The Michigan men’s basketball team had a championship within its grasp. Then, the game started. 

A win against Illinois would have secured the Wolverines the outright Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 2014. The Illini, though, had other plans. 

Foiling Michigan’s recent dominance, No. 4 Illinois (19-6 overall, 15-4 Big Ten) obliterated the second-ranked Wolverines (18-2 overall, 13-2 Big Ten), 76-53. Should the Wolverines celebrate a regular-season championship, they will wait at least one more game to do so. 

“This type of performance we gave tonight was not acceptable at all,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “I call it a horror film, ’cause there were many possessions where we didn’t do our job and we didn’t compete at the level that we’re capable of.

“This one, any loss that you encounter throughout the season, it always hurts.” 

The Illini played without star guard Ayo Dosunmu, who missed his third consecutive game due to a broken nose. Defeating the Wolverines without Dosunmu, one of the nation’s most dynamic players and the team’s leading-scorer at 21 points per game, seemed daunting. It turned out to be anything but. 

“Either way, we didn’t bring it,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “No matter what, can’t make excuses. Even me, I didn’t bring it tonight. Starting five all the way to our bench, our 17th man.” 

The defensive slugfest that unfolded out of the gates played into Illinois’ hands. The Illini stymied Michigan’s high-powered attack from the jump, forcing the Wolverines into poor shot selection and multiple prolonged scoring droughts. 

With two of Michigan’s prominent offensive weapons neutralized, the Wolverines struggled to find any rhythm. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson — battling 7-foot, 285-pound Kofi Cockburn — managed six total points on 1-of-8 shooting. Sophomore wing Franz Wagner, meanwhile, failed to capitalize against a series of smaller defenders, scoring just two points on 1-of-9 from the field. The entire offense, like that pair, never looked in sync.

“They forced un-Michigan-like shots out of us,” Livers said. “We took the bait and we just never got back on track, never found our momentum or flow.” 

At the half, Michigan trotted into the locker room facing an unsettling 11-point deficit, having shot 32% from the field and scored a middling 22 points. 

Adversity arrived. In its face, the Wolverines crumbled. 

Adam Miller punctuated an early 8-0 second-half spurt with a 30-foot 3-pointer, forcing Michigan to call a quick timeout. Miller pranced around the court, serenaded by the Illinois bench. The Wolverines, demoralized, navigated their way through a sea of orange shirts, the deficit having ballooned to 16.

From there, the floodgates only opened wider. 

As Michigan’s offense continued to flounder, Illinois caught fire. Shining in Dosunmu’s absence, guard Trent Frazier spurred a 27-7 scoring run, contributing a game-high 22 points, 16 of which came in the second half. And led by Cockburn, the Illini dominated the offensive glass. Twelve offensive rebounds led to a whopping 22 second-chance points, repeatedly deflating a typically-stout Michigan defense. 

As the second-half unfolded, the scene at Crisler proved a sobering contrast. The Wolverines’ bench, so often boisterous, sat silent, their cheers subdued. Illinois exploded with each basket, their resounding chants of ‘defense’ echoing through the arena, the intensity hardly dampened by the 28-point lead. 

“We did a lot of talking, we didn’t do a lot of acting on the court,” Livers said. “I felt, obviously, you could see that watching the game, getting blown out on national TV.”

In dominating its Big Ten gauntlet, the Wolverines have seemed infallible for the better part of the past two months. Few teams had been able to compete with Michigan. Only Minnesota had been able to beat them. 

Illinois brought all of that momentum to a screeching halt.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.