Ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak and finishing with a 17-14 record, Michigan knew it was playing for its NCAA tournament life when it took on Rutgers in its Big Ten tourney opener. Initially, at least, the Wolverines looked like they were up to the challenge.
Michigan made an effort to get the ball inside early, to work through Hunter Dickinson, and the strategy was working. Playing through Dickinson, and paced by his 13 first half-points, the Wolverines took control of the game, racing to an early 18-11 lead.
Yet despite how well Michigan was playing (shooting nearly 50% from the floor in the first half) the Wolverines couldn’t distance themselves from the Scarlet Knights. Primarily because Michigan surrendered eight offensive rebounds and turned the ball over seven times in the first 20 minutes. Given the 15 extra possessions, Rutgers, despite shooting less than 30% from the floor, not only stayed in the game, but cut Michigan’s lead to two by the end of the half.
Michigan’s sloppy play and lack of effort on the defensive glass did more than just allow Rutgers to get back in the game, however. It seemed to embolden the Scarlet Knights. And it seemed to shake Michigan.
In the second half, Rutgers played with an air of confidence. Running its offense patiently and efficiently. Constantly moving the ball. Constantly generating good looks. And more often than not, converting. For the half, the Scarlet Knights connected on 14 of 27 shots, including a blistering five-of-six from three.
Michigan, on the other hand, fell apart. Rarely has there been a game that featured more disparate halves. Michigan led for all but one minute in the first half, but trailed for 17 of the final 20 minutes.
The Wolverines spent the second half in freefall - beginning the half by shooting an unfathomable 1-17 from the floor. How badly did Michigan struggle? The Wolverines made one field goal over the first 19 minutes of action. Didn’t make their second field goal until the final minute of the half, when the game had long been decided.
If there was a play that epitomized the game, and maybe Michigan’s season, it occurred midway through the second half. With by Rutgers leading by a point, the Scarlet Knights’ Derek Simpson went to the free throw line. Simpson made the first, but missed the second free throw. Despite having multiple players in position, no one bothered to block out Simpson. Unguarded, Simpson rebounded his miss and converted an uncontested lay-up. Even Simpson seemed surprised at how little resistance he faced.
Basketball 101: Block out the free throw shooter. “I got shooter” is a refrain heard before every free throw attempt in every high school gym in America. Yet in one of the biggest moments of the season, Michigan failed to do so. Simpson’s three-point play spurred a 12-0 run that essentially ended the game. The rest was academic, with Rutgers rolling to a 62-50 victory that didn’t feel nearly that close.
In the end, it was a fitting end to a frustrating season for Michigan. What’s the name of that 1960s movie? “They Shoot Horses, don’t They?” A psychological drama named in reference to the practice of putting injured horses out of their misery. You could say the same about Michigan’s 2022-23 season. After so many winnable games were lost, after so many “must wins” came and went, perhaps it’s for the best this season was finally put out of its misery.