For the third consecutive week, the Michigan men’s basketball team had an opportunity.
An opportunity to rattle off back-to-back wins against potential NCAA Tournament teams. An opportunity to build some momentum going into March. An opportunity to prove that they can consistently play with the best.
Each of the first two weeks, the Wolverines failed to deliver. They followed up their two best wins of the season with a lifeless home loss and their most embarrassing loss of the season at Wisconsin.
Sunday’s game against No. 15 Illinois was no different. From the start, Michigan (15-12 overall, 9-8 Big Ten) had no answer for the Illini (20-8, 13-5) defensively, and despite a strong second-half comeback attempt, followed up yet another important win with a 93-85 loss.
“It is hard to find (consistency),” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones said. “This is one of the best leagues in the country, so every night in, night out, we’re gonna have a tough opponent. So we gotta come in mentally ready and also physically ready.”
The Wolverines couldn’t defend Illinois all game, but in the first half, the Illini didn’t even need to play through star center Kofi Cockburn. Instead, Illinois used constant off-ball screens to force Michigan into defensive breakdowns. The Wolverines couldn’t effectively switch off these screens, leading to wide-open Illini 3-pointers and mismatches off the dribble.
Illinois guard Alfonso Plummer was the biggest benefactor of Michigan’s defensive struggles. Plummer torched the Wolverines to the tune of 23 first half points, knocking down 5-of-8 attempts from deep. The Illini as a whole shot 8-of-14 from beyond the arc to take a 46-38 lead into halftime.
“Their speed in the first half coming off the dribble handoffs had a dramatic impact on us,” Michigan acting head coach Phil Martelli said. “And that’s where I just felt, ‘Man, we’re really chasing this game and not settled in.’ ”
To start the second half, the Wolverines still could not contain the Illini. Only this time, it was Cockburn who did the damage, scoring Illinois’s first six points of the half. The much-anticipated battle down low between Cockburn and sophomore center Hunter Dickinson wasn’t much of a battle at all. Cockburn had his way with Dickinson, while Dickinson shot an inefficient 4-for-13.
“I think Kofi, he just attracts everybody,” Jones said. “So when the ball goes in the paint, then he throws it out, they basically got a wide open shot.”
In multiple spurts early in the half, Michigan looked poised to cut into the double-digit deficit, whether it was on a 3-pointer and dunk from Dickinson or a forced turnover to potentially swing the momentum. But whenever the Wolverines had any burst, the Illini quickly shut it down. Illinois guard Andre Curbelo sliced up the Michigan defense while Cockburn went to work in the paint, as the Illini continued to have their way with the Wolverines.
With just over seven minutes left, the Wolverines made their final push. Six points in two possessions from Jones put Michigan within five. After multiple turnovers allowed Illinois to extend the lead back to 10, the Wolverines finally turned it around on defense. Following consecutive empty Illini possessions, Jones and freshman forward Caleb Houstan went to work on the other end. A transition 3-pointer from Houstan cut it to two with just two minutes left.
That was the closest the Wolverines would get, though, as a Cockburn basket and a 3-pointer from Illinois guard Trent Frazier as the shot clock expired put the Illini back up by seven.
“We just had too many times where the ball was not controlled, nor contained,” Martelli said. “And it starts with the ball.”
While Michigan turned its day around toward the end of the game, it still wasn’t enough to rattle off a second-consecutive big win, its shoddy defense too much to overcome.
And for the third week in a row, Michigan came up short.