Big Ten Tournament: Michigan vs. Illinois Recap

Dylan Burkhardt
on

This space almost universally focuses on basketball minutiae and the statistical nitty-gritty of a given Michigan game, but stats and analysis never felt less relevant than on Thursday afternoon in the Verizon Center, watching warmups and listening to stories about Michigan’s airplane evacuation that occurred less than 24 hours earlier.

But for a Michigan team that had been on an emotional rollercoaster over the last day, there was nothing better than a basketball game to return to normal. Michigan showed up at the Verizon Center at 10:40 a.m. for their scheduled noon tip-off and was ready to play, even if it didn’t have game uniforms.

If Illinois expected a worn out Michigan team due to the travel issues, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The Wolverines quickly jumped out to a 14-4 lead and never looked back. They’ve started to make a habit of decisive blowouts and this 75-55 win was no different.

In his post-game comments, John Beilein marveled at Michigan’s execution when evacuating the jet before joking that “if our kids could execute like that all the time, we’d never lose a game.” A few questions later, he was asked about his team’s hot start and praised how connected his team was on the floor, even without their standard routine.

He might not have realized it at the time, but the team that got itself off an airplane on Wednesday and beat Illinois on Thursday are the same team, and they continue to play some of the best basketball in the Big Ten.

Michigan’s defense has been good over the last month and change, but it was great on Thursday afternoon. The Wolverines held Illinois to just .89 points per possession and their aggressiveness in the passing lanes forced 14 turnovers. Really the only complaint about Michigan’s defense was that it just couldn’t keep Tracy Abrams out of the paint. He scored 23 points on 13 shots while his teammates managed just 32 points on 35 shot attempts.

Michigan didn’t just force turnovers on 22% of Illinois’ possessions, it also rebounded 85.2% of the Illinois’ missed shots on the night. Nothing leads to transition offense better than clean rebounds and live ball turnovers and the Wolverines outscored the Illini 12-0 in that department. Michigan has one of the best halfcourt offenses in the country and teams that give up double-digit, basically free, points in transition make it almost impossible to stop down this group.

The Wolverines shot 68% on twos for the afternoon and put the ‘white collar’ comment to bed once and for all as they outscored Illinois 30-24 in the paint — the starting big men for the Illini combined for 4 points and 7 rebounds — and 6-2 on second chance opportunities. The threes were falling early and late, but Michigan’s 9-of-25 (36%) perimeter shooting was otherwise fairly pedestrian.

In the halfcourt, Illinois tried to defend the Wolverines by switching every ball screen and we’re reaching the point where it might be time for opposing coaches to try something new. Beilein noted after the game that they’ve seen this consistently over the last few games and that it really simplifies the game. The Wolverines look for situations to attack — what Beilein calls leverage — and just ‘play ball’ or attack mismatches one-on-one. It’s becoming very clear that asking your big man to try to defend Derrick Walton on the perimeter without any help isn’t a winning strategy.

The Wolverines are playing their best basketball of the season and there’s no better time to do it. I would have felt pretty comfortable putting a ceiling on Michigan’s postseason hopes 6 weeks ago, but right now I have no idea what to expect over the next few weeks. When this group plays with this much confidence, intensity and focus on both ends of the floor, who can’t they beat?

Next up is a rematch with Purdue. By the efficiency margin stats, this will be a battle of the Big Ten’s two best teams that just happens to be played in a Friday afternoon quarterfinal. Michigan won the battle of the mismatches in the first meeting, but repeating that performance in a back-to-back on a neutral floor will be difficult against a well-rested Purdue team.

Player Bullets:

  • Derrick Walton: Walton received stitches on Wednesday afternoon, but continued dominating the Big Ten on Thursday. 19 points on 7-of-14 (4-10 3pt) shooting with 5 assists and 4 rebounds is just another day at the office for Walton, who also iced the game away with back-to-back dagger threes in the final minutes. He’s just so locked in right now whether it’s throwing 50-foot transition passes on a rope, finishing transition layups through contact, burying stepback threes or anything else. He’s running the show and it’s hard not to just sit back and let him play his game.
  • Zak Irvin: Is Zak Irvin’s slump over? He hit tough shot after tough shot against Illinois and finished with 18 points on 8-of-14 (2-6 3pt) shooting. He’s played three good games in a row and Michigan’s ceiling when Irvin is making jumpshots goes through the roof. I’m not sure that you can count on him to produce with the perimeter jumper, but he looks so much more confident than he did just a couple weeks back.
  • DJ WilsonWilson had a solid 11 point, 6 rebound performance reaching double figures and grabbing more than 2 rebounds in a game for the first time in 3 games. His offense was nothing fancy, mostly finishes around the rim and a late three, but he made more energy plays than he has in recent weeks and that’s critical.
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-RahkmanAbdur-Rahkman is a forgotten benefactor to the ‘switching screens’ defensive approach. He’s Michigan’s best downhill driver and Michigan seems to be drawing up more action for him to attack. He had 17 points on 7-of-13 (2-4 3pt) shooting and 3 assists in 35 minutes and he’s been really aggressive getting out in transition where Walton is finding him with comfort.
  • Moritz WagnerWagner never really got on track offensively, finishing just 3-of-8 from the floor and missing all three long range efforts. While the switching has opened the game up for Michigan’s guards, it has done a better job of limiting Wagner’s production. He’s best when he can attack a bigger guy from the perimeter rather than taking a guard inside, although the Wolverines did find him on one switch today.
  • Duncan Robinson: Robinson wasn’t credited with a three-point attempt today for the first time in his career and he did knock in a mid-range jumper (h/t).
  • Xavier SimpsonSimpson scored 2 points on a pair of free throws and had an otherwise quiet night, but his perimeter defense off the bench midway through a half really helps set the tone and control the game.
  • Mark DonnalDonnal was the hero for getting the emergency exit on the plane on Wednesday, but had a quiet game. It was interesting that Beilein went with Wilson at the five for a brief stint in the second half when Illinois played Finke at that spot, and I wonder if that could be a wrinkle we see more of down the stretch.
  • Bird

    You have to keep wearing the practice uniforms, right?

    • Mostly because they don’t have the normal uniforms and don’t think they’ll get them any time soon.

      • Champswest

        Shepard said post game that he thinks the uniforms are still on the plane.

        • Yep. That’s what John said as well. They don’t have any idea when stuff will get off the plane.

          • ChipperFliet

            I imagine Nike/Jumpman may have something to say about that (weather they cont to wear practice jerseys).

  • malcolm bolt

    I’m proud of the squad for being resilient and showing great character through all the adversities this season. I will man up and admit I have been critical at times of the coaching and the players, but this group has really become admirable and inspirational through good and bad. When representing an institution like Michigan, standards are high and should be high.

    An effort like today really is inspirational to many average everyday people that would feel down on themselves seeking sympathy because of a setback, regardless of winning or losing today. This group is exemplifying the quality of Leaders and Best.

    Go Blue!

  • bobohle

    I feel very confident that today’s play was not adrenelin only and this run has better than 50% continuing as Derrick and Zak now have played back to back great games on both sides of the ball in the same game.

  • Nick

    Re: Wilson at the 5. Against Nebraska, Michigan went X, Walton, and MAAR on the floor for a brief time. Could Beilein be preparing a X – Walton – MAAR – IRVIN – WILSON death lineup?!

  • rlcBlue

    Happy to see the post double working so well today. In my mind, that’s the key to the Purdue game – who wins the post mismatch battle. If we can just slow down Swanigan and Haas without allowing a barrage of open threes, then Wagner and Wilson’s offensive versatility will flatten the steam engine fabricators.

  • ChathaM

    It’s stunning that less than 24 hours after a plane crash, and staying home and forfeiting this game being presented as an option, this team comes out and runs a desperate Illinois out of the gym. I’m about the least emotional person I know, but I had chills during the first part of the game, especially watching how connected the defence was. I was also a little emotional listening to Beilein’s halftime and post-game interviews. No tears, but pretty darn close. All of that was before I even realized the severity of yesterday’s situation (thanks for linking that Mlive article, Dylan). Any of us would have given the team a pass had it come out slow and disjointed today. But, they came out the exact opposite of slow and disjointed, and played the way we’d all have expected them to play in a normal situation. It’s all so impressive, and I’ve never been more proud to be a Michigan basketball fan. We are going to give teams fits the rest of the way, as we’re always tough to guard. But when we guard the way we did today, we can beat anyone. Top seeds might beat us, but they definitely won’t want to play us.

    I thought this was DJ’s best game in a while. He was always involved on the boards, which isn’t always the case with him.

    I did get a laugh out of the practice uniforms. They’re actually awesome practice uniforms. But, seeing them took me back to coaching my son’s club teams when he was little. You’d show up to a tournament, and see that your opponents were wearing weird looking uniforms that may or may not stay tucked in, and one of the kids was wearing pink shoes. Anytime I saw that, I immediately knew we were either going to win by 30 or lose by 30.

  • Champswest

    Listening on radio, the announcer credited Wilson with an early block.

  • JosephG

    MAR was sensational! I think he will be the X factor in continued success !

  • Jon Sohn

    Love the focus today

  • Foul_Trouble

    I read Derrick Walton’s quote a little bit ago, and would like to file a formal appreciation. Zak Irvin, you played a heck of a game today!