CHAMPAIGN — Fittingly, Juwan Howard returned to his home state for his first Big Ten road game as the Michigan men’s basketball coach — a job widely viewed as a homecoming of its own.
But against unranked Illinois, the Chicago native watched his fifth-ranked Wolverines (8-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) shoot just 17-percent from beyond the arc in a 71-62 loss against the Fighting Illini (7-3, 1-1).
Similar to last week’s loss against top-ranked Louisville, Michigan struggled from downtown away from Ann Arbor. It wasn’t for a lack of opportunity, though, as the Wolverines still hoisted up 12 3-pointers in the first half. Only a week after sinking just three of 19 attempts in its first true road environment against the Cardinals, only two of Michigan’s first-half looks found bottom.
By the final buzzer, it was a dismal 3-of-18 mark.
“(In) the first half, I thought we took too many quick shots,” Howard said. “What we’re really good at is moving the basketball and making the defense work. … Second half, we had some good looks and the ball just didn’t fall in.”
As shots clanked off the back iron, Illinois kept Michigan off the glass. The Illini pulled down 15 of the game’s first 26 rebounds, with freshman center Kofi Cockburn ultimately recording a game-high 10.
While the Wolverines struggled to generate extra possessions in the first half, Illinois flourished on its own offensive glass. The Illini grabbed eight first-half offensive boards, converting them into six second-chance points while holding Michigan to none.
Through the Wolverines’ poor outside shooting performance, senior center Jon Teske emerged as a bright spot. Matched up against the 7-foot, 290-pound Cockburn, Teske scored seven of Michigan’s first 17 points. He sank four of his seven first-half shots, including one of the team’s two long balls, and finished with a team-high 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
Faced with a two-point halftime deficit, the Wolverines turned to senior point guard Zavier Simpson. Operating primarily out of a pick-and-roll with Teske, he took seven of Michigan’s first 12 shots in the second half.
The result? A 1-for-7 start, highlighted by a collection of missed layups and rejections by Cockburn. As Illinois’ lead approach double-digits, junior guard Eli Brooks and junior forward Isaiah Livers kept the Wolverines within striking distance. The duo accounted for 15 of Michigan’s first 20 second-half points on a combined 7-of-9 from the field.
But foul trouble constantly sent the Illini to the free throw line, where they sank 14 of their 20 second-half attempts. Cockburn, in particular, stood out. After starting the season as a sub-50-percent free throw shooter, he’s made 23 of his last 26, including a 7-of-9 performance on Wednesday.
Cockburn finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks — all game-highs — and spearheaded Illinois’ 44-28 advantage on the glass.
“(Cockburn) uses his body well,” Teske said. “Big body, square down low, very skilled for being a freshman. He does his work early. … They get really good angles for him to just turn around and score.”
Added Howard: “(Cockburn’s) presence alone was very strong for them in the inside. He was battling. (He’s a) very physical guy who is one of the best offensive rebounders in NCAA basketball. … He scored a lot of points in the paint on his duck-ins. He did a really good job, they did a really good job of finding him.”
Whenever the Wolverines began to close the gap, Illinois shut the door quickly by emphasizing long possessions and paint touches — a strategy that yielded a 44-26 advantage in points in the paint by the end of the game.
“We’re a better defensive team than that,” Howard said. “If we want to battle and compete in the Big Ten and have a chance to raise a trophy, we can’t allow a team to score 44 points on us in the paint and then also have 16 second-chance points and 15 offensive rebounds. That’s a recipe for a loss.”
When Michigan used a 7-0 spurt to cut the deficit to four with just over a minute on the clock, Illinois guard Andres Feliz slashed through the lane for an and-one layup.
And as the ball made its way off his finger and through the net, so did the nail in the Wolverines’ coffin.