Michigan escapes Illinois, but defensive concerns linger

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Michigan 64, Illinois 63-11INDIANAPOLIS — If you were watching Michigan’s 64-63 victory over Illinois on TV, it would have been easy to feel convinced that the Illini offensive possessions were a recording of a single possession, played over and over again.

I wasn’t watching on TV — I was at the Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis for the second day of the Big Ten Tournament on Friday. Thus, I knew for a fact that every Illinois possession was live, despite their repetitive uniformity. The Illini held a game-long party at the rim, shooting 36 two-pointers, hitting on over 52 percent of them, and scoring 32 points in the paint.

The Wolverines were completely unable to stay in front of Illinois on the perimeter. Joseph Bertrand was especially effective getting to the rim in the first half, while Rayvonte Rice got to the bucket at will in the second. In the context of Michigan’s season to date, Illinois’ 1.12 points per possession didn’t constitute a particularly poor defensive effort — opponents average 1.07 points per trip against the Wolverines. But in the context of Illinois’ season, 1.12 points per possession is tied for its second-best offensive performance in Big Ten play.

It wasn’t so much how much Illinois scored, but the way in which the Illini got their points. Illinois made it clear they were going to drive right at the Wolverines all game, and Michigan was unable to stop them. The really disturbing thing about this is that it’s becoming a trend outside of just Friday afternoon’s game.

“Everyone’s been doing the same thing against us lately — they’re just taking advantage of the rules,” Michigan coach John Beilein said in the locker room after the game. “Indiana did the same thing. They just drive it right at you. Our big men are in there trying to take charges and they get in foul trouble doing that. We’ve got to do a better job of guarding our yard. It’s something we work on like crazy. We didn’t do a very good job with it today.”

Michigan’s defense has not been good this season. This is something every Michigan fan knows. But in this game, the defensive shortcomings were thrust into the spotlight. There are two reasons for this: one, the intentionality of Illinois’ offensive strategy; two, Michigan’s offense was completely stopped in the final 10 minutes of the second half. Since Michigan couldn’t get stops, Illinois came back and almost stole the game.

So was Michigan’s defense any worse than it usually is? Not really. The Wolverines’ inability to guard was just more obvious because the failings occurred mostly in one-on-one situations and the final stretch of the game saw their offense completely stymied.

Illinois ran a trapping 2-3 zone for much of the game, but it was especially effective in the final quarter. In the final 11:16 of the game, Michigan had three field goals — one being the game-winner from Jordan Morgan. That sort of ineptitude is unheard of for a Wolverine offense that has been close to unstoppable in the past five games.

After the game, Glenn Robinson III noted that part of the reason Michigan couldn’t score was simply because it wasn’t hitting shots it normally knocks down.

“They were playing like a 2‑3 zone and it was really high, so they know we have a lot of shooters on our team, so they were kind of taking that away,” Robinson said. “We tried to hit the middle, and once we did that we got a lot of open looks, but we weren’t hitting jump shots today like we normally do.”

This is a good point. After hitting six of their 13 3-point attempts in the first half, the Wolverines made only 4-of-17 attempts in the second. Usually-dead-eye shooter Nik Stauskas shot an abysmal 2-for-10 from beyond the arc, 0-for-6 in the second half. Other than an uncharacteristically sloppy turnover from Spike Albrecht, Michigan’s struggles on offense in the final stretch of the game included 10 missed 3-pointers. The Wolverines even missed three triples in one possession, which would have been comical had the game not been so close.

Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan joked that the 3-point shooting certainly looked a bit different in this game as opposed to Michigan’s previous showdown against Illinois.

“If we could make 16 threes every time, it’d probably be a lot easier (laughs),” Jordan said in the locker room after the game. “But you’re not counting on that. This league is so tough that you’re expecting a one-possession game every night. And it’s been that way all year long. I don’t think the Big Ten tournament is going to be any different.”

Michigan was confronted with two issues on Friday — one a short-term mishap, the other a long-term worry. The offense is way too good to experience many more dry spells like the one that occurred during the second half of this game. The defense, however, will continue to be something the offense must cover for. Even Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone couldn’t stop the bleeding.

Nik Stauskas indicated that his team can still make strides on defense this year.

“I think we still have some strides to make defensively,” the sophomore said at the podium after the game. “I think that’s where we’re really going to be at our best once we start locking down defensively.”

It’s nice to hope, but probably unreasonable to expect that Michigan will all of a sudden become a decent defensive team come NCAA tournament time. Michigan fans can take solace in the knowledge that cold streaks like the one Michigan experienced on Friday are few and far between, and that expecting Michigan to outscore opponents is usually a safe bet. These worries were overshadowed and the results of Michigan’s shortcomings negated by a terrific pass from Nik Stauskas to Jordan Morgan off a high ball screen with seven seconds left.

And with that, Michigan moves on.

  • Richmond_Eric

    I did not see the game, however, if our opponent scores 63 total points, I like our chances to win the game.

  • Wayman Britt

    I didn’t get a chance to watch the game, how did Walton do defensively? We know people can drive past Nik, but were the Illini guards beating Walton?

    UM needs him to play good defense.

    • guestavo

      They were blowing past everybody.

  • Chezaroo

    “Locking down defensively?” That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard Nik say! We are what we are, and can lose to anybody if we have a poor shooting game. But we sure are a fun team to root for!

  • Dana

    Last I knew Florida was the only highly ranked offensive and defensive team and when you consider their schedule even that is a bit tainted. Michigan wins by scoring efficiently. Sure it would be great to be awesome on both sides but the expectation isn’t realistic. We win by being efficient.

    For example the highest scores against us we gave up 80+ three times, we won 2 of 3.

    Our 7 losses we haven’t scored more than 70 once.

    Even this game being discussed we had in hand and we stopped scoring. We keep scoring and it’s and it’s a comfortable win.

    You can root for them to become a great defensive team but it won’t happen. Your other option is to acknowledge how this team does win. Keep in mind this team is overachieving. And enjoy the ride #goblue

    • Josh

      That’s not really correct that Florida is the only “balanced” team. Arizona, Wichita St., Villanova, Louisville and even Kansas, Wisconsin and MSU are within the realm of “respectable” for both offense and defense efficiency. That said, this year, there are no dominant teams and the door is wide open for a less balanced team to win the whole thing – Duke and Creighton have similarly unbalanced efficiency numbers that skew towards the offense while VCU, SDSU, OSU are really unbalanced the other way.

      Long way of saying this year, of all recent years, I think Michigan can win 6 in a row despite its defense but if it does not, we can probably guess the reason why.

  • mirepoix

    Great article, Joe — gonna miss your voice on the site.

  • Chazer

    Great job Joe. I agree the D won’t improve much but the competition changes next week. This team will be a very difficult challenge for most others in the country….built for the final run!

    Go blue!

  • Erik

    The person who wrote that Michigan is overachieving is correct. I won’t explain my loyalties because it is a bit convoluted. Suffice as to say “Big Blue” is a favorite of mine, and I have really enjoyed watching this team battle.

    Is this team a lockdown defensive team? No. Can they make defensive plays to assist their offense? Yes, they do it all the time. Whenever gets their panties in a uproar over how good the defense is, I get a bit uncomfortable. Remember, you won’t win any game if you can’t put the ball in the hoop more than your opponent.

    Yes defense is important, but there is such a thing as situational defense. I think Michigan plays good situational defense.