assisting (2.9 apg) on slightly better efficiency.
Junior Montez Mathis (9.6 ppg) is a solidly-built 6-foot-4 guard who serves as a strong fourth option. Junior Caleb McConnell (6.5 ppg) is a skilled 6-foot-7 wing who’s been beset by injuries over the years and missed all of November and December with them, but has taken a greater role in the offense as of late with over 10 shots in four of his last five games. (He’s shooting just 31 percent, however.) Paul Mulcahy (5.9 ppg) is a sophomore guard with 6-foot-6 size, shooting (37.1 percent from deep) and a deft passing touch (3.2 apg).
Inside, the Scarlet Knights are anchored by 6-foot-10 junior Myles Johnson (8.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.4 bpg). Johnson can go blow-for-blow with anyone: his block rate ranks 23rd in the country, and his offensive and defensive rebounding rates are both top-50 nationally as well. He’s not much of a scorer, though. His 67 percent shooting is indicative of a guy who gets most of his points off of dump-offs and putbacks, and he’s a prime target for hacking (39.5 percent from the line). 6-foot-11 freshman Cliff Omoruyi backs up Johnson, averaging 4.3 points and 3.9 assists per game.
With one of the best defenders in the country manning the paint, Rutgers likes to play slow and muck things up. It plays at the fifth-slowest pace in the Big Ten, allows opponents to shoot just 47 percent on 2-pointers (third in the conference) and has the conference’s highest block rate (14.1 percent). Before you give Johnson all the credit, though, consider that the Scarlet Knights’ steal rate also leads the league. Young’s lightning-fast, and Baker, harper, Mathis, McConnell and Mulcahy are all 6-foot-4 or larger.
Offensively, Rutgers doesn’t shoot a lot of 3-pointers, not that it’s particularly effective from there: just 32.6 percent for the season. The Scarlet Knights aren’t the most efficient team overall, but they’re deliberate and careful enough with the ball to have an average attack. They’re horrible from the line (61.6 percent as a team), though that figure’s mostly dragged down by Mathis (51 percent) and Johnson.
Rutgers is 0-4 this season against Iowa and Ohio State combined, but did beat Illinois, 91-88. Last season, much of the questions around the Scarlet Knights concerned their drastic home-away splits — they lost only one game at the RAC (to Michigan, you may remember), but went 2-10 away from it. This year, their splits are 9-3 at home and 3-4 on the road, their best road win per KenPom coming at Purdue.
In writing this piece, I’ve been thinking about a paragraph from Brendan Quinn of The Athletic in a Feb. 12 story. “The first game back is typically a challenge of making shots and playing with rhythm,” Quinn wrote, basing his statement off conversations with those in other programs affected by pauses. Interestingly, the physical aspect of being back on the court isn’t much of a factor — players are running on adrenaline.
“It’s the second game back when the physical toll is usually seen,” Quinn wrote. “That’s when the legs go and the cramps come.”
The Wolverines overcame the initial poor shooting and offensive stagnation against Wisconsin. Those issues might be in the past, just as the nearly month-long pause is. But will the initial burst of adrenaline be gone by the time they hit the court Thursday night?
If so, the Scarlet Knights will have their best chance. They’ll have a chance anyway, to be clear — they’re a downright good team. But a full-strength, up-to-speed Michigan group is likely too much for them, or all but a handful of teams in the Big Ten, to handle.