Just 10 days ago, the Michigan men’s basketball team faced Illinois and suffered a humiliating 16-point defeat in Champaign, 85-69. Michigan coach John Beilein admitted Friday that the Fighting Illini opened up a “can of whooping” on the Wolverines, as it was the only Big Ten game that they were really out of by the halftime break this year.
Illinois’s trio of big men — center Maverick Morgan and forwards Kipper Nichols and Leron Black — did most of the damage that night, scoring 16, 13 and 10 points, respectively. After the game, Morgan added insult to injury, calling Michigan a “white-collar team”.
In the time since, Michigan defeated Nebraska at home and nearly upset Wisconsin on the road. Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini have been on the ropes, losing a close home game to Maryland and then getting blown out at Purdue.
On Saturday afternoon, the two teams were set for a highly-anticipated rematch at Crisler Center. Before the game, senior wing Zak Irvin approached the team equipment manager and asked if the Wolverines could don their blue away jerseys instead of their traditional home white.
While redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson took Morgan’s comments in stride Friday, asserting that Michigan didn’t feel the need to prove that it was a tough team, even he admitted after the game that the slight put a “chip on their shoulder”.
That chip was clearly evident Saturday, as the Wolverines took the court in their “blue-collar” uniforms and sent a very clear message to Illinois (2-5 Big Ten, 12-8 overall). Adopting the aggressive defensive mindset Morgan claimed they lacked, Michigan (3-4, 13-7) avenged its blowout loss and earned a 66-57 victory.
While the Fighting Illini went off, shooting 64 percent from both the floor and from three in the first contest, the Wolverines held Illinois to 45 percent shooting from the field and just 28 percent shooting from distance Saturday. Instead of allowing 49 first-half points like it did in game one, Michigan kept the Fighting Illini under 25 points at the break.
With a strategy centered on physicality and help defense on the low block, the Wolverines shut down Illinois’ three big men who had been so dominant in Champaign. While the trio racked up 39 combined points that night, they amassed just 14 on Saturday.
“I thought we were really much more aggressive than we were at their place in guarding the post,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “… When they went in there, they did get some shots, but we made them earn them.”
Keeping the Fighting Illini out of their sweet spots, especially the mid-range jump shot, Michigan turned Illinois’ big men into liabilities, as they turned the ball over six times. The Wolverines also forced them into foul trouble, limiting their minutes on the court. Morgan, Nichols and Black played just 22, 17 and 13 minutes, respectively.
Nichols, in particular, terrorized Michigan on the offensive glass in Champaign, pulling down five boards as the Fighting Illini scored 10 second-chance points. But Wilson assumed that role in the rematch, notching six offensive rebounds which the Wolverines used to gain a 14-6 edge in the second-chance points battle.
During a 13-3 run from the 14-minute mark to the six-minute mark of the first half — in which Michigan opened up a nine-point lead and began to pull away from Illinois — Wilson scored 10 points, all of which came off offensive boards.
He kicked off the stretch by grabbing a long rebound and knocking down a 3-pointer, before adding a couple of putback layups in traffic on which he drew fouls. His most impressive points, though, came when he threw down a massive putback slam that surely belongs on the highlight reel.
“I thought they beat us up pretty good on the glass, and obviously DJ Wilson spearheaded that,” said Illinois coach John Groce. “I thought he was absolutely terrific today. … His energy level on the backboard (and) his willingness to make the extra pass and make his team better.”
By the end of the first half, the Wolverines had officially turned the tables on the Fighting Illini, taking a 34-24 lead into the break. Michigan never looked back from there. The Wolverines could have taken their foot off the gas, but they kept it on full throttle.
Irvin and senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. carried the scoring burden alongside Wilson’s 19-point performance, tallying 11 and six points, respectively, in the second half.
The duo, who also took Morgan’s dig personally, made Illinois look silly on a couple of possessions. First, Walton crossed over Morgan before laying it up and drawing a foul, and then Irvin drove down the baseline with a stop-start move to blow past his defender and convert at the rim.
By that point, Michigan had a 21-point lead with six minutes remaining. Though the Wolverines gave up 18 points while sinking six free throws down the stretch, the Fighting Illini never posed a serious threat.
Michigan entered the rematch eager to make a statement, and that’s exactly what the Wolverines did.
As Wilson made clear after the game: “We weren’t the white-collar team today.”