Michigan must maintain focus against streaking Illini

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Michigan vs Minnesota_5With its 66-56 defeat of Minnesota on Saturday night, Michigan secured itself a share of the Big Ten title with two games remaining on the regular-season schedule. But the Wolverines know there is still work to be done. (Photo: Scott Mapes)

If Michigan wants to win its first outright Big Ten title since 1986 — judging by the players’ muted response to winning a share on Saturday, that appears to be the case — the Wolverines must maintain the same level of focus they’ve held all season.

“I think they’ve been pretty focused no matter what,” Michigan coach John Beilein said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “Last week was a rough week, and with the exception of those first 10 minutes against Purdue, we were pretty focused all week after a great game against Michigan State. We’re young, but I think we’re pretty mature in what it takes to win. I think that’s pretty important. We have a maturity above our years maybe and that’s really important to winning.”

It will be especially important to winning Michigan’s next game, on the road against an Illinois team that is making a late-season push toward relevancy. The Illini have had a disappointing season, but are closing out strong with three straight wins in Big Ten play. Illinois beat Minnesota on the road, Nebraska at home and Michigan State on the road heading into its home matchup with the Wolverines.

It’s probably not a net positive for Michigan that Illinois now appears to be playing its best basketball. But the fact that the Illini are rapidly legitimizing themselves at the end of this season may aid in keeping the Wolverines focused on what is sure to be a tough road test.

“At this time of the year, keeping teams focused is hard no matter what is at odds,” Beilein said. “The fact that they have just won three in a row is — you don’t want them to be playing at their best, obviously, but they are. You go in there and you have to go up and beat a good team.”

There is one over-arching factor to Illinois’ success at this late stage of the season: defense. The Illini are ranked 14th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and third in the Big Ten in that category. Lately, the key to this success has been forcing turnovers — in its past three games, Illinois has forced turnovers on over 25% of its opponents’ possessions.

After Saturday’s game against the Gophers, Beilein stressed that he didn’t like a few of his team’s turnovers on the fast break. However, the coach said Illinois is forcing more turnovers out of the half court than in transition.

“They’re not getting as many turnovers (on the fast break) — they’re getting them in your half-court offense,” Beilein said. “They’re getting in passing lanes, they also have a great shot-blocker, (Nnanna Egwu) second-best in the league besides Hammons. They’re also really good at getting in the gap, gap-snatching, when you’re dribbling the ball down the alleys they’ll get their hands on it.”

Beilein stressed the impact of Rayvonte Rice, a redshirt junior transfer from Drake. Rice has been especially adept at forcing steals, averaging about three steals per game over the past five contests for the Illini.

“That’s unheard of,” Beilein said if Rice’s steal numbers. “Three steals a game is like Rajon Rondo category when he was at Kentucky. It’s a terrific number to get.”

There’s no doubt about it — Michigan will have its hands full heading to Champaign. Illinois is one of those Big Ten teams near the bottom of the pile that still retains the ability to knock off a supposed upper-tier program. It’s what makes this year’s conference season so unique: there aren’t as many teams at the very top, but every team down through last place has at least five wins.

The Wolverines will have to draw on that maturity Beilein mentioned earlier. Despite having already achieved (for the most part) their stated goal for the regular season, they will have to finish strong in the final two games of the conference season to make an outright Big Ten title a reality. Beilein said the type of maturity he sees in his team is unique to the “winning teams.”

“You see that they just get it. They don’t get too high, they don’t get too low, they just sort of play. And I think that we try to — and I’m not the greatest at it — we try to treasure every successful moment and do as much as we can. At the same time, we don’t like losing. And I think we’re all on board with doing whatever we can to get better through adversity.”

Notes: Michigan redshirt junior Jon Horford confirmed to reporters today that he will be returning to the team to complete his fifth year. The Grand Ledge native responded to questions about whether or not he’ll be back with “Yeah, yeah,” adding, “No senior night for me.”

Horford is graduating this semester and could seek instant eligibility as a graduate transfer. He received a medical redshirt after missing most of his sophomore season due to a knee injury.

  • jakelam2116

    Great to get the confirmation on Horford returning.

    • kam

      Jon will be even better IMO next year now that he’s had a full year of playing. He will be a solid player.

      • Wayman Britt

        Yeah I agree. I hope he works on his post moves over the summer. The team could use him getting 2 or 3 buckets a game with one-on-one moves.

        • ChathaM

          He’s shown the ability to post, and to hit a fadeaway jumper in the lane. I don’t know that this will ever be a real part of the Michigan offence, but he can certainly do it.

          • Yep. When he gets the ball one-on-one in the post, he’s been pretty damn good this year.

          • guestavo

            Does anyone know if he is playing on the Dominican national team w/ his bro in this years Fiba World Cup?

      • Mattski

        My fantasies that he could become a dominant player have diminished. But the news that he’s coming back still seems pretty big to me. In addition to his contributions on the floor, he’s a true team leader, with a nice calming effect on the younger players.

    • Mark Worthley

      It’s asuch a great deal for the real student athletes to be able to get an undergraduate degree and at least begin a post-graduate program.

  • crh

    Let’s take this one game at a time, but assuming our team can win against Illinois, what do you think will be our perspective at home against Indiana? With the outright reg season title wrapped up:

    1) Of course a tribute to the lone senior Jordan Morgan is necessary. He’ll obviously start and he needs to be the focal point of that game, esp if we are already crowned with the title.

    2) What about also the walk-ons and the rarely used players getting starts and lots of playing time? It’s not a game we have to win. It would be a neat gesture for Coach B to let the lesser known players like Bielfeld and Dakich get a taste of the big lights and also for us to see what they can do in that situation. Why dont we let them start and play most of the game. Let the key players get some rest before the 2 tourneys and let Beilein evaluate what he’s got to improve for next year. The best part is that a taste of stardom for these players and what it will motivate them to look forward to next year, and the push for off season improvements. Im sure the key players will also like the day off, sitting on the bench rooting for the guys that push them in practice!

    Or do you think we’ll just play it like its a normal game…?

    When was the last time Michigan or Beilein has been in that position??? AWESOME to have questions like this rather than whether or not we can make the NIT…

    • CZGuy99

      I think you play it like a regular game for the sake of continuity. You don’t want a break in concentration at this point. And you never miss an opportunity to beat Indiana, and punish Crean. Maybe his head will explode.

    • gobluemd16

      You play the starters/normal rotation for both games. The game still has big implications for NCAA Tournament seeding, a loss at home to Indiana wouldn’t look good and could potentially play a role in moving between the 3 and 4 seeds. Maybe play Nik, Glenn, Caris a few less minutes, but do you think MSU/Wisco/Iowa would bench their players just because they are locked into the 2, 3, 4, or whatever seed in the BTT. Add Purdue or Penn State for that matter, who won’t make a postseason tourney, they aren’t just going to play walk-ons and rarely used players. Also, I want to beat the crap out of Crean! They’ve won all 3 games against us the last two seasons, there is nothing more I want to see than crushing him at home on JMo’s senior night.

      • Dr_ZC

        Amen. I will never forget last years defeat in Bloomington, where with the game out of reach and 3 sec on the clock Oladipo drove for the windmill dunk on us. Same thing happened this year. I am willing to bet that Crean has given the green light to his players to rub salt into our wounds, unlike JB who is a class act. Like I always say, revenge is a dish which is served cold.

  • Mattski

    This not getting too high or too low theme is a strong recent them. Horford mentioned it when asked about his philosophy in a recent article, and LeVert also mentioned that it was one of his father’s themes.