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For the second time this season, Michigan faced a Big Ten team on the road for a shot at #1 in the rankings. However, unlike Michigan's first attempt against Ohio State, the Wolverines were able to deliver a convincing victory over Illinois pushing them to 19-1 overall and 6-1 in the Big Ten (1st overall). The game was competitive for long segments and Michigan only entered halftime with a 6 point lead. Then, during the first few minutes of the 2nd half, the Wolverines built a lead that would never be overcome by the Illini.
In the game preview, several aspects were highlighted as being important for the outcome of this game; Illinois' 3 pt shooting and their ability to use back door cuts. These were relevant early with much of Illinois' early production relying on these factors. Paul made a great alley-oop pass to the inside to Nnanna Egwu and sunk a 3 pt shot himself later on, which gave Illinois an early lead. Unfortunately for Illinois, their 3 pt shooting cooled off during the night (6-25 overall) and Michigan made some adjustments to prevent the alley-oop passes and the backdoor cuts. This is one of the big reasons why Michigan was able to create so many turnovers inside during the 2nd half. Shutting these aspects of the Illinois offense down was big for helping the Wolverines to victory.
Another thing noted in the game preview was the "big two" for Illinois: Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. They took nearly half of the team's attempts and took an astounding 52% of their shots from outside the arch. They both still scored in the double digits, but were pretty ineffective. As a pair, they converted just 34.6% of their shots and 29.4% from outside the arch. This isn't a horrible night in general terms, but for a team that relies so heavily on these two players to be successful, they needed them to be able to do more than they accomplished tonight. They were outplayed by Michigan's "big two" (Burke & Hardaway) and Illinois suffered as a result.
Speaking of Burke and Hardaway, both had very good nights. Burke was not incredibly efficient, going 7 for 19 on his shot attempts, but he still got 19 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. Burke is going to take some questionable shots over any given night, but even when he shoots poorly outside the arch (1-5), he still will get enough to have some solid contributions. He made his mistakes, such as a bad inbounds pass late in the 2nd half and some bad 3 pt selections, but he also made some amazing shots such as his nailed jumpshot before halftime and his epic drive to the basket where he adjusted midair to convert the difficult shot. Along with this, Illinois was trying to target Burke by collapsing their defense on him when he tried to drive the lane. Sometimes this worked, but it also allowed Burke to throw the ball to Stauskas and Hardaway on the outside resulting in easy baskets. Even if he wasn't the most efficient, he still had a pretty good night.
Hardaway had a very different game. He wasn't a major contributor, but he was very efficient when he did get the ball. He had a pretty bad pass late in the game to McGary on the inside that resulted in a turnover and had a bad turnover when he tried to stop with the ball on the 3 pt line, but he attacked on offense and did well on the defensive side, even stopping a 4 on 2 Illinois possession at one point. He was highlighted as a player to watch in the preview and had a pretty good night despite not having a very large number of shot attempts. Michigan's other wing player (Stauskas) was described as one of the key pieces in this game. He has had trouble locking down on defenders on the outside and was burned badly a couple times off the dribble including a straight drive down the lane by Richardson late in the game. Having said that, he still looked pretty solid defensively. He was not having to defend big men which helped, but he was also preventing a lot of interior ball movement. Along with this, he really did well attacking the basket and feeding the big men. He nailed his usual couple of 3 pt shots, but he really showed tonight his overall evolution as a player.
Speaking of Michigan's big men, they had an interesting game against Illinois. In the preview, the weak frontcourt of Illinois was described. This was seen several times throughout the game, but Michigan's game-plan for its big men was thrown into a loop when Jordan Morgan went down early with an ankle injury. He was playing pretty well at the time and had a great shot at a basket, but went down with his injury (Note: reports were that he would return during the game, but the injury has become complicated and there is no timetable for return at the moment). Michigan's other big men stepped in and did pretty well. McGary, who was highlighted as a player to watch, got beat pretty bad on some low post possessions by Illinois and made some mistakes such as trying to save the ball from going out of bounds and throwing it to an Illinois player, but he also had some good plays as well. He saved many rebounds, got some good feeds for baskets inside, and had several tips for a Michigan score. He also appeared to be better at finishing at the basket, which has been a problem this year. He did struggle with fouling, but had a decent night filling in for Morgan.
Horford and Bielfeldt also had pretty good games. Horford looked good defensively and really came alive on the offensive end, which has been something he has lacked. He set up good screens, nailed a left handed hook, and was able to get 7 points, which is a good night for him. Bielfeldt struggled in some areas such as on the free throw line, but he rebounded well and played hard. Another odd situation was when Bielfeldt and McGary were on the floor together with Spike, LeVert, and Hardaway. This was an odd lineup and although it probably helped the team's rebounding, it seemed odd to have those five out there at once. It only lasted for a little bit, but the offense struggled. Seems unlikely we will see much more of this lineup in big games, but it was interesting to say the least. Michigan's interior post game looked better than before, but they still did have too many turnovers and unproductive possessions. When they have that kind of an advantage inside, they need to do better at converting on possessions.
Other players to note were GR3, Spike, and LeVert. GR3 had another great game and has continued to show improvement. His rebounding has really improved and he looks really good on the defensive side, forcing players to adjust, move into bigger defenders, and stealing the ball for easy baskets. And of course, there was that crazy block. Along with this, the thing that was really impressive was his ability to create on his own offensively. If he can continue to do this, his contributions could really start to explode, especially on the stats sheet. Spike played decently and had some good passes. LeVert also did alright and had a great drive to the basket where he adjusted mid-air for a nice basket.
This was not Michigan's toughest game or opponent this season, but it was an important win for a team that hopes to win the Big Ten and move to #1 in the national rankings. Michigan is now #1 in the Big Ten (tied with Indiana) and now has more home games remaining in the season than away games, something that should be reassuring for fans eager to forget Michigan's road troubles of the past. There's no guarantee Michigan will be ranked #1 on Monday, but Wolverine fans have to be happy about the position of this Wolverine team right now.
Basketball Analyst For BTPowerhouse & Wolverine 247 - Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tbeindit
Great write up Thomas!
Stauskas is really growing as a player. He had a nice back door cut today. Nik is becoming pretty effective running the curl off the screen. He definetly is a better finisher at the basket than i ever expected. Kid could turn into a special player.
I have only a few things to add.
- Michigan went into halftime with a 8 point lead (and not a 6 point lead)
- Michigan shot 52.5% from the field (31-59) despite Burke shooting only 7-19. He also shot 4-7 from the FT line which annoyed me since he's a near 80% FT shooter.
- Glen Robinson continues to be the most efficient player on the team.
- Illinois' pressure man-to-man defense surprised me. It seemed swarming and fast (but not as disciplined as it could be). This was good preparation for Indiana.
- Michigan's defense isn't dominant but it continues to get the job done by forcing timely turnovers that become easy half court or quick transition points.
- Coach Beilein going to the extended 1-3-1 zone was a brilliant move because Illinois was in the bonus at the 11 minute mark. Instead of allowing the Illini to attack at will and get to the FT line, this move turned them into a perimeter jump shooting team. It was clear that they were not prepared to attack it since the attempted no swing passes/ball reversals.
- It made me very happy to see our frontcourt step-up after Morgan suffered an early injury. Coach Beilein described Morgan as the team's "glue guy" in the post game interview. We're gonna have such an awesome frontcourt next year.
* * * N E O . R E T R O * * *
Thanks for correcting my mistake! Forgot that crazy Burke pre-halftime shot I guess. Agree with Burke's shooting at the line. Typically very good and a bit frustrating to see his shooting drop off today. Luckily, it didn't end up making a difference in the game's result. Also agree with the Illinois comments. They have a lot of length, can play some fierce defense, and really adjusted well to Burke driving the basket. Just had trouble moving to clog the lane effectively for other guys and staying on Michigan's outside shooters.
Also, good point with the fouls. Was odd to see Michigan rack up that many so quickly. Pretty clear just how solid Morgan has become at avoiding fouls. And yes, being able to utilize that 1-3-1 defense is going to be great, especially in games with short turnarounds when teams can't prepare for it. Very good way to change things up and confuse players.
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