Leading up to the Michigan men’s basketball team’s rematch against Illinois, John Beilein indicated that the Wolverines needed a spark.

He acknowledged Friday that when Michigan has made noise in the past, it had found one player who could rise to the occasion around this point of the season. Beilein also admitted that, though he’s seen flashes from players capable of adopting that role, he still didn’t know who the Wolverines’ outlier would ultimately be.

But when Michigan took the floor Saturday afternoon, DJ Wilson gave him more than just a flash.

The redshirt sophomore put his stamp on the game all day, but the exclamation point came long before the final buzzer sounded.

With just over 12 minutes to play in the first half and the Wolverines up by four, senior wing Zak Irvin couldn’t connect on a jumper. The ball clanked off the iron, but Wilson seemed to teleport to the rim, grabbing the offensive board and simultaneously throwing down an electrifying putback slam, all while drawing a foul to give him an and-one opportunity.

The dunk injected energy into Crisler Center, waking up a dormant crowd that — to that point — had been quieter than the 100 members of Illinois’s student section that had traveled to Ann Arbor and claimed seats in the nosebleeds.

The putback proved to be the first of two, and just two of Wilson’s 12 first-half points. His point total, along with his four rebounds, four assists and one block, was the perfect remedy for a team that has struggled to start games well — especially when Michigan was blown out by 16 in Champaign 10 days ago.

Wilson went on to finish with a game-high 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting, seven rebounds and five assists, leading the Wolverines to a 66-57 win against the Fighting Illini in which the final score didn’t properly account for Michigan’s domination.

“… When I just think about (Michigan) right now, it’s points off turnovers (and) second-chance points, which DJ Wilson was a big part of,” said Illinois coach John Groce.  “I just thought he made the right play. He got you on the glass, he took open shots, he made his team better.

“I thought he really competed, got good length and size. … I just thought he was really active and engaged in all facets of the game, certainly not to (diminish) some other guys that played well for them throughout the two games, but I think he’s kind of the guy that stood out for me.”

In reality, save for the five assists — Wilson was averaging just 1.21 per game — the performance is nothing new for him. He has emerged as a new force in the frontcourt for the Wolverines this season after a nearly nonexistent role in his first two years.

But for a Michigan team that struggles on the glass and on defense, especially in the low post, Beilein’s outlier may have been in his starting lineup throughout the last 18 games.

After all, Wilson helped hold Wisconsin forwards Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes below double digits until his foul-ridden second half.

Against Illinois, it was more of the same. The Fighting Illini torched Michigan’s frontcourt in their matchup on Jan. 11, as center Maverick Morgan and forward Leron Black combined for 26 points. Yet on Saturday, Wilson led the effort that held the pair to just 10 points.

Establishing a consistency in Wilson’s game, then, could send that spark Beilein has been looking for resonating throughout the Wolverines.

Against No. 17 Wisconsin, for example, despite his defensive presence, Wilson fouled out with zero points and five rebounds in 30 minutes played. And early in the year when Michigan was blown out against South Carolina, he had just two points and four rebounds.

Still, Wilson’s performance against Illinois on Saturday serves as the latest example of his uncanny ability to bounce back in a convincing fashion, and those performances often come off residual touches that come with the flow of the game.

Beilein has admitted that the future could hold more plays that aim to get the ball in Wilson’s hands, and if that’s the missing piece to the puzzle, the Wolverines could reap the benefits. But for now, Wilson’s showing against Illinois might be enough to start something special.

“Each game we need it,” Beilein said. “But gradually we’ll get to this point, hopefully before too long, that guys really feel confident and they know they’ve got their ‘swag’ enough to play at their highest level every day.”

Perhaps Wilson’s most profound impact, though, couldn’t be found in his own stat line, but in that of senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. After the game, Walton admitted that both his and Irvin’s confidence is fueled by the way others are playing around them.

On Saturday, Walton was able to reel in 10 rebounds to go with his 13 points and notch a double-double. Following the victory, Walton credited his rebounding total to the way Michigan’s big men boxed out down low. As the starting forward alongside sophomore Moritz Wagner, Wilson is certainly a large contributor to that.

“He’s such a great player,” Walton said. “He had such a good summer and has worked so hard over his two years in just changing his body. Like I said, everybody saw the potential. It was all about him getting his body right and being able to play.

“Nights where he’s scoring and rebounding as well as he does, I think he could make a living out of this game.”

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