Last Friday, the Michigan men’s basketball team scored 103 points against Iowa. One-hundred-and-three.
Under former coach John Beilein, the Wolverines had only scored above 100 points six times — and never against a Big Ten opponent. Michigan seemingly only managed to crack triple digits against low-level non-conference foes, and based on Beilein’s more elaborate, drawn out offensive plays, it seemed to be almost on accident.
But things are different under new coach Juwan Howard. The Wolverines are launching 3-pointers in transition, playing with pace and getting shots off early in the shot clock. So when Michigan treks down to Champaign on Wednesday to square off against Illinois — the Big Ten’s highest scoring offense — the game is sure to be a barn burner.
For those not familiar with the term, a barn burner indicates a high-scoring affair for one of those inexplicable reasons that only locals understand. But Wednesday’s matchup has the potential to not just light the barn on fire, but take the rest of the farm with it.
The Illini have already put up over 100 points twice this season, highlighted by a 120-point smackdown of Hampton. In the effort, Illinois’ prolific offense was led by its two bright stars — center Kofi Cockburn and guard Ayo Dosunmo, who both dropped 20.
Cockburn has been having a monster season, averaging a double-double with 16.3 points per game and 11.2 rebounds per game. Also averaging 1.3 blocks per game, the 7-footer has a physical skill set that reads like a grocery list.
“Strong, tough, physical, inside presence, plays extremely hard, very good on the low block,” Howard said. “Another thing that stands out is, (he’s an) excellent offensive rebounder. Built with a lot of toughness and his frame just breathes toughness all over him. So we have to, of course, match his toughness. Our guys are very competitive, and they’re not afraid, but they love competing against any big that steps on the floor.”
In short, he’s going to be a problem.
The last time Michigan saw a physically gifted, dominant big down low — the Hawkeyes’ Luka Garza on Friday — he destroyed his career high and bruised the Wolverines for a whopping 44 points. Then again, the big man took 32 shots and no one else in a black and yellow jersey could hit a cloud from an airplane, leading to a 12-point Michigan win.
While Cockburn undoubtedly presents a challenge, senior center Jon Teske is certain that the big man is nothing he hasn’t seen before.
“It’s another big body,” Teske said. “In the Big Ten, you play against a big center every night. He’s another one. We gotta be ready for him. He’s a big, physical big man down there, and we just gotta hold our own. He’s gonna get his looks, he’s gonna get his touches and he’s gonna score points. We’re not gonna shut him out, he’s gonna get his, and we just gotta limit what he does.”
Teske’s answer is fairly telling in how the Wolverines are going to look to play Cockburn. In previous games against prolific bigs, Michigan’s game plan has been to limit the fouls called on Teske and backup bigs sophomore Colin Castleton and senior Austin Davis, letting the opponent pad the stat sheet while trusting the Wolverines’ offense to inflict maximum damage on the other end of the floor.
And if Michigan does get in foul or injury trouble — as was the case Friday with Teske on the bench and Castleton in the locker room with a lip injury — the Wolverines have the depth to respond and maintain pressure in the low post on both ends of the floor.
It worked Friday, when the third digit of the scoreboard was lit up for just the seventh time in nearly 13 years. And on Wednesday, Michigan is hoping — between Teske, Castleton, Davis and a bit of luck — to tack another one in the win column.