CHAMPAIGN — Senior guard Zavier Simpson sat at the top of the key with the ball — and nearly the entire offense — resting in his hands.

The No. 5 Michigan men’s basketball team was trailing, as it had been all game, and the Wolverines were praying for a bucket against Illinois midway through the second half. But still, Simpson sat there. Holding the ball for what felt like an hour, he finally made his decision. He drove to the basket and missed a layup attempt, attempting to score over the 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn.

Simpson grabbed his rebound and thrust up a desperation reverse layup to try to find the bottom of the net, but no luck again. Michigan came up empty and, in that instance, eliminated Simpson’s ability as the offensive catalyst. The Wolverines inevitably fell, 71-62.

Ultimately, there were two factors at play here: the Illini’s defensive game plan to make the Wolverines play 2-on-2 ball and the dominance of Illinois’ bigs all game. 

Simpson, junior guard Eli Brooks and anyone else who rolled the dice and took their chance at the rim, learned quickly what it would take to steal a bucket from the paint. Every time a Wolverine player decided to take a shot down low, he would be met with the full force of Cockburn and forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili — a daunting task to say the least.

“(Cockburn’s) presence alone was very strong for them in the inside,” said Michigan coach Juwan Howard. “He was battling, very physical guy who’s one of the best offensive rebounders in NCAA basketball. … Scored a lot of points in the paint on those duck-ins, and give him credit, did a really good job of finding him.”

And the numbers reveal how ineffectual the Wolverines’ attack on these big men, and Michigan’s play in the paint, was all game. The Wolverines were outrebounded 44-28, lost the battle for the paint with a 44-26 point differential and were embarrassed on second chance points, 16-0. 

And it all started with Simpson.

“Again, you have no idea how much respect I have for Zavier Simpson and how good he is,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. “I think he’s one of the elite passing guards in this country.

“We feared his passing more than we did his scoring, and Brooks and (junior forward Isaiah) Livers and (sophomore guard David) DeJulius and all those guys become really, really effective players because of his passing, and we just tried to make it hard, and we knew we were gonna give up some points there, but we wanted them to be twos and challenged twos.”

Simpson’s offensive production felt hollow even though he tallied an eight in the assist column. 

In its losses this season, Michigan has been forced into less-than-ideal shot selection and has fallen flat from 3-point range when it needed big buckets most. In just the second loss of the season, these factors seem more pronounced than ever. The Wolverines were just 3-for-18 from beyond the arc and found the bulk of its offense from contested midrange looks.

There really is no underselling the Cockburn effect in this game. Michigans guards felt the bigs breathing down their neck the entire matchup.

“(Cockburn) was definitely a presence tonight, credit to him,” Brooks said. “Offensively and defensively, but I think we settled for a couple jump shots that we normally could drill, but you just gotta give credit to him.”

Added Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmo: “I trust my bigs. I trust they can protect the rim, and you know if I get beat, I let someone get an edge on me, I know Kofi got my back. I know Georgi got my back, and even if they do hit a pullup, I tip ‘em off. Good shot, but you can’t keep doin’ it for 40 minutes if we apply the pressure we applied. 

“For 40 minutes, it won’t happen, and that’s my motto.”

Typically, though, banging shots for 40 minutes has been Michigan’s MO. The Illini got a taste of that prolific scoring ability and pace of play late in the second half when the Wolverines went on an 8-0 run to draw the game within four. 

Michigan was pushing the ball in transition, highlighted by an and-one bucket from DeJulius. Those eight points were everything the Wolverines were not the rest of the game. Simpson tacked on an assist with a feed to senior center Jon Teske and the big man even notched an and-one of his own against Cockburn.

“I feel like they were down on the road, so towards the end of the game they’re shooting with … nothing you can lose,” Dosunmo said. “Down seven, down eight points, so I felt like they had a little more confidence.”

In essence, Michigan showed what its offense looks like in a win and a loss.

At its lowest lows, it looks like Simpson staring down his defender — and athletic giants down low foaming at the mouth to run up the block numbers — directionless and out of options. At its highest high, it’s playing with tremendous pace and finding the balance between dagger 3-pointers from the outside and dominant play from Teske down low.

To make sure the Wolverines never found that height, the Illini had the game plan and the personnel to pull a rung from Michigan’s ladder on its way up. And subsequently, it fell to a depth experienced only one other time this season.

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