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Uncharacteristic offense, rebounding woes leave Michigan with questions after second loss

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Juwan Howard called Michigan’s performance against Illinois a “horror film.”

Illinois v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

With a chance to secure an outright Big Ten title on Tuesday night, the Michigan Wolverines fell flat on their face.

From the opening tip, the fourth-ranked Fighting Illini were the ones who brought the energy and effort. It didn’t matter that the game was in Ann Arbor, nor did it matter that Illinois took the floor without National Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu. The Illini broke the game open in the late stages of the first half, took a double-digit lead into the break and didn’t look back after that.

On one bench, hoots and hollers defined a statement win. On the other, a foreign feeling loomed for No. 3 Michigan.

The result? A 76-53 drubbing on national television.

“The type of performance we gave tonight was not acceptable at all,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “We’re going to come in tomorrow, watch the film and see what areas we can improve on. I call it a ‘horror film’ because there were many possessions where we didn’t do our job and we didn’t compete at the level that we’re capable of.”

The Wolverines were exposed on the glass, finishing as a minus-16. Illinois pulled down 12 offensive rebounds and turned them into 22 second-chance points. The rebounding discrepancy closely resembled that of last season’s meeting in Champaign, when the Illini dominated the boards, 44-28.

“I think they just hit first a lot of times,” fifth-year senior center Austin Davis said. “We just got outworked on the boards.”

Just when it seemed as though the Wolverines had regained their offensive swagger following a 23-day COVID-related pause, they scored a season-low 53 points against Illinois. Michigan has built a high-powered offense on ball movement and balance this season, but the Wolverines finished with just four assists on Tuesday — their lowest tally of the season.

Point guard Mike Smith, who leads the Big Ten in assists, recorded zero. It was a disjointed showing for a team that’s developed a reputation for making things look easy at that end of the floor.

Leading scorers Hunter Dickinson, Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers shot a combined 4-of-24 from the field, and just one Michigan player reached double figures. Illinois’ ball pressure and rim protection — anchored by 7-foot, 285-pound center Kofi Cockburn — made the Wolverines uncomfortable all night. They also attempted a season-low seven 3-pointers — a noticeable departure from their usual offensive shot distribution.

“They just played a tough basketball game,” Davis said. “They’re a very good team, they get up into you. I think at times we didn’t respond as a team very well to that.”

After the first time Michigan found itself on the wrong side of a blowout this season, associate head coach Phil Martelli worried it would leave a roadmap for other teams to follow. This time around, it’s not a mid-January road loss. The postseason is looming, and a conference title remains on the line.

Tuesday doesn’t change Michigan’s ceiling, but it certainly questions its floor. A Dosunmu-less Illinois team waltzed into Crisler and ran the Wolverines off their own court, leaving Michigan with more questions than answers by the end of the night.

“Not going to make any excuses,” Livers said. “We can’t get complacent, can’t think ahead of a game, can’t think of Michigan State, the bubble and all that, Indianapolis. We’ve got to focus on each game.”