By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Freshmen Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman came from opposite sides of the country to converge on the same roads that led to opportunity on the University of Michigan basketball team.
Theirs is a story of hoops serendipity to the nth degree.
Neither was on the recruiting radar when last season ended for the Wolverines. But then Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III decided to leave early for the NBA, and head coach John Beilein suddenly had scholarships to fill.
Dave Rooney, who coached Buffalo State when Beilein was at Erie Community College, convinced Beilein to take a look at Abdur-Rahkman, a four-time All-State player from Allentown (Pennsylvania) Catholic Central. Outgoing Boston College coach Steve Donahue told Beilein that he'd been recruiting Dawkins at a New Hampshire prep school Dawkins attended after graduating from Palo Alto (California) High, and that Beilein should take a look at him.
"Rahk," as he is known to the Wolverines, signed in April. Dawkins, the son of Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins, signed in May.
This figured to be a season in which they eased into playing time, but Dawkins has started nine consecutive games since wing Caris LeVert suffered a season-ending broken foot. "Rahk" has started the last seven games since point guard Derrick Walton Jr. suffered toe and foot injuries that have put his return to the lineup in doubt.
And if their stories aren't intertwined enough, these two sons of coaches also are roommates in the East Quad dorms.
So, two players who appeared destined for totally different schools -- Dawkins to Dayton and "Rahk" to Boston College, Pitt or Penn State -- both ended up in Ann Arbor, became roomies, entered the starting lineup within one week of each other and are stepping up together.
Left: Aubrey Dawkins at Palo Alto High (Courtesy: Samuel Chang/Prep2Prep) // Right: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman at Allentown Catholic Central (Courtesy: Dan Gleiter/PennLive.com)
"It's some bunch of coincidences and kind of crazy that we got into the lineup at the same time," said Abdur-Rahkman.
Dawkins said, "It's been fun and good to have a guy to go through this same process together with you. To coming off the bench, to gaining a bigger role, to starting together -- it's been a good maturing process for us. And it will benefit us in the future as we play more years together."
What this means for 2015 could be huge for the Wolverines. But when it happened, it took the top scorer, LeVert, and third-leading scorer and playmaker, Walton, out of the lineup.
"You go through that sudden change that we had with losing Caris and Derrick," said Beilein, "and it threw our offense into a tizzy. There was a reason that Muhammad and Aubrey Dawkins were not playing early. Their timing was bad. They were just figuring it out, like freshmen should be. And so all of a sudden, when they had to play a lot of minutes, we weren't very efficient offensively.
"So, we've gotten better offensively -- tweaking like crazy, probably too much."
Dawkins is averaging 9.2 points and "Rahk" 8.6 points since becoming starters. That's 7.8 points per game less than LeVert (14.9) and Walton (10.7) brought. The freshman roomies also are averaging 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists fewer than LeVert and Walton. So, there's been a drop off and a five-game losing streak to endure. But there also have been plenty of positives.
"It kind of hit us hard when that happened," said Abdur-Rahkman. "There were all these little tweaks to the offense, and it was kind of hard at first. But the more you study the game, the easier it becomes to learn."
"Rahk" broke out for a season-high 18 points at Michigan State and not even talented Spartans forward Branden Dawson could stop him. He also held Ohio State freshman sensation D'Angelo Russell, averaging 19.1 points and 5.5 assists coming into that game, to 16 points on 6-for-15 shooting and two assists.
"That Michigan State game built a lot of confidence in me," said Abdur-Rahkman, whose father, Dawud, is an assistant coach at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "To go up against a team like Michigan State and do what I did is a confidence-builder. You know that you're capable of a lot. And then in the Ohio State game, I like to meet a challenge like that head-on."
Dawkins had 20 points against Illinois and 16 against Iowa, and has the ability to fire up the team with dramatic dunks and three-pointers. He's made 24-of-61 treys (.393) to trail only LeVert (.405) in team accuracy.
"That Illinois game meant a lot," Dawkins said. "I wasn't on the scouting report before that but I made some shots (6-of-7 treys) and made a name for myself a bit. I'm feeling more confident every game, but have to feel even more confident and assert myself more."
At Thursday's practice, Dawkins put on quite an exhibition in a team competition for making the most three-pointers in three minutes. Dawkins saw the clock ticking to the final seconds and shouted to the team manager rebounding for him: "One more!" Dawkins got the ball, swished it, smiled and bumped knuckles with the manager to celebrate his 40th trey that easily won. He made one every 4.5 seconds.
"I've always been able to shoot the ball, being a coach's son and being in the gym all the time," said Dawkins. "But now, working with the coaches, my shot feels more fluid and automatic."
Wolverine assistant coach Bacari Alexander said, "We call him 'Auto' -- for automatic."
Adding speed to his shot-taking has enabled Dawkins to become a gamer as well as a shooter.
"I had to get it to game speed," he said. "Shooting slowly in the gym isn't going to help you when you have a 6-8 guy running at you in a game. Like you saw in practice, getting shots off fast in those three minutes really helps you do that."
Beilein also put "Rahk" and Dawkins through a defensive stance and movement drill designed to refine the proper body position (hands up, butt down, eyes on the ball) with the proper lateral and vertical foot movement.
Aubrey Dawkins (L) and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman
"It definitely helps us a lot," said Abdur-Rahkman. "I don't know if a lot of programs give that one-on-one attention. But the coaches care about you individually here."
Dawkins added, "It's very important. We work hard every day to get better and gain Coach's trust. Good things are happening for us now, and he's starting to trust us. Now we have our minutes, and we have to make the most of those minutes, and keep his trust. It's fun."
LeVert also has gone out of his way to help Dawkins.
"He's helped me a lot," said Dawkins. "He's been here three years and knows the offense very well. If I miss a read on a play, he can help me see that. He'll call me over during games and practices and say, 'Do this...See that.' "
Walton does likewise with "Rahk."
"He shares the experience of what he's been through," said Abdur-Rahkman. "He goes over ways that I can be effective. I still need to work on the pace of the game and adjusting to it. You don't want to go too fast, and need to pace yourself."
Michigan is coming off an upset of No. 24 OSU heading into the noon Saturday (Feb. 28) game at No. 14 Maryland, and the Wolverines know beating the Terrapins could greatly boost their currently slim NCAA Tournament bid hopes.
"It's definitely a big challenge and a big opportunity for us," said Dawkins. "We almost beat some good teams in (No. 6) Villanova and (No. 5) Wisconsin. We just have to give that extra effort to win those games. And this could be the game where it finally clicks late in the game or in overtime and we finally win that game."
Abdur-Rahkman said, "It's a great opportunity. We don't want to over-look anything, and just want to go in there focused and play our game and try to get a 'W' there."
The Wolverines played half- and full-court games on Thursday with piped-in crowd noise and loud rock anthems to prepare for the Terrapins at Xfinity Center in College Park, Maryland.
Abdur-Rahkman took his cues from Spike Albrecht in order blend into the proper game pace, and Dawkins got a lecture for missing an acrobatic dunk when two points no matter how dull were in order. It was another day of learning on the job for two freshmen who came from nowhere to the same East Quad dorm room and starting lineup.