For nearly seven minutes, Michigan failed to score from the field. It managed just a single free throw in that span.
The team ranked seventh in the country in offensive efficiency was getting handcuffed by Rutgers — and it didn’t matter.
The problem? The Scarlet Knights managed just six points during the stretch deep into the second half. It was hardly able to make a dent in their big deficit. It was their chance, but their continued offensive struggles against quality opponents was their undoing in a 71-64 loss to No. 3 Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
“Against them, you don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “You got to take advantage of any opportunity you get … You just got to make some shots in a game like that.”
The entire game was a struggle on the offensive end. Rutgers shot 40 percent from the field and hit only 3-of-12 from 3-point range in losing for the second time in three games.
The Scarlet Knights (12-8, 8-8 Big Ten) didn’t get nearly enough from stars Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., who shot a combined 6-of-22 in scoring 18 points. Rutgers far too often rushed shots, taking low-percentage attempts against Michigan’s size in the paint. Obviously, part of that was Michigan’s active and menacing defense that allowed few good looks and challenged everything at the rim. It isn’t ranked seventh in defensive efficiency by accident.
“That’s as good of a basketball team as we’ve played in my five years here,” Pikiell said.
Franz Wagner led Michigan (15-1, 10-1) with 20 points, and Columbia transfer Mike Smith added 12 on a night top scorers Isaiah Livers and Hunter Dickinson were held to a combined 17 points.
The loss extended a concerning trend against the top teams in the Big Ten. Rutgers, still comfortably in the NCAA Tournament according to most experts, is now 2-6 against the top six teams in the powerhouse conference and has dropped its last five against that formidable group.
Most of those setbacks, though, were competitive. Thursday night’s was one-sided.
Despite getting only a combined eight points from Livers and Dickinson, Michigan was up 37-28 at halftime. Rutgers’ defense was sound — the Wolverines went to the free-throw line only four times and hit just four 3-pointers — but its offense remained a problem, shooting just 37.5 percent from the field.
Michigan’s offense woke up right after the break. The Wolverines quickly built a 15-point lead on the strength of an 8-0 run that included consecutive baskets from Dickinson and Livers. Rutgers’ usually stingy defense was suddenly struggling with Michigan’s balance, ball movement and shot-making. The lead was extended to 17 after a Dickinson slam, and the Scarlet Knights never really threatened.
The offense precluded them from doing so, failing to take advantage when the Wolverines went cold for a 6:44 stretch in the second half, only cutting a 17-point deficit to 12 with 5:08 left. The rest of the contest was merely cosmetic.
“Our defense gave us a chance,” Pikiell said, “and our offense didn’t allow us [to take advantage].”