PISCATAWAY, N.J. — After Friday’s loss to Iowa, No. 7 Michigan coach John Beilein said his team took 80 percent of Sunday’s practice to focus on themselves and individual development among the players. Clearly, that reflection brought clarity to the Wolverines. Michigan (21-2, 10-2 Big Ten) marched into the Rutgers Athletic Center Tuesday night and opened the game 9 for 11 from the floor, fueling an early 25-10 run and rode that early advantage to a 77-65 win over Rutgers (11-11, 4-8). With the win, Beilein not only got a win on his 66th birthday, but he passed Johnny Orr for most Big Ten wins by a coach in program history with 121.
“You’re always worried about the start ‘cause of the environment,” Beilein told Big Ten Network’s Shon Morris after the win. “Between here and Indiana the environment was crazy and we got off to great starts both times. Iowa, we gotta take those stats, rip them up and throw them in the garbage. Say Coach McCaffery you did a great job, you got us, great win.”
Michigan got off to that blistering start, but it took a lucky bounce to start that hot shooting. Ignas Brazdeikis (game-high 23 points, 5 rebounds) attempted his first three of the night that took a couple bounces and a friendly roll into the net. Compared to games at Iowa and Wisconsin where the rims were far less friendly, it was an early confidence boost for a Michigan team that needed one in the offensive half. Similar to Iowa, Brazdeikis scored early and often, dropping in the first eight points of the game with two three-pointers and a pair of made free throws.
“We were really locked in from the beginning after that Iowa loss,” Brazdeikis told Morris after the game. “We were really locked in from the beginning after that Iowa loss. You know that was a tough one but we regroup, we never get too low, we never get too high. We trust in ourselves, we trust our coaching staff, and we were just really mentally prepared for this game.”
Brazdeikis spent part of the evening matched up with former high school teammate Eugene Omoruyi (21 points, 4 rebounds.) Omoruyi and Brazdeikis played together at Orangeville Prep in Ontario during the 2015-16 season and fittingly, were their team’s top scorers respectively.
“It was a lot of fun, he was actually my roommate the first year of prep school for me so he taught me a lot that I know today about mental toughness and all that,” Brazdeikis told the media regarding his matchup with former teammate Omoruyi. “It was a lot of fun going against him today but it doesn’t matter who I am playing against, the other team is the enemy. I always look at it the same way, but it was a lot of fun playing against him.”
Beilein wasn’t surprised to see that going up against an old teammate had Brazdeikis fired up on both ends of the floor.
“They went to high school together, they know each other pretty well and there they are battling against each other,” Beilein commented on his star freshman’s performance. “Iggy’s got this unique task where he is playing as that guy because we play with two small forwards that somebody has to guard the other team’s four. The next game now he is guarding a stretch four that is mobile and move and can fly around. He was great in so many ways.”
Brazdeikis ended up finishing the night one point shy of tying his career high of 24, set against North Carolina in November. Since going scoreless at Wisconsin, Brazdeikis is averaging 18.2 points per game in his last five outings.
Charles Matthews (11 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 turnover) had a fine return to form at the RAC as well. In the first half, he found success driving inside instead of forcing deeper shots, and it led to success for both Matthews and the Wolverines offense. Four players finished the night in double-figures: Brazdeikis, Matthews, Jordan Poole (15 points) and Zavier Simpson (14 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists)
Unlike Friday, Michigan did not fall into early foul trouble, which allowed the starters to thrive. It took Michigan 10:11 of game clock in the first half to be called for its first foul. Jon Teske was hit with a shooting foul at that point and took a seat for Brandon Johns. Michigan returned to its normal foul-averse ways, finishing the game with only 17 total.
With a massive game looming against No. 19 Wisconsin Saturday afternoon, Michigan needed a win like tonight’s not for keeping pace in the conference championship chase, but to shake off what’s been a difficult stretch on offense dating back to the Wolverines first game against Wisconsin (aside from the blowout victory over Indiana on January 25.) Michigan currently sits all alone atop the Big Ten, and now is 10-0 following a loss since the beginning of the 2017-18 season. On his 66th birthday, Beilein is still ever focused on the task in front of him, not the win that just concluded.
“I do cherish road wins, I cherish them for about ten minutes then I will be looking at the Wisconsin stats. It is a sickness I can’t get away from but that’s the way it is,” Beilein joked at his press conference. “I am trying like crazy to realize I am not going to coach forever and these are great wins. For us to have four road wins already is a great accomplishment.”
With eight regular-season games remaining, Michigan still has road trips to Penn State, Minnesota, Maryland and Michigan State. If the Wolverines can figure out how to keep the offense moving for spurts just enough to keep an advantage too large for opponents to overcome, as it has against Rutgers, Indiana, and Illinois; The Wolverines will find themselves battling into early March with a great chance at raising their first Big Ten regular season championship banner since 2014.