Michigan’s nine point home victory over Illinois wasn’t always a thing of beauty but tenuous moments were few and far between for John Beilein’s Wolverines. Michigan opened up a nine point lead midway through the first half and managed to keep the Illini comfortably at bay until the final horn. This was the sort of business as usual home win that should be expected from a Big Ten contender. The Wolverines are now one of just two Big Ten teams that remain perfect on their home floors and are just a half game out of first place with five games to play.
The Michigan offense was very efficient against one of the league’s better defenses, scoring 1.17 points per possession. The Wolverine offense benefited from its slumping weapons rediscovering their offensive form. Evan Smotrycz and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to score 28 points and handed out five assists while playing with as much offensive confidence as they have since December. Michigan shot the ball well inside (53% on twos) and outside (43.8% on threes) for a 57.6% effective field goal percentage on the day. It was a balanced Wolverine attack, with seven of eight Michigan players making at least two shots from the field. Michigan also was fundamental with its offensive execution, turning the ball over on just 15% of its offensive possessions and making 17-of-22 free throw attempts.
The Wolverine defense wasn’t faultless but was plenty good enough to win. Brandon Paul scored 21 points but also turned the ball over seven times. Michigan allowed seldom used substitute Tyler Griffey to have a career night (18 points) but was effective in slowing the rest of the Illinois roster. Meyers Leonard scored two baskets in the first two minutes before failing to record another field goal while DJ Richardson was just 1-of-8 on three point attempts. Illinois struggled to finish around the basket, making just 42% of its two point attempts, and also turned the ball over on 21.7% of its offensive possessions which resulted in 19 Wolverine points.
Michigan was abused on the defensive glass, allowing Illinois to rebound 40% of its missed shots, but was able to weather the damage. The Illini scored just nine second chance points despite grabbing 14 offensive rebounds and Michigan was able to exploit the Illini defense in transition. The Wolverines outscored Illinois 10-0 in fast break points and found even more easy looks in the secondary break, consistently punishing Illinois for sending so many players to the offensive glass.
Michigan is now 19-7 (9-4 Big Ten), matching last season’s regular season win totals, overall and in Big Ten play, with five games left on the schedule. The Wolverines are a half game out of a first place tie with Michigan State and Ohio State and have a week to prepare for a primetime Saturday night game against Ohio State. ESPN’s College Game Day will be in Ann Arbor on Saturday and a Michigan win would more than establish the Wolverines as serious title threats down the stretch.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: Hardaway seemed to gather some early confidence after a beautiful assist in transition to start the game. The rest of his game took off after he knocked down his first three point shot attempt of the day. He finished with 15 points on 5-of-9 (2-3 3pt) shooting with three assists and two turnovers. It was a steady and consistent performance, despite foul trouble in the second half, from a player that’s been anything but over the last month. I’ve been as guilty as any for over analyzing Hardaway’s (negative) demeanor on the court throughout his slump so it’s only right to point out what a positive attitude he seemed to have throughout today.
- Zack Novak: One of the defining images of Novak’s career is his bloodied face during a home win over Illinois as a freshman. Looking back to that game makes Novak’s performance today that much more impressive. At that point Novak was a tough kid that could shoot threes. Now, Novak is Michigan’s most improved player and doing so much more. It was Novak’s rebounding and transition offense that stood out today. He scored 12 points, grabbed nine rebounds (2 off.), handed out three assists and picked up a steal. The confidence with which he pushed the ball and passed it was remarkable and his two offensive rebounds were more traditional “Novak plays”: a rebounded free throw miss and a rebound among four Illinois defenders followed by a reverse put back.
- Stu Douglass: It might not have shown on the stat sheet today but Douglass is playing solid basketball across the board. He was 2-of-5 from the floor and missed both three point attempts. In the past a long range 0-fer from Douglass was a pre-determined bad game, today he grabbed four rebounds, handed out a pair of assists and came up with a steal. He was tasked with guarding Brandon Paul and was a major reason why the Illinois star had seven turnovers on the day. Then there was his dribble hesitation move and blow by for an easy layup; I’m not sure Douglass even knew that he had that in his arsenal.
- Trey Burke: Burke was solid but never quite found his shooting stroke, finishing 5-of-15 (0-4 3pt) on the game. He missed a lot of looks around the bucket that seemed to be half way down but that didn’t deter Beilein from going to the pick-and-roll down the stretch where Burke continued to make the smart plays. Burke hit his free throws, grabbed two steals and handed out three assists in a solid if unspectacular performance. One thing that the freshman guard needs to work on is getting the ball to his teammates in a slightly better position when he’s pushing the ball in transition – he has the habit of leading them into turnovers, especially Jordan Morgan.
- Evan Smotrycz: This was easily Smotrycz’s best game since December as he had a complete offensive performance: 13 points on 3-of-6 (2-3 3pt) shooting with three rebounds and two assists in 29 minutes. Smotrycz stepped up with Morgan riddled with foul trouble and changed the game. His style of defense is gambling but disruptive as he used his active hands to grab four steals. He battled at the five and despite being guilty on some of Tyler Griffey’s buckets, he was surprisingly solid defensively. At the end of the day he’s an offensive player and his scoring adds another dimension to the Michigan attack. The Illini bigs just couldn’t defend him on the perimeter and was certainly the sort of game that he can build on going forward.
- Jordan Morgan: Morgan had been doing a better job of staying out of foul trouble lately but this was a regression. Morgan had four fouls in 12 minutes of playing time and most of them were of the frustrating variety that he needs to be smart enough not to commit. To his credit, he did have a huge offensive rebound and put-back in the second half.
- Matt Vogrich: Vogrich was a game changer, playing with energy on the defensive end and knocking down open shots offensively. He took a huge charge in the first half which was Meyers Leonard’s second foul, he scored off of a nice back cut, tied up Leonard in the second half and hit a pair of threes. Eight points, two rebounds and a steal rounds out to a big afternoon for the junior in 18 minutes of playing time.
- Blake McLimans: McLimans didn’t seem to be on the same page with Burke or Hardaway. He almost always pops after setting a screen and Burke and Hardaway both were looking for him on the roll. The lack of communication resulted in a turnover for Hardaway and some forced shots for Burke. McLimans has now failed to grab a rebound in his last 27 minutes of action over the last seven games.