This game wasn't always the close, comfortable win that it turned out to be in the end. While Illinois struggled with three point shooting (just 26 percent), didn't get to the line (just nine FTs attempted), and didn't force turnovers, there were a few moments in the game when the tides felt like they were turning. Illinois would string a couple plays together, the crowd would rise to its feat, and then?
Michigan would answer. Great teams are capable of playing on another level entirely. One where momentum is sensed and gently shifted. Early in the game when Illinois had strung a couple shots together, John Beilein called a timeout, much to the dissatisfaction of Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway Jr. didn't think Michigan needed the timeout to respond. I'm inclined to agree with him. Michigan responded well all night, and the big win ultimately came down to four game-defining runs.
- First, after trading baskets in the first few minutes of the game, Michigan ripped off an eleven point run to build a solid lead that it would never relinquish.
- However, that big lead dwindled as the first half wore down. Illinois hit a three with just over two minutes to go in the half to pull the game within three points. Michigan scored seven points over the next two minutes, allowing just one Illinois basket and keeping the lead at a healthy eight points going into the half.
- Less than five minutes had gone by in the second half before Illinois had once again clawed back -- this time just four points back of the lead. Michigan would rip off nine unanswered points.
- Finally, with eight minutes left in the game Michigan would put the final nail in the coffin. Over the next three minutes of game action Michigan would score eight straight points, putting the game well out of reach.
Michigan's offense was its normal, efficient self. All four of Michigan's leading scorers ended up with double figures on the scoreboard, and things ran smoothly as Michigan found opening after opening to get players open shots at the rim or for three.
Defensively, Michigan forced more turnovers than usual, but lost the battle on the boards by allowing Illinois to rack up an OR% of 41 percent . Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson led Illinois with 15 and 12 respectively, but both shot nine three pointers a piece and combined the two only connected on four of them.
Michigan gets one more tune-up game, this one against a Northwestern team that Michigan has already soundly defeated once this year, before having to make it through a gauntlet of games against the four best teams in the conference, at Indiana, vs. Ohio State, at Wisconsin, and at Michigan State. If the Wolverines can come out of that four game tilt at .500 or better, Michigan will be well positioned to challenge for a conference title over the final month of the season.
- I wrote about Tim Hardaway Jr. in my Freep column this week. Namely, how well he has taken to the offense this year and how his effectiveness is way up. This game was another indication of that. He made 5/9 shots (2/4 from deep) and added three rebounds, three steals, two assists, and one block.
- Still, Hardaway Jr. isn't even the most jaw-dropping player out there. That is Glenn Robinson III, who had an impressive fast break block, a couple athletic tip ins, and only missed two shots.
- It remains to be seen how serious the ankle injury to Jordan Morgan is -- he didn't seem to be in too much pain on the sidelines late and probably sat because the game was in hand already -- but it was clear at points that Michigan missed his presence. Mitch McGary still doesn't look ready to consistently contribute for more than 15-20 minutes a game, and both he and Jon Horford got in foul trouble late.
- Speaking of Horford, he had a nice little game in his first extended time back. He connected on all three of his shot attempts, pulled down a few rebounds, and made a couple nice hustle plays. He even flashed a bit of skill with a lefty back to the basket hook shot in the lane.
- Also getting some time thanks to Morgan's injury and foul trouble was Max Bielfeldt (whose name I can now spell without looking it up). In six minutes he scored four points, drew two fouls, grabbed two offensive rebounds, and got a steal. That is a huge contribution from a seldom used role player. Even better, after horribly air-balling his first FT attempt and then overcompensating on his second, Bielfeldt stepped to the line a minute later and knocked down two in a row.
- And Michigan is number one in the land.