Michigan’s game at Illinois on Tuesday night was supposed to be a defensive struggle. It turned out to be a victory lap.
Facing an Illinois defense that had held its last four opponents under 50 points, Michigan was unfazed. The same Michigan team that been outscored by 61 points in the first 10 minutes of its last six games, wasted no time taking control. The Wolverines scored 52 points in the first half and it took Illinois all 40 minutes to match Michigan’s first half total.
In a season that’s been defined by close victories, Michigan flipped the script in its biggest moment yet. The Wolverines led by as many as 33 points and left no doubt in an 84-53 victory. The 31 point margin marked Illinois’ worst loss in Assembly Hall (now the State Farm Center) history.
Michigan is the class of the conference and Nik Stauskas is the league’s best player. Stauskas could barely miss, connecting on 8-of-11 shots – including a career high seven threes – and finishing with 24 points in 31 minutes.
For the first time since 1986, Michigan will sit alone at the top of the final Big Ten standings.
Michigan has played stretches of dominant offensive basketball this season. The Wolverines are the third most efficient offensive team in the country and obviously have the ability to score points in a hurry, but their performance in the first half was something special.
The Wolverines scored 52 points in 30 first half possessions, an incredible 1.73 points per possession. Michigan’s offense cooled off a bit in the second half, but the damage was done. The Wolverines scored 1.33 points per trip for their game and never cooled off from three-point range.
Michigan was only 13-of-28 on two-point attempts, slightly below its season average, but was an incredible 16-of-23 threes – good enough for a 72.5 effective field goal percentage. This was Michigan’s best shooting effort in a Big Ten game since January 18th, 2006 against Northwestern.
The Illini defense features an over-aggressive approach, heavy on trapping, reaching and going for steals. While that might work against some teams, it doesn’t work against Michigan. Time and again the Wolverines maintained composure, made the extra pass and knocked down wide open shots. The ball movement was clinical. In the end, all eight rotation players notched at least one assist and just over half of Michigan’s makes were assisted. The Wolverines only gave the ball away on 16% of their possessions with many of the turnovers occurring late in the second half when the game had devolved into glorified pick-up ball.
Illinois managed just .84 points per possession, which is tied for Michigan’s second-best defensive performance of the Big Ten season. It’s up for debate how much of that was due to Illinois’ offensive futility and how much of it was due to Michigan’s improved defense. I thought Michigan played well defensively overall, but it’s easy to guard a team that shoots 11% from 3-point range. The key to the Wolverines’ defensive success was defensive rebounding and they grabbed an impressive 85% of Illinois’ missed shots.
John Beilein can do no wrong. Two years ago he shared the Big Ten Championship, then he went to the Final Four, and now he’s added an outright Big Ten Championship to the mix.
Just over three months ago, Michigan was 6-4 on the season after a disappointing home loss to Arizona. Mitch McGary would be indefinitely sidelined a week later. At that point, no one could have predicted this sort of success. But somehow a Michigan team that lost Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mitch McGary clinched the Big Ten Championship. If John Beilein isn’t the coach of the year in the Big Ten, I don’t know who is.
- Nik Stauskas: Stauskas was locked in. He hit deep threes, contested threes and open threes. He finished with 24 points on 11 shots and a 105% effective field goal percentage. He knows the Big Ten Player of the Year is up for grabs and he’s doing everything within his power to win it. This was one of those special performances where all you can do is laugh, sit back and enjoy it.
- Derrick Walton: Walton has had to watch the ending of the last two games from the bench, but he played very well in Champaign on Tuesday night. I thought Walton set the tone early before Michigan caught fire. He had a team high five assists (and no turnovers) and grabbed two key early offensive rebounds. Walton has to be one of the best 6-foot rebounding guards around, finishing with seven rebounds tonight. His ability to rebound the ball and go is a nice luxury now, but later in his career it will be a feature of Michigan’s offense.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert got into foul trouble, picking up two quick ones in the first half and then another early in the second. But he still made some plays offensively (who didn’t?), including a couple nice dribble drives and 2-of-3 3-point shooting for an efficient 15 points in 26 minutes. On the negative side of the ledger, he was a bit loose with the ball (2 turnovers) and still struggled to knock down that mid-range jumper.
- Glenn Robinson III: This was another step in the right direction for Robinson, who finished with 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting (1-3 3-point) with five rebounds. Robinson had a pair of strong drives and controlled finishes; he finally made another three, his first since the road win at Ohio State; and he had a steal and run out with a ridiculous dunk in transition. Robinson also connected with Morgan on a ball screen, adding a little wrinkle to his game. Overall, a solid day of work and his fifth straight double digit scoring performance.
- Jon Horford: Horford got a lot of extra playing time with Morgan’s injury (28 minutes) and I thought he played pretty well. He still has his quirks but he grabbed 10 rebounds and passed the ball well. His two points came on a late dunk, but he could have been a bit more decisive finishing around the rim.
- Zak Irvin: If Irvin is in the game, he’s going to fire away. Irvin scored 9 points on 3-of-6 shooting in 22 minutes. His shot is funky, but you can’t argue about the results right now. I thought Irvin started to bit a bit more aggressive with the bounce, but he got caught a couple times with two turnovers.
- Jordan Morgan: Morgan is going to hate Champaign, Ill. for a long time. He went down early in the game taking a charge and bruised his tailbone, sitting out the rest of the game. Morgan’s 67% field goal percentage is bolstered by a lot of easy looks, but he hit a really nice bank shot off of a ball screen pass from Robinson.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht was tagged with two turnovers and damaged his ridiculous 10:1 assist to turnover ratio in Big Ten games. He made up for it with some hot shooting, knocking down both of his three point attempts.
- Max Bielfeldt: Max got a bit of time but was whistled for two fouls in five minutes.