Kornacki: U-M's Muhammad-Ali Has Own Big Night at the Garden

Jan. 30, 2016

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman

By Steve Kornacki

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- When the public address announcer at Madison Square Garden roared his name during the pre-game introductions of the starting lineup, his had a special ring to it in this very special arena:


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Wolverine sophomore Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman jogged onto the court with the other starters, smiling widely and exchanging fist bumps and high fives. His first name comes from the most famous fighter ever, Muhammad-Ali, who fought Joe Frazier for the first time in this very Garden on March 8, 1971 in what was possibly the most-hyped boxing event of all-time.

Abdur-Rahkman, from nearby Allentown, Pennsylvania, did pretty great on the big stage at "The Mecca" as well. He had 15 points and five rebounds as one of the keys to Saturday afternoon's (Jan. 30) 79-72 win over Penn State that pushed Michigan's record to 17-5 overall and 7-2 in the Big Ten.

"Those are his East Coast baskets that I talk about," said Wolverine head coach John Beilein, who recruited Abdur-Rahkman on a tip from an old coaching buddy. "He gets into a seam, he pivots like three or four times, and does the 'Ali Shuffle' three or four times, and he ends up finding something.

"He's really good about getting his feet in the lane and then getting balance. And where we've got to continue to get him to improve is passing back out of there (to open teammates)."

The gritty, 6-4 guard is known as "Rahk" in the Michigan hoops family. And he and point guard Derrick Walton Jr. (13 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists) saw to it that the back court supplied two of their team's top three scorers as well as two of the top three rebounders.

The Wolverines got 15 of their 34 rebounds from "Rahk" and Walton, and eight of those came on defensive rebounds. With their quickness and passing ability, those two guards are able to trigger fast breaks even faster. And Michigan is at its best when it's running.

Beilein said having the guards more involved in rebounding this year is a philosophy shift for him.

"I credit my assistant coaches," said Beilein, "and I've coached all these years with the outlet passes going to the guards. That's the Dean Smith or Roy Williams (way) -- outlet to the guards and the big boys go get the ball.

"And if I still was doing that, I wouldn't know what a great rebounder Derrick Walton (6-0, 180 pounds) is. Anybody below 6-8, if it's a jump ball between them and Derrick, his timing is impeccable. And Muhammad has that type of athleticism as well. But this is a rare commodity, for point guards to be getting a double-double (with points and rebounds)."

"Rahk" played a strong 35 minutes, getting his season high in rebounds and his second-highest scoring total this year.

He played with supreme confidence, and that was best displayed on a play in which he was blocked but retained the ball. He got set again and dribbled to the other side of the basket for another shot that resulted in two points.

"He's got a great feel around the basket for a guard," said Beilein. "He has really been a guy who just embraces any challenges. He's rough and tough, and 'I'm going to roll up my sleeves if I'm going to play.'"

He's started all seven games since leading scorer Caris LeVert has been out with a lower leg injury, and Michigan has gone 5-2 in those games, winning four consecutive as "Rahk" gets more and more comfortable.

Beilien said there's "a chance" LeVert will return in next week's games, and Michigan will become a much more powerful and deeper team. But "Rahk" has stepped up to team with Walton and Zak Irvin (who had 20 points) to assure the Wolverines stay in the Big Ten championship hunt sans LeVert.

There were two plays central to the Wolverines holding on to their lead in this game, and "Rahk" and Walton pulled off the second one, while Walton had a hand in both.  

Michigan had pushed its lead to a comfortable 17 points midway through the second half, but Penn State battled back to cut the lead to five.

Then Duncan Robinson, who had made 72 of 87 previous field goals from behind the three-point arc, drove from the top of the key to take it to the hoop and score. The large maize and blue contingent among 12,108 fans roared their approval.

Walton, for the second consecutive Penn State possession, rebounded a missed shot, and this time fed "Rahk" for a basket on another drive to the bucket. That gave Michigan a nine-point lead with four minutes to play, and the lead was never less than six points the rest of the way.

"Coach always talks about running the floor," said Abdur-Rahkman. "So, I wanted to get down the floor as fast as I could and get an easy bucket because I knew they were playing tough defense. We needed an easy score.

"That was a big basket, and momentum shifted back in our favor."

Walton said, "I was proud of how hard we were able to fight -- especially when the shots weren't falling for us. We were able to adjust, and win in a different way."

The Wolverines were 6-for-20 on three-pointers, having a season-low makes total on treys but drove to the basket to make the difference.

"We're going to take what people give us," said Beilein. "It was the product of the pick-and-roll or pick-and-run, and we had to. They were switching a lot on screens. So, we're finding new things to do."

They got the job done under the bright lights in the first game of the Big Ten's "Super Saturday -- College Hoops & Hockey" extravaganza between the two schools.

"It is great for these young men to have an opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden and bring the Big Ten into this 'Mecca' of basketball," said Beilein. "It was a great crowd -- a legitimate 12,000 -- and you could hear them.

"Michigan travels well. We love our fans in this part of the country, and they really helped us win this game."

Muhammad Ali, the boxer, lost that fight 45 years ago at the Garden to Frazier in a 15-round decision. Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman saw to it that his team won this game with one of the best games of his career.

U-M Never Trails in Victory over Penn State in NYC

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