There are five major conference teams in the country with a younger rotation than Michigan. Those five teams have combined to lose over twice as many games as the Wolverines have won this season – or 46 times as many games as they’ve lost.
Those young Wolverines continued to look poised beyond their years in Champaign, Illinois on Sunday evening in the face of adversity. Michigan lost Jordan Morgan, its starting big man and oldest rotational player, to a sprained ankle just two minutes after the jump ball but showed no signs of panic. Instead the Wolverines took the loss in stride, weathering a hot Illinois shooting start to build a first half lead and carry it to a comfortable 14 point victory.
Michigan leaned on its bench, looking to Mitch McGary, Max Bielfeldt and Jon Horford to anchor the middle. That’s a true freshman, red-shirt freshman and oft-injured big man with 10 minutes of playing time since dislocating his knee cap in mid-December if you happen to be keeping score. The trio was up to the challenge, finishing with a combined 17 points and 14 rebounds in relief duty.
Michigan’s bench heroes had plenty of help as its other stars were up to the task. Trey Burke added 19 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals while Nik Stauskas (14), Tim Hardaway Jr. (12) and Glenn Robinson III (12) all reached double figures with a combined 70 percent effective field goal percentage.
The 14 point win was routine by any measure and means Michigan is on the verge of securing its first No. 1 ranking in two decades – when four of those young Wolverines weren’t even born.
This wasn’t close to being one of Michigan’s better offensive performances this season, but for an average night it wasn’t bad at all. The Wolverines scored 1.14 points per possession in an offensive effort that was fueled in the paint and in transition. Michigan scored 42 points in the paint and 10 points on the fast break. The Wolverines made 53 percent of their twos and a third of their threes for a 57 percent effective field goal shooting percentage. We’ve entered an era of Michigan basketball where the Wolverines can attempt just 25 percent of their field goals from three point range and it doesn’t even seem out of the ordinary. Michigan continued to be aggressive on the offensive glass as well, rebounding 38 of its misses for 12 second chance points. This offense has played one bad game in 20 tries and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down nearing the midway point in conference play.
For the sixth time in seven Big Ten games, Michigan’s defense held its opposition below the one point per possession threshold. The Illini were able to run and gun with Michigan for about 15 minutes but eventually the three point well dried up and the Illinois offense couldn’t produce. The Illini hit five of their first 14 three point attempts but connected on just one of their final 13 attempts. Michigan’s defensive rebounding was underwhelming, surrendering offensive rebounds on 43 percent of Illinois’ missed shots leading to 20 second chance points. Michigan was able to force turnovers on nearly a quarter of Illini possessions and turned those turnovers into 22 points. Michigan also held Illinois to subpar two and three point shooting numbers: 47% and 24% for a 43% effective field goal percentage.
Michigan’s supporting big men played well in Jordan Morgan’s absence but losing Morgan for any extended stretch could still be a tough loss. (Beilein’s report is that the ankle is sprained and Morgan couldn’t put weight on it.) Morgan is the most consistent interior defender and rebounder on the roster and the best option to deal with opposing big men that run the floor extremely well – such as Cody Zeller next weekend. Michigan’s backups are able but unproven and there’s certain be ups and downs along the way if Morgan’s injury proves severe.
Number one in the country or not, this win ties Michigan at the top of the Big Ten standings with Indiana. It’s also the best start in Michigan’s program history. If both teams hold serve this week – Michigan against Northwestern and Indiana at Purdue – the showdown in Bloomington on Saturday night will be special to say the least.
- Trey Burke: Even when he’s struggling, Burke is still cold blooded. He closed the first half by scoring seven of Michigan’s final 10 points, assisting the other triple. Does he fall in love with the step back jumper too often? The shot chart says yes (CBS):
- The step back jumper is a shot that Burke can make – and he has an incredible ability to create space – but in an optimal world he’s shooting close threes instead of long twos or longer threes. Early possessions triggered flashbacks of Burke’s dismal NCAA tournament performance as Illinois switched every pick and roll, daring Burke to shoot over a bigger and slower defender. He obliged early but Michigan adjusted and Burke did a much better job finding the roll man against a smaller defender and moving the ball as the game progressed.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: Hardaway is as dialed in as he’s ever been in his career. He’s shooting his threes quickly and confidently off the catch (2-of-4 tonight) and he continues to attack the basket including a handful of beautiful finger rolls in transition. Throw in a couple great passes in the second half and it’s clear that he’s playing the best offensive basketball of his life. His shooting splits in six Big Ten games tell the story: 53% on twos and 52% on threes. Forget about the offensive end of the floor, Hardaway’s transformation on defense is even more dramatic. It’s Hardaway that the Michigan coaches trust to chase Brandon Paul around the perimeter and he’s doing a damn good job of it as Paul was just 5-of-12 and turned the ball over five times tonight.
- Nik Stauskas: Stauskas isn’t a shooter: he’s a complete offensive player. When he shoots threes, the whole gym expects them to find the net but the joy is in watching him make great offensive plays. He hit two threes on the night but let’s talk about his two hand dunk off of a back cut, multiple strong takes to the rim and pair of assist. We’ve discussed his pick and roll ability, but lately he’s been slicing teams up with the side curl. He’s comfortable doing almost everything out of that set.
- Glenn Robinson III: It’s just a pleasure to watch Robinson play as he makes the game look effortless. The freshman finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and two assists in 38 minutes. The box score doesn’t credit him for his highlight block (potentially a goaltend?) but his offensive production was as opportunistic as ever with a number of cuts, offensive rebounds and even a strong drive with a more impressive finish. His basketball IQ is off the charts and his raw ability allows him to finish in essentially every scenario.
- Jon Horford: This was a massive, and unexpected, performance from Horford off of the bench as he scored seven points and grabbed three rebounds in 17 minutes of action. He made a few mistakes but for a guy that has barely played, he was impressive offensively – 3-of-3 with a nice move – or defensively.
- Mitch McGary: McGary grabbed seven rebounds (3 offensive) but struggled more on the defensive glass than he has all season. Several times he seemed to be out of position, allowing an Illinois offensive board and put back. The energy was still there and McGary does a better job than any of Michigan’s bigs at sealing defenders on the block, either to receive the ball or just clear the lane for a driving Michigan player. If Morgan is out for an extended time, McGary is going to have to learn how to avoid fouls, picking up four in just 16 minutes.
- Max Bielfeldt: Bielfeldt’s introduction to Assembly Hall was brutal: an airballed free throw followed by a long brick at the stripe. Having to step to the free throw line on the very next possession, as Bielfeldt did, is an extremely mental test. Bielfeldt passed with flying colors, making both free throws to start a Michigan run and adding a steal, layup and a couple of rebounds in six minutes.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert had a quiet night, failing to score and handing out an assist but there are so many weapons around him that Michigan can live with a quiet night off the bench.
- Spike Albrecht: Similar to LeVert, Albrecht was rarely involved and failed to record a statistic in just four minutes.