Some things never change. It doesn't matter that two of Michigan's best players, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, were sidelined with serious foot injuries. It doesn't matter that Michigan closed the regular season by losing seven of its final nine games. It doesn't matter that Michigan was a four-point underdog. Michigan just doesn't lose its opening game of the Big Ten Tournament under John Beilein.
For the ninth straight season and eighth straight time under Beilein, Michigan won its first game of the Big Ten Tournament, running No. 8 seed Illinois out of the United Center by a score of 73-55. The last time Michigan had a one-and-done showing in the conference tournament was in 2006, when the Wolverines were edged by Minnesota, 59-55, in the opening round. And Michigan made it clear in the first half that that streak of opening-round wins in the Big Ten Tournament would not end this early afternoon.
It's a cliche to say that basketball is a game of runs, but that is what happened in the first 20 minutes. There were three significant runs that spanned most of the first half, and, thankfully, Michigan was the beneficiary of two of them. Michigan started hot, using a 12-0 run in the opening minutes to take a quick 14-2 lead. However, Illinois responded immediately, going on a 13-0 run of their own to capture a one-point lead. Given that the last three meetings between these two teams had been decided either by one point or in overtime, it seemed like we were destined for another thriller. However, Michigan had other plans because, from the 8:14 mark to the 0:46 mark of the first half, Michigan cobbled together a 21-2 run to take a 38-21 lead and suck the life out of the Fighting Illini.
Michigan's only concern in the second half was to make sure that they did not take their foot off the gas pedal -- something that has happened in recent weeks in road losses to Michigan State and Illinois and almost happened in home wins against Ohio State and Rutgers. However, for the first time since its win against Nebraska, Michigan remained aggressive and relentless the entire second half, pushing the ball in the open court and attacking the rim in the half court for layups against Illinois' porous two-point defense. Michigan continued to add points to the scoreboard, never experiencing that patented lengthy field-goal drought, so Illinois never could cut the lead to fewer than 16 points.
And it was over when Spike Albrecht turned into Steve Nash on this razzle-dazzle pass:
This was an all-around effort from Michigan. There wasn't just one guy that exploded. Aubrey Dawkins scored a team-high 18 points on 8-of-12 shots and slammed home this lob from Zak Irvin. Dawkins now has averaged 23.3 points in his last three games thanks to his hot shooting. Zak Irvin continues to look like the game has slowed down for him, and he's flourishing as a result. He finished with 14 points and six boards, but what was most impressive was his six assists. He's become an excellent passer in the pick and roll, which would have seemed ludicrous weeks ago, and he kept Michigan's offense humming in the first half by tallying five assists. This is the Irvin Michigan fans have been waiting to see. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman broke out of his slump and recorded 15 points and eight rebounds, falling two boards shy of his first career double-double. He punished Illinois inside by finishing through contact at the rim, but he also knocked down his lone three-point attempt and an elbow jumper coming off of a screen. The three of them totaled 47 points, almost outscoring Illinois' 55 points by themselves.
Defensively, Michigan threw in a mixture of man and zone, and Illinois didn't seem to have an answer for either one. The Illini were ice cold from the field as their three main scoring threats -- Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill, and Kendrick Nunn -- scored 31 points, shooting only 11-of-37 from the field and 1-of-12 from downtown. Add in that Illinois uncharacteristically was careless with the ball, and it was a rough outing for them.
This win not only extended Michigan's streaking of opening-round victories in the Big Ten Tournament to nine straight seasons, but it also brings Michigan one step closer to participating in a postseason tournament. Though this likely wasn't not enough to reenter the NIT field, an upset over Wisconsin in the quarterfinals would do the trick.
Let's just hope Michigan views tomorrow's matchup as an opening round game, too.