When Michigan's been on the road this year, the Wolverines have certainly played at a substandard level. Between falling behind early and never catching up (Indiana, Arkansas), hanging tough at first but fading (Virginia, Ohio State) and just getting beaten soundly for 40 minutes (Iowa somehow, Michigan State), Michigan's lost some tough ones away from Ann Arbor. Even the wins didn't come easy: Michigan escaped with two point win over Purdue and managed to beat Northwestern in overtime. Sure, they destroyed Nebraska, but they're terrible. Indeed, Michigan hadn't put together a complete, decisive road performance together against a decent* team until last night against Illinois in Champaign.
*For a given definition of the word, anyways. Despite their epic collapse, Illinois still has plenty of talent, including a 7'1" guy that will make a fortune in the NBA. I'd consider them, if not a "decent team" per se, at least a capable opponent, unlike Nebraska.
It's pretty safe to say that Michigan turned in their best road performance of the season against Illinois. The Wolverines got off to a good start against the Illini -- Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke scored seven and eight straight points respectively for Michigan in the first ten minutes -- and held on despite some pressure from Meyers Leonard in the second half. Michigan shot the ball exceptionally well in the first half (64.6 eFG%) and should have been ahead by more than eight at halftime, but the defense from Michigan was solid, limiting Leonard to 4 points and holding the Illini to .83 points per possession. Illinois went on a 9-2 run early in the second half to cut Michigan's lead to one at 40-39, and Leonard finally started to get touches and score the ball over Michigan's much shorter front line. Tim Hardaway then went on one of his torrid second half shooting performances (there hadn't been any this year, but they carried Michigan into the Tournament late in the season a year ago), connecting on three straight three point attempts, and spearheaded a 12-2 Michigan run that stretched the lead to 58-46 and effectively put the game away.
The biggest story from this game though: Tim Hardaway Jr. For the first time in months, Hardaway was aggressive, efficient, and confident for the entire game on the offensive end, and his statline reflects that: 25 points on 6-7 from the field (4-4 from three!) and 9-10 from the free throw line. When Hardaway stepped back at the top of the key for a seemingly ill-advised heat check early on in the game, I thought "here we go again." That shot, and almost all of his other shots, went in last night and he finished with 25 points. Add in his impressively assertive rebounding -- he pulled down 11 boards and used his size and athleticism to his advantage on the boards for the first time in a long time -- and his ability to attack the basket and make opponents pay from the free throw line (something Michigan's entire team did well: 21-23 from the line is phenomenal), and you really could not have asked for a better performance from Tim. It sounds like he put in a ton of work over Spring Break and it definitely paid off against Illinois. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come; if Hardaway near this level for the rest of the year, Michigan goes from a really solid team to a great one if Hardaway can do what he did last night.
Even outside of Hardaway, Michigan's offense looked effective for the most part. The Wolverines did turn the ball over twelve times, but outside of that and 3-16 shooting combined from Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, the offense did really well. Trey was his usual self and did particularly well in transition in the first half, hitting a three on the secondary break, throwing down a dunk (which was the first of his career) off a steal, and then drawing in the defense and kicking it to Evan Smotrycz for an open three. Jordan Morgan showed flashes of the opportunistic knack for easy buckets that he had last year -- he posterized Tracy Abrams off a pick-and-roll from the wing, had a nice dunk when his man helped off onto a driving Burke, and made a pretty three point play on a baby hook over a smaller Sam Maniscalco. Matt Vogrich missed both of his three point attempts and didn't score in his eleven minutes, and Smotrycz fouled out with five in thirteen minutes after giving foul after foul in an attempt to slow down Meyers Leonard.
When Michigan was on defense, I couldn't help but be amazed at how bad Illinois's offense was, especially considering their talent. After 4 points and 3 rebounds in the first half, the Illini finally noticed that Michigan's pretty small and decided to make a concerted effort to get Meyers Leonard the ball in the post and he finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds. Outside of that though, Michigan was perfectly content to let Illinois shoot the ball from outside and their two primary guards, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, went a combined 6-22 from the field. Michigan did a very good job of either sitting in a zone and daring Illinois to shoot them out of it (which they couldn't) or doubling down to Leonard and giving him an array of looks on defense that he wasn't comfortable with until he realized that he was almost half a foot taller than everyone else. Outside of their defense of Leonard (who's nearly unstoppable when he tries to be), Michigan did well on defense.
This win over Illinois was a very good road performance; Michigan went into a game in front of a hostile crowd, ran out to an early lead, weathered a series of Illinois runs in the second half, and simply played much better than they did down the stretch to put away the win. With this game out of the way, Michigan is in good position to gain a share of the Big Ten title if Ohio State manages to upset Michigan State in East Lansing on Sunday. The Wolverines will have to beat Penn State on the road earlier that day to get that chance, but chances of an upset seem very slim.