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CHAMPAIGN — On almost every occasion, a team losing by 15 and shooting below 40% from the field is a reason to criticize. A reason to bury them. A reason to lose faith.

Why, then, did this game seem to have the opposite effect?

Pace, approach, effort, heart. Whatever you want to call it, this team just looked different

Not good — good might be the last thing used to describe a performance that featured a cumulative 1-for-10 from beyond the arc, 20 personal fouls and only one player scoring in double digits — but different. A Michigan team that before Friday’s loss against Illinois wasn’t just bad, but pitifully uninspiring in its prior defeats, came out with a fight that outmatched the Illini all the way down to the final buzzer.

“Tonight they just beat us to the ball,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “They were just quicker to it, they were more energetic, they were more dialed in and, you know, hats off to them.”

Previously, when Michigan found itself down and out, whether that be against Central Florida, North Carolina, Arizona or whomever else, it folded. There were turning points in each of those games where you could see the energy sucked from the Wolverines. They played flat, almost as if they had accepted defeat far before it was written in stone.

Twice, Michigan was faced with a similar situation in the second half against Illinois. Down by eight and 10 points, respectively, the Wolverines were beckoned to the proverbial stand. Would they be the same, lifeless team that’s reared its head in a formidable share of its six prior losses, or would they fight back and prove they’re capable of something we haven’t yet witnessed?

Instead of flatlining once again, they showed life.

The first time coming within four and the second coming within one of the Illini. And they didn’t transpire in the way a typical comeback would — a streak of threes or efficient shooting laced together with a cold streak from the opposing team. 

No, it was purely effort.

Michigan’s players dove for every loose ball, crashed for every offensive rebound, sprinted to every closeout and just did whatever it took to claw their way back. My God, it wasn’t pretty, but it was an uncharacteristic level of fight that this team needs to turn its tumbling season around.

“We didn’t get the job done, but I’m so proud of these guys,” graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones said. “They fought to the last end on every single one of those plays from top to bottom.”

Perhaps part of the reason the 68-53 defeat didn’t seem as damning as the Wolverines other six losses were the circumstances. On the heels of a COVID pause and missing its best player in sophomore center Hunter Dickinson as well as rotational piece, senior forward Brandon Johns Jr., Michigan put up a fight against 7-footer Kofi Cockburn and the Illini on the road.

Which, by this season’s standards, is progress. And for Michigan coach Juwan Howard, a point of pride.

“I’m so damn proud of how they approached these unfortunate circumstances… coming out with a passion,” Howard said. 

But passion and hard work aren’t nearly enough to pull the Wolverines out of the depths of its sickly shooting efficiency and disjointed communication issues to make it a tournament team. For Michigan to do that, it will have to improve across the board.

But what the Wolverines did find tonight was a foundation — a building block that they can use as the first piece on their way to becoming something more.
It was something we haven’t seen from them yet, and it was something they desperately, desperately needed.