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Illinois 64, Michigan 52 (OT): Moral Victories Are Over

Thoughts from Michigan's crushing 64-52 overtime loss at Illinois, including how, regardless of Michigan's injury situation, there are no more moral victories for this team and how John Beilein's late-game strategy and clock management may have cost Michigan a win.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

This was not a moral victory for Michigan. There are no more of those for this team.

No, it doesn't matter that adversity has smacked Michigan in the face all season. No, it doesn't matter that Michigan was without its best two players in Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. No, it doesn't matter that Michigan traveled to Champaign with only eight scholarship players and only 10 total. No, it doesn't matter that this road contest at Illinois was considered Michigan's second-toughest remaining game by KenPom.

It may have been one if this was Michigan's first loss like this with a depleted roster.

But it wasn't.

In a primetime game at the Crisler Center on January 24th, Michigan took Wisconsin to overtime thanks to a last-second three by Walton, but the Badgers scored the first six points in overtime and Michigan couldn't recover. A week later, Michigan held a 61-57 lead over instate rival Michigan State with less than five minutes left in regulation in East Lansing. However, the Wolverines almost blew it in the final minutes before a Max Bielfeldt tip-in sent it to overtime, where the Spartans would outscore Michigan, 10-0. A week after that, which was this past Sunday, Michigan fought back against Indiana in Assembly Hall, which has been a "Hall of Horrors" for even the best Wolverine teams for decades, and had a chance to force overtime in the final seconds, but Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman's potential game-tying three from the left corner drew only iron.

Moral victory. Moral victory. And moral victory.

But, at some point, these losses are no longer moral victories and are just crushing losses.

Michigan has reached that point.

Last night, with 3:18 left in the second half, Spike Albrecht knocked down a floater in the lane to give Michigan a 50-43 lead. This was it. Michigan had Illinois on the ropes and finally was going to earn that feel-good win. All the Wolverines needed to do was get one more bucket or string together a few stops, and Michigan would walk away victorious.

But it all fell apart. Some puzzling defensive decisions and an Albrecht three-pointer that rimmed out allowed Illinois to score seven straight points to knot the score at 50 apiece. Then an ill-advised timeout by John Beilein and poor execution inbounding the ball prevented Michigan from even hoisting a potential game-winner in the final seconds of regulation. And then, in overtime, lacking depth, Michigan ran out of gas and crumbled as Illinois scored the first 14 points of the extra session, and Michigan had no answer.

The end result: a 21-0 Illinois run that lasted 8:04 of the second half and overtime.

Albrecht's in-game response to the run pretty much sums it up:

I'm just as frustrated as Albrecht. I'm not frustrated with the players or the effort they have given when they have had every opportunity to quit during this snakebitten season. I'm frustrated because this was the fourth time in six games that Michigan has had a legitimate chance to pull off an upset victory and couldn't land the knockout punch.

Even without LeVert and Walton, this Michigan team has proven that it can compete with almost any team in the nation on any given night. At first, that achievement alone was worthy of applause. But, now that the Wolverines have demonstrated they can beat these top teams on numerous occasions, moral victories aren't going to cut it anymore.

At some point, you actually have to win the damn game.

Other Thoughts

The last two minutes of regulation were not John Beilein's finest.

Full disclaimer: John Beilein is an amazing coach -- heck, a miracle worker. But that doesn't mean that Beilein is immune from making mistakes or being criticized. And I mention this because Beilein made two head-scratching decisions in the final minutes of regulation that greatly reduced Michigan's odds to beat Illinois in Champaign last night.

The first was Beilein's decision to run Michigan's 1-3-1 defense with a three-point lead and 1:45 left. The only Illinois shot that really hurts Michigan in this situation is a three-pointer. Even if the Illini drain a two-pointer, Michigan would still have a one-point lead, possession of the basketball, and the ability to run down the clock to about 45 seconds. So why is running the 1-3-1 a bad decision here? Because it is very vulnerable to leaving opponents wide open in the corners for threes -- the one shot Michigan can ill-afford to surrender. I could somewhat understand this move if Illinois was a team that often threw errant passes and coughed up the basketball because the 1-3-1 pressures offenses into mistakes. The problem, though, is that Illinois is one of the best teams in the nation in offensive turnover rate. The Illini rarely turn over the basketball, and shredding the 1-3-1 with precise passes is not an issue for them. So what happened? Illinois found Kendrick Nunn -- a 42-percent three-point shooter -- alone in the left corner. The result: splash.

Maybe Illinois still would have made a three-pointer if Michigan had run its man defense, but Beilein gift-wrapped an open one from the corner by running the 1-3-1 zone. And, even if Nunn's three had missed instead, the 1-3-1 was not the correct move there.

The second was Beilein's decision to call timeout when, in a tie game, Michigan had possession with 15 seconds left and the shot clock turned off. Now, I understand Beilein's thought process here. Without LeVert and Walton, Michigan doesn't have an offensive star on the floor that can get a good shot for himself, so Beilein wanted to draw up a good look for his team. The problem is that this allowed John Groce an opportunity to remind his team that Illinois had three fouls to give before Michigan would be in the bonus and could kill most of the game clock before allowing Michigan to shoot. If Beilein didn't call timeout, Groce would not have been able to remind his players of this and Michigan would have fired a potential game-winner at the buzzer. Instead, the length of the 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu bothered Michigan on its inbounds passes so much that, by the time Illinois used all three fouls it had to give, there was only 4.5 seconds left and Michigan was on the wrong side of midcourt. Spike Albrecht was forced to throw a lob pass over Egwu into the Illinois end with the hope that the athletic Aubrey Dawkins would be able to out-leap the Illini for the basketball and put up a quick shot. However, Rayvonte Rice intercepted the pass, and Michigan never even had a chance to win it at the buzzer.

Both of these decisions were very costly for Michigan. The first was a case of Beilein not recognizing the situation and Illinois' offensive strengths, and the second was a case of Beilein over-managing his depleted, inexperienced team. No coach is perfect. All of them make strategic mistakes in games. Unfortunately, these two were killers for Michigan.

Death to field-goal droughts lasting seven minutes or longer. Good lord.

Michigan's Field-Goal Droughts (Longer Than Seven Minutes)
Score & Clock
Before FG Drought
Length of FG Drought
During Drought
Score & Clock
After Drought
Final Result
Villanova 20-18, U-M (7:17, 1H) 10:54 0-12 33-20, VU (17:23, 2H) 60-55, VU
NJIT 44-38, U-M (15:30, 2H) 7:52 0-7 53-46, NJIT (7:38, 2H) 72-70, NJIT
Eastern Michigan 10-2, U-M (15:25, 1H) 13:40 0-12 17-15, EMU (1:45, 1H) 45-42, EMU
SMU 48-45, U-M (7:57, 2H) 7:08 0-9 62-48, SMU (0:49, 2H) 62-51, SMU
Purdue 35-27, U-M (19:14, 2H) 12:34 0-13 45-39, PU (6:40, 2H) 64-51, PU
Ohio State 39-24, OSU (0:38, 1H) 7:10 0-13 52-24, OSU (13:28, 2H) 71-52, OSU
Northwestern 29-22, U-M (5:04, 1H) 7:04 0-7 34-31, NU (18:00, 2H) 56-54, U-M
Iowa 21-19, U-M (7:02, 1H) 8:50 0-9 35-23, IOWA (18:12, 2H) 72-54, IOWA
Illinois 50-43, U-M (3:18, 2H) 8:18 0-7 64-52, ILL (0:00, OT) 64-52, ILL

Death to overtime.

In its last three overtime periods, Michigan has been out-scored, 36-9. Yikes.

Forget the NCAA Tournament. The NIT is looking shaky for Michigan.

Michigan needs to win the rest of its regular-season games to be in contention for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. That's not going to happen, so Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes rest on winning the Big Ten Tournament. No problem, right?

However, even the NIT is starting to look more unlikely than likely for the Wolverines. Michigan now is 13-12, and, if Michigan doesn't win three of its remaining five regular-season games, Michigan could finish the season with a losing record. No team with a losing record has ever been invited to the NIT, and Michigan likely wouldn't be the first.

Just watch these on a loop and pretend nothing else happened last night.