CHAMPAIGN — Almost exactly two years ago to the day, the Michigan men’s basketball team lost 85-69 at Illinois, allowing the Fighting Illini to shoot a scorching 65 percent from the field and the 3-point line.
But in the eyes of Wolverines fans, Jan. 11, 2017 is more notable for Illinois center Maverick Morgan dumping a truckload of salt into the wound with his postgame comments, in which he called Michigan a traditionally “white-collar” team.
At the time, Morgan’s statement marked a nadir for the Wolverines. But since then, Michigan’s gone 64-14, with two Big Ten Tournament titles and a Final Four appearance.
Thursday night, the Wolverines returned to the State Farm Center for the first time in two years. They left with a 79-69 win over the Illini and a 16-0 record — tied for the best start in program history.
At the same time, though, it wasn’t a dominant win. Illinois (4-12 overall, 0-5 Big Ten) outshot Michigan and forced 14 turnovers, never letting the game get out of hand as the records would suggest.
If there was a time where it could have gotten out of hand, it was right after tip-off. The Wolverines (16-0, 5-0) came out of the gate looking every bit the second-best team in the nation, scoring the game’s first eight points.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers missed the previous two games with back spasms, but if one was watching Michigan for the first time Thursday night, they would have no idea. The sophomore forward scored an early seven points with a soft turnaround jumper, a left-handed and-one layup and a leaping offensive rebound and putback, helping the Wolverines go up 20-10 after eight minutes.
“We obviously missed him,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “ … Having Isaiah come over to defend, do different things and just have him coming off the bench is huge for us.”
But Illinois, thanks to its signature high-pressure defense, hung around throughout the first half. The Wolverines coughed it up 11 times, and Ayo Dosunmu — who scored 19 first-half points — banked home a deep 3-pointer to cut the Illini deficit to 39-34 at the half.
“Our coaches got on us about our turnovers,” said junior point guard Zavier Simpson. “ … Just told us to pivot better, find the open guy, make the extra pass and just stay disciplined. With them pressuring, they're going to try to wear us down. You're going to get tired as the game goes on, but it's important that you just stay mentally disciplined.”
Michigan heeded these words in the second half. Despite being unable to pull away entirely, the final 20 minutes were a different story, as Dosunmu scored just two points, the Wolverines turned it over just twice and scored 10 points in transition.
They have Simpson — who had 16 points, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals — to thank. In the second half, he hit two key fast-break layups and a 3-pointer with five minutes to play, a crucial stiff-arm after an Illinois three sliced the lead to 63-56.
Beilein stated that Simpson’s firm hand on the steering wheel allowed Michigan to adapt to the Illini pressure, in spite of most of the Wolverines’ normal offensive sets breaking down.
“The way that Illinois plays, you’re not going to be able to run a lot of plays anyhow, you gotta just get guys in formations and attack,” Beilein said. “As a result, when we did settle down I thought they got the message. Any other time that they got close — I look at Zavier, and I got as good a point guard as there is in the country running our team.”
Illinois didn’t seriously threaten again. Michigan, hitting just 65 percent of its foul shots coming into the game, nailed six free throws in the final minute as the Illini resorted to fouling — icing the contest away.
When the buzzer sounded, the Wolverines equaled a historic start at the site of one of the biggest embarrassments of the Beilein era.
And the fashion they did it in — responding to adversity with clutch plays down the stretch — was decidedly not white collar.