After a steal from senior guard Eli Brooks, sophomore wing Franz Wagner received a pass in transition, looking to notch a key bucket. The No. 2 Michigan men’s basketball team needed momentum, trailing No. 4 Illinois by 11. As he received the pass, Wagner backed down a defender and proceeded to barely graze the rim on a mid-range jumper. 

Following a 76-53 loss at the hands of the Illini, the Wolverines’ defeat came with a series of glaring holes. None stuck out more than their lack of ball movement. Coming into the night averaging 16.4 assists per game, Michigan managed to tally just four — by far a season-low. The Wolverines’ offense, which normally features a plethora of cuts, swift passes and open looks on the perimeter, barely resembled the dominant unit that has helped make it one of the most dangerous offensive units in college basketball.

“It was more than just one particular guy on our end,” Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said. “Every guy that played tonight could do a better job and they owned it, they know it. That’s the beauty of it. Everyone was honest with themselves. Including the coach. The coach can do a lot better, too.”

Wagner, in particular, struggled to get in a rhythm. Despite being guarded by Illinois’s Adam Miller, who stands at 6-foot-3, Wagner couldn’t take advantage of the matchup with his 6-foot-10 frame. He routinely found himself with his back to the basket forcing up contested shots, and he oftentimes found himself unable to create any kind of airspace. By the time the final buzzer sounded, Wagner totaled just two points on 1-for-9 shooting, his lowest point total and worst shooting outing of the year. 

“We were being aggressive, but we were taking some, I wouldn’t say within the offense-type shots that coach Howard or Michigan basketball expects,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said.

Michigan struggled to share the ball, too. The Illini’s defensive scheme shut down any and all action on the perimeter, forcing a series of errant passes when trying to set up shooters. Inside, Illinois’s Kofi Cockburn acted as a brick wall, stymying all attempts at the rim and forcing the Wolverines into a series of awkward and wild shots in the lane. 

“They did great defensively by being physical into us, not allowing us to get to our spots,” Howard said. “When we went to go finish at the basket, they did a really good job of walling up.”

As the game continued to spiral out of hand, Howard looked for answers to spark his club. Whether it was junior forward Brandon Johns Jr., senior forward Chaundee Brown or freshman forward Terrance Williams, the Wolverines didn’t generate any momentum from their second unit. Even with new faces in the lineup, the lack of flow on the offensive end was evident.

 

Part of Michigan’s poor ball movement can be pointed to graduate transfer guard Mike Smith. Coming into the night leading the Big Ten in assists with 5.2 per game, Smith failed to register a single assist on the night and looked flustered by the Illini’s defensive scheme. 

“(It felt) like they were on a run the whole game,” Livers said. “Gotta counter — we didn’t do a great job of countering off their adjustments.”

After an eight-game win streak where it looked like an unstoppable force, Michigan appeared mortal for the first time in weeks on Tuesday night. Still having a shot to clinch a Big Ten regular-season title on Thursday, the Wolverines will undoubtedly have to rediscover their identity. That starts with recapturing their ball movement.

“We didn’t bring it,” Livers said. “Get back to the drawing board.”

 

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