The last time the Michigan men’s basketball team held an opponent’s big man to less than 10 points was Jan. 27 when the Wolverines traveled to Champaign.
Then-No. 2 Michigan held Illinois’ 6-foot-11 center Nnanna Egwu to just six points in a convincing 74-60 road win, but ever since, the Wolverines haven’t been able to stop the opponents’ interior game, especially with the absence of redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan due to a persistent ankle injury — their defensive rock.
Thankfully for Michigan (9-4 Big Ten, 22-4 overall), it hosts the Fighting Illini (6-7, 19-8) on Sunday with Morgan’s health improving. The redshirt junior started in the seventh-ranked Wolverines’ latest contest against Penn State, and with him continuing to show improvement combined with Illinois’ weak frontcourt coming to Ann Arbor, Michigan will be able to focus its defense on the perimeter.
But it won’t be an easy task to defend one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten. Seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson and sophomore Tracy Abrams combine for 40 points per game — 56 percent of the Fighting Illini’s offense — while Paul is fourth in the conference in scoring, averaging 16.4 points per game.
Though Paul didn’t have as explosive of a game against Northwestern on Feb. 17 as he’s capable of — he scored just eight points — Illinois coach John Groce has seen immense improvement in the captain’s all-around game and hopes he’ll continue the trend.
“I thought (Sunday’s game) was as good a performance as he’s had all year in all areas,” said Groce in a teleconference on Monday. “He rebounded the ball well, I thought his shot selection was excellent, he shared the ball, he made our team better. He (also) defended well, he made a couple of hustle, extra-effort plays. I thought he played as well-rounded a game as he has all year, I think his mind is in the right place.”
And Paul’s improvement has contributed to the Fighting Illini’s five-game win streak. After struggling early in the conference slate — going 2-7 in the first nine games of Big Ten play — Illinois responded with upsets over Indiana and Minnesota and thrashings of Purdue and Northwestern.
But while Illinois has been on a late-season surge, Michigan has been faltering. After dropping three of their four games in a 10-day stretch, the Wolverines struggled to fend off Penn State last Sunday, which is winless in the Big Ten.
Michigan has recently shown signs of the wear associated with the brutal conference schedule, and the tough stretch has exposed several weaknesses in the Wolverines’ game, especially on defense. Michigan coach John Beilein recognized his team’s exhaustion and adjusted this week’s practice schedule accordingly, though he’s still adamant that the squad will continue to improve with the right regiment.
“It takes a long process (to adjust physically), and that’s just being in the weight room,” Beilein said in a teleconference on Monday. “We find that the more you’re in the weight room, the more that you’re working out, the stronger you get. It doesn’t hurt to be tough (and) it doesn’t hurt to be physical.
“(There’s also) your whole attitude in practice, about what you’re going to stand for. There’s just all kind of motivating ways you’ll do to make sure they understand it is urgent that you play at a higher level, you play really hard, and you play smart — that’s the toughest thing to do. There’s a lot of ways (of motivation), whether it’s extra running, raise your voice, (or) make practice go longer.”
And while sophomore guard Trey Burke and junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. have had no trouble handling the physicality of conference play, the freshmen — most notably guard Nik Stauskas and forward Glenn Robinson III — have struggled greatly during the Big Ten slate.
Though the offense was hot for Michigan with Robinson and Stauskas having breakout games against the Nittany Lions offensively, the whole team’s defense lacked motivation. Beilein is hoping that the week off will allow the team to focus individually in addition to the team’s larger needs.
“Instead of having 15 guys at practice, we may have several sessions with five guys for an hour ... and then have an hour practice,” Beilein said. “There’s some different things we can do to give individual attention to the strengths and weaknesses we have individually.”
Even without a stellar defensive performance, chances are Michigan will be able to scrap a win against Illinois behind Burke and Hardaway’s continuing tear. But if the Wolverines hope to compete against the Big Ten’s best — they still have remaining games against Michigan State and Indiana — they will need a big difference on defense.