March 18, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led all scorers at the half with 11 points, and the University of Michigan men's basketball guard had been the star of the NCAA Tournament opener with Oklahoma State up to that point.
Derrick Walton Jr. ended up doing what he's done so often in the last two months. He took over the game the Wolverines won to move onto Sunday afternoon's (March 19) matchup with Louisville.
Abdur-Rahkman, known as "Rahk" to teammates, became more of facilitator in the second half, dishing out four assists and scoring five more points. He ended up with 16 points, four assists and zero turnovers.
So, he was a co-star once again, which has often been the case for the junior from Allentown, Pennsylvania. But "Rahk" couldn't care less about his billing on this team, which won the Big Ten Tournament championship last week and is now playing for a Sweet 16 berth.
"I don't really pay attention to that," Abdur-Rahkman said. "I just try to pick my spots on the offense and do what the team needs me to do to win. I don't worry about the points and things like that."
His teammates and coaches are well aware of the impact "Rahk" makes.
"He's just so consistent in his effort," swingman Duncan Robinson said. "We really rely on him, and when things aren't going good he finds a spark to get us going. He was no different (against Oklahoma State). He was great for us, and you can expect more of that on Sunday."
Louisville's top two scorers are guards Donovan Mitchell and Quentin Snider, who combine for 28.4 points per game. Walton and Abdur-Rahkman check in at 24.8 points.
"They're a great team, and we want to make a run in the tournament," said Abdur-Rahkman. "You want to play your best against the best, and so it should be a great game."
"Rahk" is averaging 9.3 points, 2.7 rebounds 1.9 assists and one steal per game. He's made great strides since Michigan coach John Beilein took a chance on giving him a late scholarship when the Wolverines lost two underclassmen to the NBA Draft in 2014.
"When he first came to us," Beilein said Saturday (March 18), "he was all into working hard but did not probably know that he's so talented that he had another level he could develop to. He was one of my original tuxedo guys that played the game in a tuxedo.
"He was fast. He was quick. But he wasn't going to dive on the floor, wasn't going to take a charge. He was one of those guys that just had to continue to learn that he had another level of play in him. He'll still drift to that at times."
"Rahk" became a much more consistent scorer late this season and had scored in double figures in eight consecutive games before getting nine points combined against Minnesota and Wisconsin in the last two conference tournament wins. However, he came up big against the Cowboys in the NCAA opener.
Adding playmaking to his game has been crucial.
"That's the biggest improvement," said Beilein, pointing to his 27 assists as a freshman and 70 this season. "He was a 30-percent shooter. Now he's a 40-percent shooter. I'm looking forward to what he's still going to be able to do in this tournament.
"Also looking forward to him, as he goes into the senior year, he reminds me of Randy Smith of Buffalo State and the (NBA's) Buffalo Braves. He's this elite athlete that if his full focus is on, 'I'm going to utilize all the God-given talent,' he's got even another level in himself."
"Rahk" received the Rudy Tomjanovich Most Improved Player Award and Steve Grote Hustle Award after his sophomore season.
"It was an honor to win awards named after such guys," said Abdur-Rahkman. "They were great players and even greater people off the court."
Abdur-Rahkman, 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, has a unique skill set. He can soar to the hoop for highlight-reel dunks, play tough defense, pass and nail three-pointers with a feathery touch.
Being that versatile is an asset.
"It helps a lot," said Abdur-Rahkman. "It opens a lot of things up. They can't just sit in the paint and help off me -- otherwise they will kick it out, and I'll knock down a three. But it also opens up driving lanes when I pump fake, drive and kick (out) to find an open shooter."
Can he become a player like Randy Smith, as Beilein suggests?
Smith, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound guard, went from being a surprise to make an NBA roster after getting drafted in the seventh round, to scoring 16,262 points with a 16.7 average over 12 seasons. He set a then-NBA record by playing in 906 consecutive games and was the MVP of the 1978 NBA All-Star Game.
Ironically, it was another Buffalo State connection that brought Abdur-Rahkman to Michigan.
Beilein didn't sign the four-time all-state pick out of Allentown Central Catholic until April 2014, after getting a bird-dogging tip from a long-time acquaintance.
"It was a call from an old coaching friend of mine from 30-some years ago," said Beilein. "His name's Dave Rooney. He was the coach at Buffalo State when I was at Erie Community College. He went on to coach Slippery Rock, and he follows that Allentown area of basketball. And he told me Muhammad was still available when he found out Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson (III) were going pro.
"We jumped on it."
Beilein said he never saw "Rahk" play live but was sold on him after dissecting video and having him visit.
Abdur-Rahkman credits Beilein with his development as a shooter.
"I've come a long way," he said. "Coach B is working with me on my shot. Put hours in the gym and just having that confidence more so than anything. Having confidence to continue to make shots is big."
What is Beilein focusing on with him?
"Just not shooting it as high," he said, "and getting rid of it quicker. Other than that, it's just a whole lot of (shooting) reps and continuing to rep it out."
"Rahk" remembers watching the last meeting between Louisville and Michigan in the 2013 national championship game and rooting for the Cardinals. His father, Dawud, had coached one of the Louisville assistant coaches, and he also wanted to go opposite his older brother, Shahad, who scored 1,075 points at Division II East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania.
"My brother is a big Michigan fan," said Muhammad-Ali. "I was rooting against him. It was just that brother rivalry. He was the most happy, other than me, when I went to Michigan."
Dawud is an assistant coach at Division III Muhlenberg College in Allentown and also coached at Division I Howard University and other schools. So, "Rahk" grew up in gyms, following his father's teams and learning the game.
He said that experience led him to realize that he had to do whatever his teams needed to win.
Against Oklahoma State, he provided points when the offense was struggling to find its rhythm.
"I was just open, and I knocked down a couple shots," explained Abdur-Rahkman. "Sometimes we need a sparkplug."
LUCKY NUMBERS: Abdur-Rahkman enters the Louisville game with 777 career points and a 7.7 career scoring average.