For most of the season, Michigan has played nearly perfect basketball. Not just winning, but looking good while doing so. In running out to an 18-1 record, the Wolverines were not only multiple games ahead of the field in a deep and talented Big Ten, but they were also being mentioned in the same category as Gonzaga and Baylor, two teams that have set themselves apart from the rest of the country this season.
Sure, there was a blemish on Michigan’s record, an 18-point loss to now-struggling Minnesota, but that loss could be partially explained as a revenge game for the Golden Gophers, who had been embarrassed by the Wolverines ten days earlier. And even in defeat, Michigan was able to take something out of its loss, adjusting to how it responded when freshman center Hunter Dickinson was double-teamed in the paint.
As the season progressed, it seemed whatever challenge Michigan faced, it not only responded, but responded extremely well. A trip to Wisconsin coming off a three-week pause? No problem. Facing two top ten teams (Ohio State and Iowa) in five days? No problem. Michigan even successfully negotiated a potential trap game against Indiana prior to Tuesday’s clash against Illinois, defeating the Hoosiers by 16 points. The season was turning into quite a joyride.
That joyride ended with a thud Tuesday when Illinois came to Ann Arbor and humbled the Wolverines. Even without leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu, the Illini overwhelmed the Wolverines in a 23-point victory that was more lopsided than the 76-53 final score would indicate. The game ended Michigan’s seven-game winning streak and kept Illinois’s title hopes, however faint, alive. But did it represent more than that?
Illinois showed up ready to play and Michigan didn’t. Michigan’s players conceded as much after the game. But that in itself is no reason for panic. Every team has its off nights. The same Illinois team that made Michigan look so feeble, for example, lost four games in a nine-game stretch earlier this year.
Michigan was also coming off a tough stretch of games and was two days away from what promises to be an emotional, end-of-season, home-and home series against rival Michigan State. An opportunity to clinch the big ten regular season championship or not, it’s understandable how Michigan could have looked past the undermanned Illini. Illinois, for its part, was still seething over its recent loss to Michigan State and rallied around its fallen star.
So was Tuesday’s performance by Michigan simply an off game against a talented and hungry team? Or did Illinois provide the blueprint on how to defend - and defeat - the Wolverines?
Illinois’s strategy was essentially to single-cover Dickinson and aggressively defend the perimeter. The Illini contested the three-point line, cut off passing lanes, and all-but-dared the Wolverines to drive to the hoop. The result? Illinois neutralized Dickenson inside and prevented Michigan from doing just about everything outside. It wasn’t that Michigan didn’t shoot well (although it didn’t, connecting on just 35% of its shots and hitting just two three-pointers), it was that Michigan didn’t even run its offense. At least not to the level it’s run its offense most of the season.
Throughout the season, Michigan has moved the ball on offense as well as any team in the country. The Wolverines don’t just make the extra pass, they often make the extra passes, leading an abundance of open looks. Against Illinois, there was little of that. Instead, Michigan’s offense was largely reduced to a lot of standing around and one-on-one play. And unsuccessful one-on-one play, at that.
Michigan had no answers defensively, either. It would be easy to say that Illinois rode center Kofi Cockburn to victory, and the seven-footer certainly played well, neutralizing Hunter on one end and tallying 14 points on the other, but it was the Illini guards and wings that proved to be the biggest problem for Michigan. Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo, in particular, befuddled the Wolverines, scoring 22 and 17 points, respectively. But it wasn’t just Frazier and Curbelo. Michigan’s defenders seemed incapable of staying in front of their Illinois counterparts, as a parade of Illini found their way to the basket all night. And when Illinois settled for jumpers? The results weren’t much different, as the Illini shot 46% from deep.
In the end, Illinois’s combination of size, speed, athleticism and intensity confounded the Wolverines. Granted, few teams possess the kind of talent that Illinois does. The list of teams with NBA-ready centers and supporting casts the likes of Frazier, Curbelo, Adam Miller and Da’Monte Williams isn’t a long one, but how concerned should Michigan be heading into the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments?
Was Tuesday’s loss just a one-off? Or did Illinois provide the blueprint on how to defeat the Wolverines? With a desperate Spartan squad waiting in the wings, we’re about to find out.