Photos: Dustin Johnston
On the heels of arguably its most disappointing performance of the season, Michigan responded with a convincing road win at Illinois. The Wolverines rode monster performances from their stars – Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 25 points on seven shots and Trey Burke tallied 21 points on 13 attempts – and managed to fend off every Illini run. Michigan never trailed and prevailed down the stretch by converting at the charity stripe. The 72-61 victory was Michigan’s 22nd of the season and means that the Wolverines enter the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to hang their first Big Ten Championship banner since 1986.
The difference between winning and losing in the Big Ten is slim. This game was certainly a melodramatic exaggeration of that fact but the point remains. Illinois had chances to take the lead in the second half but every time the situation grew dicey, Michigan made the big shots that the Illini missed. Don’t make this win out to be more than what it was. The Wolverines beat a dysfunctional Illinois team exactly the way that they should. Road games in the Big Ten are never easy victories but if this group of Wolverines is serious about their goals and aspirations, they should be able to handle a rudderless Illinois squad on the road. Still, the performance should do wonders to right the ship, restoring confidence after Saturday’s home debacle.
It’s always nice to marvel about games that Michigan wins despite an underwhelming shooting performance but this game was a bit less complex. The Wolverines shot the ball extremely well, especially from the perimeter. Michigan actually made a higher percentage of its threes (9-of-19, 47%) than its twos (12-of-26, 46%) en route to a sizzling 56.7% effective field goal percentage. The Wolverines combined hot shooting with frequent, and productive (21-23 FT), trips to the charity stripe for 1.13 points per possession.
Uncharacteristically, Michigan lost the turnover battle to Illinois. The Wolverines coughed the ball up on a fifth of their possessions and the giveaways allowed Illinois to hang around in the game. Illinois, a team that usually struggles to value the basketball, gave the ball away on just 12.5% of its offensive possessions.
Other than forcing turnovers, Michigan’s defense was strong and held the Illini to just .95 points per trip. Similar to the offensive side of the ball, it came down to shooting. Illinois struggled shooting the ball inside (43%) and out (29%). Unlike the first meeting between these two teams, the Wolverines dominated the defensive glass. Michigan rebounded 80% of Illinois’ missed shots thanks to great defensive rebounding performances from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan.
Michigan’s blown opportunity on Saturday still hurts – the Wolverines would control their own destiny with that game in hand – but this week has provided a second life. Michigan will take the floor on Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center knowing that a chance to raise a banner in Crisler Center remains with a victory. The scenario is simple: beat Penn State and sit back and root for Ohio State to knock off Michigan State.
Big Ten Tournament scenarios are also solidifying. The Wolverines are locked into at least a three seed in Indianapolis but would clinch a No. 2 seed (regardless of what Ohio State does) with a win at Penn State.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: This was easily the best game of Hardaway’s season as he exploded for 25 points on just seven field goal attempts. The best part of Hardaway’s performance was that it was so much more than just hot shooting. He grabbed a career high 11 rebounds (all defensive) and was as aggressive on the glass as he’s been since Michigan’s exhibition game. He played defense, took good shots and attacked the basket (11 FTA to 7 FGA). Hardaway was as assertive, confident and aggressive as he’s been all season and, with the calendar turning to March, there’s not a better time for him to regain that swagger.
- Trey Burke: Burke has never had a shortage of swagger. He has an enviable, and rare, combination of sheer confidence and composure. His demeanor was on full display in the first half. He had 14 first half points, including a personal 8-0 run, and was instrumental for setting the tone early on. He scored the ball from all over the floor in the first – mid range jumpers, layups, a dunk in transition and from three point range – and let the game come to him in the second. He found shooters, attacked in spots and made 5-of-6 free throws. Regarded as more of a “scoring point guard” by most, Burke also broke Gary Grant’s freshman assist record at Michigan.
- Jordan Morgan: It’s no secret that Morgan’s toughness was challenged by pundits throughout his high school career. Three quarters into his sophomore season, the last thing anyone could question about Morgan’s game is toughness. He was aggressive, physical and productive in 20 minutes of playing time: scoring seven points (3-4 fga), grabbing seven rebounds and picking up a steal. He left the game with a shoulder stinger but made it back on the floor, obviously still in pain, and kept banging against Meyers Leonard.
- Zack Novak: Novak is in a pretty significant offensive rut. He was 1-of-7 for the game and has now made just six of his last 23 field goal attempts over the last three games. His only make in this one was a circus layup around the basket but he did make his fair share of “Novak plays”: a quiet four assists, five rebounds and a huge drawn charge with under three minutes to play.
- Stu Douglass: Douglass made Michigan’s first field goals in each half: both corner threes. He was 0-for-7 with just one assist during his other time on the floor. Despite the poor shooting game, Douglass continues to play great off-ball defense and Brandon Paul rarely scored with Douglass in his jersey.
- Evan Smotrycz: I wrote about Smotrycz’s high risk-high reward defensive style earlier this week and he cooperated by demonstrating the phenomenon with five fouls and two steals in 14 minutes. His defensive performance was underwhelming but he did hit a trailing three in transition which gave Michigan a first half boost.
- Colton Christian: With Morgan and Smotrycz sidelined with two first half fouls, Christian got the nod ahead of Blake McLimans. He proved that his coach made the right call with a basket off a backdoor cut, an offensive rebound and a block in seven minutes. Even his turnover was a close call around the bucket after slipping a screen and catching a nice feed from Hardaway. Michigan was outscored by one – essentially able to hold serve – with Christian on the floor despite the 6-foot-6 Michigan player guarding all 7-foot-1 of Meyers Leonard.
- Matt Vogrich: Vogrich played more minutes at the two than at the three with Douglass picking up a pair of early fouls and Hardaway playing so well. He wasn’t able to hit the mark on either of his two three point attempts