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Michigan at Rutgers Preview: A strange, strange year

The Wolverines’ wild season has just four games left, including a tough one on Thursday.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines have not experienced a season this poor in quite some time, but at least there have been a couple highlights with wins over both rivals at home. To add on to those memories, the team will need to play its best basketball of the year over the final four games on the schedule.

Most bracketologists still have the Wolverines as quite the long shot to make the Tournament, but there is just enough time left to change the narrative. Thursday’s game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and later road contests at Illinois and Indiana will all be Quad 1 games. Michigan probably needs to steal all three, which is unlikely, but not impossible.

It will likely take the team’s best effort of the season to take down Rutgers, who has been very solid at home. This is not the football team; the Knights have been building a quality basketball program and are looking like a top-four team in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are road underdogs, but it is truly now or never.

Michigan Wolverines (15-12, 9-7) at Rutgers Scarlet Knights (17-10, 9-7)

Date & Time: Thursday, Feb. 23, 8:30 p.m.
Location: Jersey Mike’s Arena, Piscataway, NJ
TV/Streaming: FS1
Big Ten Standings: UM t-5th, RU t-5th
DraftKings Odds: UM +5.5, O/U 134

The real deal

While State does have good defensive numbers, clearly that was not a problem for Michigan over the weekend, as the Wolverines really showed up in a big way in the rivalry game. However, the task is much more difficult in a tough environment on Thursday, as Rutgers has a top-10 defensive nationally and will make life very difficult for Michigan.

Two numbers really jump off of the page. The first is a 19.7 percent turnover rate, one of the best in the conference. While Dug McDaniel and Kobe Bufkin did a good job taking care of the ball on Saturday, the young backcourt is going to be under duress against the Rutgers defense. There had been some issues with turnovers in the few games before that, and the Wolverines will stand no chance if those problems spring up again.

The other concern is the Knights’ two-point defense, which has been the team’s strength, but also its downfall in two recent losses. Michigan is unlikely to win by bombing it in from deep, so using Hunter Dickinson to either score himself or space out the floor is imperative. The visitors are going to need some luck getting shots to fall, but also really have to be mentally locked in for 40 minutes against this intense defense.

A year of development

All four remaining games are difficult, but none of these opponents have elite offenses. Rutgers actually sits well below-average in terms of offensive efficiency in Big Ten play and are a very lopsided team. Should Michigan be able to scrounge together some points, there will be a chance to pair them with some stops and actually go on a run or two.

Just as the Knights’ are great defending inside the arc, baskets struggle to go in on the other end of the floor as well. Michigan has been overall solid defending the rim this season, and again it starts with Dickinson and Tarris Reed, who has absolutely earned more minutes (and arguably a starting spot as well).

Reed, McDaniel, Bufkin, and much of the remainder of this roster are still very young, but it has been 27 games now where these newer players have gained invaluable experience. Defensive cohesion takes time — and the Wolverines are still far from perfect — but the squad should be in a better shape than three months ago. The next two weeks will be a test, but none of the offenses are too much to handle.