Freshman guard Nik Stauskas was tasked with guarding Purdue’s D.J. Byrd in the first half of the Michigan basketball team’s game Thursday, which proved to be difficult for the rookie.
Byrd scored 11 points and hit three 3-pointers, forcing Michigan coach John Beilein to make a change defensively at half. In the second half, Beilein had junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. defend Byrd, and it worked out in No. 2 Michigan’s favor — Byrd was scoreless in the second stanza.
But Byrd isn’t a typical, athletic guard such as the ones the Wolverines (5-1 Big Ten, 18-1 overall) will face in against Illinois on Sunday — he’s the type of backcourt player who is more apt to settle for outside shots or post up that drive to the basket to draw fouls. But against the Illini (2-4, 15-5), Michigan will take on two explosive senior guards in Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson.
“Both of those young men are terrific players,” Beilein said. “Both are capable of getting 20 (points) — Paul has gotten 30 in the past. The Nebraska game will show you how explosive (Richardson) is as well. A lot of Big Ten teams have one player like that out on the court, it’s rare that they have two guards that can get you between 20 and 30 (points).”
Paul is the Illini’s biggest scoring threat, averaging 18 points per game, and he put up a season-high 35 points in Illinois’ toughest road contest against Gonzaga. Richardson is coming off his best game of his career, scoring a career-high 30 points in a road rout of Nebraska on Tuesday.
The Illini’s victory over Nebraska ended a three-game conference losing skid that put them on the bottom of the conference standings. Though Illinois had an outstanding start under coach John Groce — it started 12-0 and was propelled up to No. 10 in the rankings — the Illini have struggled in Big Ten play.
One of the main reasons Illinois has struggled is because of the nature of its roster. Paul and Richardson are the most experienced players on the team, and with a young big man, sophomore Nnanna Egwu, the Illini rely on their guards for scoring. The squad averages about eight 3-pointers per game — second in the conference behind Michigan — and attempts an astounding 25 shots from beyond the arc per game.
Though the 3-pointer is one of the largest facets of Illinois’ game, the Wolverines still have to contain Paul and Richardson driving in the lane as well as along the perimeter. Defense has been one of Michigan’s weak points, and Beilein certainly recognizes the defensive challenges his team will face on Sunday.
“The hardest thing for most young teams to grasp is defense,” Beilein said. “I think transition defense is the most difficult thing to have to grasp. It hasn’t been a strength all year for us because of the speed that the other team comes down with and the thinking you have to do after you just missed a shot or just got fouled and it wasn’t called.
“We’ve sort of embraced that challenge, teaching them defense early. Tim has taken over right where (Zack) Novak and (Stu) Douglass left off, with ‘not only am I guarding my man, I’m going to help all the rest of you figure it out.’ ”
Hardaway’s containment of Byrd on Thursday is just one aspect of the junior’s defensive game that Beilein has been impressed with lately.
“(Tim) realized in the past his footwork, his closeouts, the techniques he was using, the habits that he had were holding him back a little bit,” Beilein said. “He’s worked very hard on his closeouts, his posture and how he shuffled his feet. What we saw as the year went on, (he’s) embracing ideas and also saying when he sees somebody get hot in practice, saying ‘Coach I’m going to take him.’ That leadership thing — he wanted to be more of a factor defensively.”