|#7 Michigan (23-4, 10-4)||28||43||71|
|Illinois (20-9, 7-8)||31||27||58|
After coming off a brutal four-game stretch that included three road losses to top-25 teams, the Michigan Wolverines returned home last week Sunday looking flat and uninspired against the lowly Penn State Nittany Lions. For nearly the entire game, the winless Lions traded punches with the mighty Wolverines, getting into the lane seemingly at will, making timely three-pointers, and forcing Michigan to play much harder than they had apparently planned after trailing throughout the first half. The Maize and Blue never led by more than nine points in a way-too-close 79-71 squeaker that afternoon.
Fast forward one week, a week that Michigan got to rest up during and focus on defense, which has been their Achilles’ heel so far. Illinois entered today’s game as the winners of five straight, including huge victories over Indiana at home and at Minnesota. First-year head coach John Groce’s team was coming together after struggling through the early part of their Big Ten schedule, opening conference play losing seven of their first nine games.
Certainly if Michigan played like they had last week, the Fighting Illini wouldn’t let a golden opportunity slip away as Penn State did, and for the first half again, the tide seemed to be crashing that way. The Wolverines plodded through 20 minutes missing box outs, losing out on loose balls, and overall playing very sloppy basketball, and they paid the consequences. Allowing a team like Illinois to rebound nearly half of their misses and turning the ball over six times led to a 31-28 deficit for the home squad at Crisler Center; granted, the lead was aided by a buzzer-beating three-pointer off the glass from Brandon Paul and a couple circus threes to start the game that gave Illinois an eight-point lead early, but Michigan was again playing below par.
Was this what Michigan had become? After running scathe-free through the non-conference schedule and grabbing the nation’s top ranking briefly in January, were the Wolverines finally showing their true colors? Or were those three losses simply a case of running into great teams playing well on their home floors?
All these questions loomed before Michigan inbounded to start the second half. By the time the final buzzer had rung, Michigan had answered.
Four minutes into the second half, John Beilein’s team raced out to a five-point lead and never looked back, sending Illinois a message that not just any team can travel to Ann Arbor and board the bus home with smiles on their faces.
Trey Burke wasn’t going to let former Ohio coach John Groce beat him again after the heartbreaker in the Tournament last year, scoring 19 points and dishing out four assists for good measure in the second half.
Glenn Robinson III wasn’t going to let the doubters continue to run their mouths after his play was widely questioned in Michigan’s rough stretch a couple weeks back, throwing down two huge dunks to open the half on his way to scoring 10 points overall.
Perhaps most of all, Caris LeVert wasn’t going to let Groce forget about him after signing him at Ohio and bolting to Illinois in the offseason, draining two monster threes and two more free throws after the break.
Offense has never really been a problem for this team, and they showed that again today. The difference was on the other end of the court, where Michigan constantly hounded Illinois ball-handlers, deflecting all sorts of balls and forcing bad passes and worse shots throughout the second half.
Illinois struggled to respond to the pressure and to the noise in the building, turning the ball over 13 times while only making 41.2 percent of their shots. Groce’s looks of encouragement early on slowly shifted to helplessness as Michigan proved to be lethally efficient from the field, making 51 percent of their own attempts from the field.
It seemed that the week off paid huge dividends for all of Michigan’s players, as they were noticeably quicker and more alert on defense, often double-teaming Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand, and D.J. Richardson out to the half court line and recovering very well from there.
With such an arduous run of games now in the rearview mirror, the Wolverines did exactly what they had to today, holding serve convincingly at home against one of the hotter teams in the country. With Burke continuing to run the show so effectively, finishing the afternoon with 26 points, eight assists, and only one turnover, Michigan is elite. A healthy Jordan Morgan will continue to help the team improve after flexing his muscle to shore up the rebounding department in the second half, and a timely Tim Hardaway, Jr. should be the vocal and intense leader that can also fill up the stat sheet for the Maize and Blue down the stretch.
Performances like this one suggest that Michigan will be a tough team to bring down in March, and while every team will certainly have weaker areas, the defensive showing today must be extremely encouraging. Any questions?
|Final Game Stats|
|01||Glenn Robinson III*||5-9||0-3||0-0||0||3||3||1||10||0||0||0||2||36|
|10||Tim Hardaway Jr.*||4-11||1-4||4-5||1||6||7||1||13||3||4||0||2||36|