Following the suspensions from the postgame altercation in the handshake line in Madison, the Wolverines were without head coach Juwan Howard and forwards Moussa Diabate and Terrance Williams II. They still managed to get the job done, riding Caleb’s Houstan’s hot hand and thriving on a second-half run to secure the victory.
With the win, Michigan improves to 15-11 overall and 9-7 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines sit at No. 34 in the NET rankings, but could use a few more wins to feel more comfortable about their chances at making it into the Big Dance.
Here are a few takeaways from the win.
Houstan emerges as a playmaker
Houstan was Michigan’s leading scorer in the win, hitting 5-of-9 attempts from deep and scoring a career-high 21 points in the victory, with that fifth one in the final three minutes being the dagger. For a kid who has been inconsistent shooting all year long, it was nice to see him catch fire and provide Michigan with a burst whenever it was needed.
He wasn’t just hitting threes either, as he did a great job playmaking in the offense, scoring on a nice euro step in the game’s opening minutes and playing a good two-man game with Hunter Dickinson (16 points, 11 rebounds) for much of the game
Michigan has been craving a consistent playmaker to score alongside Dickinson and Eli Brooks (11 points) all year long. Houstan has looked like he could be that guy a few times this year, but Wednesday’s performance was the best of his Michigan career.
Houstan is not always going to make more than half of his threes, but hopefully he can gain some confidence from last night and become a steady scorer down the stretch.
Stellar guard play sparks key second-half run
Michigan did a great limiting Geo Baker in that first half, holding one of Rutgers’ best players to just one field goal and zero assists in the first half.
Despite not getting much from one of their go-to guys, the Scarlet Knights started off the second half with Clifford Omoruyi. He has emerged as one of the best big men in the Big Ten; he got some key buckets and gave Rutgers all the momentum in the first four minutes of the second half.
Right when it was looking like Rutgers was going to take over the game, Michigan got a few key stops before its guard play helped spark a 13-2 run that ultimately won the game. The run started with Brooks, whose back-to-back buckets, including a Zavier Simpson-esque sweeping hook shot, helped the Wolverines grab momentum.
From there, Michigan’s young guards pounced, with Kobe Bufkin making a huge three, Frankie Collins finishing a contested a layup, and Bufkin using two shot fakes and patience to finish in the lane.
A Dickinson hook shot capped off the run, and Michigan was able to cruise from there.
Those 11 points from the guards help turn a back-and-forth game into a double-digit affair. If Bufkin and Collins can provide that kind of spark off the bench in these last few games, the Wolverines could go into the Big Ten Tournament on a winning streak.
Guard play has been far from consistent for the Wolverines this season, but being able to go off while effectively shutting down Baker and Paul Mulcahy helped Michigan beat a good Rutgers team when it badly needed a victory.
What comes next
Following the loss in Wisconsin, Michigan sits on the bubble on most bracket projections, but a win against a Rutgers team that won four of its previous five games before Wednesday and is a 10-seed on Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology certainly helps the resume.
Michigan has four more games to close out the regular season, with its next coming on Sunday against No. 15 Illinois before facing a reeling Michigan State team. The Wolverines close the year with two other ranked Big Ten teams in No. 25 Iowa and No. 22 Ohio State.
I would guess if the Wolverines win at least three of those four and win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament, they are in for sure. The main problem for them has been consistency all year long; some nights they look like they can beat anyone in the Big Ten, while other nights they struggle to beat even the cellar dwellers of the conference.
Michigan has to keep rolling off this win. Momentum heading into the conference tournament is crucial for a bubble squad like the Wolverines.