It’s mid-February, and pretty much every team in college basketball is dealing with an injury or two. The Michigan Wolverines are no exception, as they could be without Jett Howard and Terrance Williams II for a tough road test tomorrow night against Rutgers.
In his media availability Wednesday morning, associate head coach Phil Martelli confirmed Howard did not hurt his knee on Saturday, as it appears to be a foot or ankle injury. A team spokesperson said Howard will be a game-time decision against Rutgers.
“His movement has improved each day,” Martelli said. “Monday (he got) a lot of treatment, engagement in scouting report via film, and same as yesterday. I will say this — his body language is much brighter than other times when he’s been injured. Still nothing where you’d say ‘oh he’s full go’ or anything like that, not ready for that yet.”
The plan is for Howard to make the trip to the Piscataway “hopefully with uniform,” Martelli noted. As for Williams II, reading the tea leaves, he seems a lot more likely to play. He’s been out the last two games with a bruised knee, with Will Tschetter starting in his place.
“He was able to go lightly on Monday, and he was a full participant yesterday, and I guess some of it will be how he reacts today,” Martelli said.
The Rutgers game will be a challenge for the Wolverines; not only are they playing in the rowdy environment of Jersey Mike’s Arena, they’re also facing a very physical team.
“Juwan has had a saying with our teams about junkyard dogs in a very complimentary way, and we have seen a lot of those types of teams, but this is top of the list,” Martelli said. “They’re tough as tough could be; they are built defensively first and they build off the energy and the noise that is provided with their home court.”
The Scarlet Knights are one of the best defensive teams in the country. They have a lot of length, and Cam Spencer and Paul Mulcahy get a lot of steals at the top of their defense.
Head coach Steve Pikiell recently said he doesn’t expect Caleb McConnell, arguably the best defender in the Big Ten the past two seasons, to play due to injury. Even with him potentially being unavailable, opponents only average 59.9 point per game against Rutgers, a mark that’s ninth-best in the country and almost two points better than any other Big Ten team.
Despite losing its top two scorers from last season, Rutgers is a very well-rounded team that can knock down threes. Martelli said the Scarlet Knights funnel opponents towards Clifford Omoruyi, one of the better centers in the conference who averages 2.1 blocks per game (third in Big Ten).
“My thing has been in these types of situations, you better lace your sneakers tight,” Martelli said. “If you are in any away adverse to being hit on the chin, then don’t make this trip because that’s what this will be. This will be very physical, they play older, they’re whole without Ron Harper (Jr.) and Geo Baker. Their whole is greater than their parts and that is a compliment to their team.”
Rutgers moves the ball well, with Mulcahy finding open shooters like Spencer and Aundre Hyatt, who actually started for LSU in Michigan’s NCAA Tournament win over the Tigers in 2021.
“They have an unbelievable ball mover in Mulcahy, and he’s a big guard,” Martelli said. “They have shot makers in Cam Spencer, but what I found the most interesting in watching them is they are really making an emphasis on getting Omoruyi touches, he’s their leading scorer (13.4 points per game). I think they’re biggest deal is their size at guard — they put a lot of pressure on you because they’re downhill players.”
It’s safe to say this is a must-win for Michigan’s tournament resume. As of Wednesday, a victory over Rutgers would give Michigan another Quad 1 win. The Wolverines could use every quality victory they can get.
When asked about their NCAA Tournament chances, Martelli said the team isn’t paying much attention to bracketology, taking things one game at a time.
“1-0, and that starts today,” Martelli said. “And I have to give credit where credit is due. Saturday after a film session, Juwan turned to Hunter and said ‘Hunter, you have anything to say?’ and Hunter said ‘1-0’. And remember remarking with him after the game ‘Hunt, stay with that’ and all of us have stayed with that. We have work to do, but it starts with being 1-0 today.”