CHAMPAIGN — Since March, this game was circled on the calendar for both the Michigan men’s basketball team and No. 25 Illinois.
Whether they want to admit it or not, both teams knew that this game meant a little more than a typical regular season game. For the Fighting Illini, it offered a chance to run last year’s Big Ten regular season champions out of town; for the Wolverines, it was a chance to quiet them down and beat Illinois for the first time in Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s tenure.
But well before the game had even tipped off, it lost much of its intrigue. Following a COVID-19 outbreak, the Wolverines went nearly a week without practicing leading up to the game and hadn’t played since Jan. 4. To make matters worse for them, sophomore center Hunter Dickinson and senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. were not conditioned enough to play following stints in COVID protocols.
Rather than fold, though, Michigan fought and kept the game close until late, but eventually couldn’t overcome Dickinson’s absence. The Wolverines (7-7 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) never led in the game, eventually losing to the Illini (13-3, 6-0), 68-53.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones said. “They fought to the (end). Every single one of them, from top to bottom. And that’s what we want from this group. Obviously we didn’t get the outcome we wanted. But I know going further in the season, the confidence is going up.”
For most of the game, Michigan remained within striking distance; with just under seven minutes remaining, it had a chance to take a lead and perhaps even take control. In the midst of a 9-2 Wolverine run to cut the deficit to one, a steal by freshman guard Kobe Bufkin gave Michigan its golden opportunity. On the ensuing offensive possession, Jones found a driving lane and went up for a layup. The shot, though, wouldn’t fall.
On the other end, center Kofi Cockburn responded with an emphatic dunk, kickstarting a 14-4 Illinois run over the next four minutes. It was the first time all night that the Wolverines had no answers, and the Illini cruised to a victory as a result.
Early on, Michigan’s glaring hole in the frontcourt was exposed. Freshman forward Moussa Diabate picked up two fouls within the first five minutes of the game, and without Dickinson and Johns — the Wolverines’ typical third option at the ‘5’ — Michigan had to piece together minutes for the remainder of the first half. An already uphill battle became a recipe for a dominant game from Cockburn.
“It’s tough when you have a young man giving up 50-70 pounds and he’s giving everything he can,” Howard said. “Kofi has done a really good job of becoming a really good finisher on that low block. Everything he catches in the paint, he’s gonna make you work.”
But the Wolverines were able to hang around. They had trouble generating offense, as was expected without Dickinson, but their aggressiveness on both ends of the floor kept them in the game. Cockburn managed to score 12 points in the half, yet Michigan consistently made it difficult for the Illini to get him the ball. Multiple times, entry passes were thrown away.
“My teammates, they did a great job,” Diabate said. “(Sophomore forward Jace Howard), (senior forward Jaron Faulds) … they gave everything they had, and that’s what we want. … I was in foul trouble early in the game and man, they were just going crazy.”
The second half began similarly. Even when the Illini were able to knock down 3-pointers or feed Cockburn inside, the Wolverines responded. Illinois extended its lead to 10 six minutes in, but Michigan quickly responded with layups on its next two possessions while forcing stops and turnovers on the other end. Following the under-12 timeout, the Wolverines continued that momentum, getting out in transition to get easy baskets and get to the free-throw line to cut the Illini lead to two.
Then, though, Diabate picked up his fourth foul and had to sit, putting the Wolverines in the same predicament that occurred in the first half. And once again, they hung around. A technical foul and second chance on the ensuing possession put Michigan down one.
But the dagger came soon after. On a night in which the Wolverines outperformed the expectations of many and had a bona fide chance to leave Champaign with their best win of the season, they finally ran out of answers. After 35 minutes of fight, the foul trouble and absences became too much to overcome.
And as the clock wound down with the Illini in control, chants of “0 and 4” rained down from the rafters, Howard still winless in four tries against Illinois