CHAMPAIGN — After Illinois guard Te’Jon Lucas nailed a wide open floater — made possible by three Wolverines all guarding one man — to put the Fighting Illini up by 20 with 8:57 left in the game, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein buried his head into his hands on the bench.
The play was indicative of a defensive effort that gave too much room for Illinois’ offense to operate as Michigan lost, 85-69, on Wednesday night at the State Farm Center.
With both teams giving up over 78 points per game in Big Ten play, a high-scoring game was expected.
From the get-go, the two teams traded buckets, as both the Wolverines and the Fighting Illini amassed 1.3 points per possession in the first half.
Just like last Saturday against Maryland, Michigan couldn’t handle the opposing team’s big men. Illinois forward Maverick Morgan, who averages 9.4 points per game, put up 12 points in the first half on 6-of-7 shooting. Morgan finished the game with 16 points.
“Morgan’s really improved his game,” Beilein said. “I love the way they’ve developed him over time. Frankly, he hasn’t been a factor every time we played them in the past. … The hook shots early hurt us, and that 15-foot jumper; I don’t recall him making those in the past. We were playing off him, and he was great.”
The Fighting Illini also dominated the glass, grabbing 16 rebounds (six offensive) to Michigan’s six (zero offensive).
“I did not like that our two biggest guys did not have a defensive rebound or an offensive rebound at halftime,” Beilein said. “And (Illinois forward Kipper Nichols), who barely made our scouting report, had four. The (defensive rebounding) was more troubling to me.”
Much has been said about the Wolverines’ weak perimeter defense through their first three conference games, and it wasn’t much better against Illinois. The Fighting Illini made 9-of-14 from beyond the arc and shot 63 percent overall.
Illinois stayed strong throughout the first half while Michigan faltered, and the Fighting Illini closed the break on a 17-2 run after senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. was given a technical foul to give the home team a 49-36 lead heading into halftime.
“I’ve coached Derrick for a long time,” Beilein said. “When I saw him do that, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He’s never done that, not in practice. I don’t think he can explain why he did that.”
Added Walton: “It’s inexcusable to kind of react like that. I understood the call, but it was costly to our team and I apologized to the ref and my teammates.”
Junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman led the team with 12 points in the first half, but ended the game with just 14. Redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson was right behind him with 10 points in the first half, but unlike Abdur-Rakhman, Wilson finished strong with a game-high 19 points.
The second half didn’t start much better for the Wolverines, as Illinois scored on five of its first seven possessions while Michigan’s offense waned. The Wolverines shot just 37.5 percent in the final stanza after finishing the first half shooting 63.6 percent.
After Beilein said the Wolverines spent much of the week working on defensive fundamentals, he had hoped Michigan would answer against a team ranked 80th in the NCAA in scoring offense.
Instead, the Wolverines will travel home to Ann Arbor with many more questions than answers.
“People find a way to get open,” Beilein said. “When Lucas is 2-for-5 (from beyond the arc this season), and he banks one in, we’re not even surprised anymore. Kipper has not made a three yet. When he put it in, we’re not surprised anymore.
“The ball is just small and the basket’s real big when you’re playing Michigan right now.”