CHAMPAIGN — Jace Howard blocked Kofi Cockburn.
The sophomore forward’s denial of the 7-foot, 285-pound center — who is listed as five inches taller and 60 pounds heavier — didn’t mean much in the end. Illinois still went on to win the game by 15 and the Wolverines’ stout first half defense eventually crumbled. But, it was an early indicator of things to come and a possible sign of where things can go.
Howard did more than just block Cockburn, too; he also played a career high 14 minutes and was the only Michigan player with a positive plus/minus on the team, at plus ten.
He provided defense and energy in each minute. He was everywhere for the Wolverines. His length got into passing lanes, his active hands bothered the Fighting Illini and, when given the most important assignment of guarding Cockburn, he held his own.
“Just goes to show you that the young man is crying out, letting the staff know that he deserves more playing time,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “… He’s always shown that he’s always down and he can be the ultimate teammate. And, you can trust that.”
That energy spread to every other player on the team. Whether it was graduate-transfer guard DeVante’ Jones’ three steals, freshman big man Moussa Diabate’s enthusiastic ball screen hedges or even fifth-year forward Jaron Faulds’ persistent denial of the ball to Cockburn in the paint, it was apparent that Michigan wanted to win and that it knew it had to do that through defense.
How they guarded Cockburn may seem like a failure — he scored a game high 21 points — but, it was more than that. Michigan had a complete size disadvantage down low with the absence of its own seven-foot center in sophomore Hunter Dickinson, and yet, they did not let seven-foot tall behemoth beat them.
“He’s big,” Diabate said of Cockburn, stating the obvious. “It’s challenging. But, I’m a basketball player at the end of day and I love to match up, that’s what I’m looking for and it makes me better.”
The Wolverines gave up some open looks from beyond the arc, but Illinois wasn’t hitting them — it shot just 11% from 3 in the first half. They even found some success in picking up the Fighting Illini guards early every time, and, while they did eventually have a counter for that, it was a thorn in their side early. Jones especially was particularly persistent with pressuring the ball and that showed up in more than just his aforementioned three steals.
“They made me work tonight,” Illinois guard Trent Frazier said of the Michigan guards’ defense. “They did a really good job making it tough for me in the first half.”
Through 34 minutes, every time Illinois got a stop and looked like it was rearing to make a run, when the crowd stood and prepared to unleash a roar on the next made basket, Michigan kept the fans silent.
But, basketball games are 40 minutes.
Eventually, those open looks from three started going in, and the high ball screens the Fighting Illini ran started proving effective. By the end of the game, it was apparent that Illinois coach Brad Underwood knew what his team had to do to break down the Wolverines. It had been a matter of execution, and they were finally executing.
The disruptive defense that kept Michigan in the game finally met its breaking point. From there, the game was quickly and decisively put to rest.
But that tenacity, the type that Howard and the rest of his teammates embodied, emerged for the first time when the Wolverines needed it the most. If they can carry it forward, perhaps, Friday’s game will be viewed as the start.