CHAMPAIGN The primary concern for the Michigan basketball team as it left Minneapolis last Wednesday was a defensive one. How could the Golden Gophers shoot almost 70 percent from the field?
The Wolverines left Champaign asking nearly the same question after a thorough 94-70 beating at the hands of Illinois. What was done wrong on defense that allows the Illini to break a 30-year old Assembly Hall record by shooting 68 percent?
“We certainly haven”t played well defensively in the last two games,” said a reserved Michigan coach Tommy Amaker. “I think they really exploited our (lack of) size. They certainly wanted to get the ball inside and they were very successful with that. We thought our only defense would be to try to pressure the passer and make it difficult to throw the ball inside. I think they did a great job moving the ball side to side, and getting it in there and they shot a very good percentage.”
Illinois center Robert Archibald and forward Brian Cook were the aforementioned exploiters of Michigan”s defense. They shot a combined 14-of-20 from the field, ending the game with 19 and 20 points, respectively. But their success wasn”t just a result of their ability to out-muscle the undersized Wolverines down low. All of the Illini post players showed their versatility, contributing a combined 10 assists to the win.
“That”s what they did a real good job of,” Michigan center Chris Young said. “No matter which big guy was in the game, they were all able to make that lob pass inside to the other post guys who were wide open most times.”
Amaker”s defensive approach on Saturday was to exert intense man-to-man pressure, but the Illini found a myriad of ways to take advantage of that. Illinois employed back-door cuts, alley-oops, one-touch passing and high-post scoring to avoid the trappings of Amaker”s scheme. Illinois point guard Frank Williams, considered by many to be the best player in the Big Ten, was the gear that allowed the Illinois offensive machine to turn. Williams contributed 14 points, seven assists and four steals, despite not starting the game due to his tardiness that day.
Illinois coach Bill Self had been criticizing his team”s defensive toughness in the wake of two straight road losses, but it was really his offense and its blitzkrieg-like ball movement that was firing from all cylinders against the Wolverines.
“We really did a great job of sharing the ball,” Archibald said. “They really tried to pressure us and disrupt our guards, and that really opened things up inside for (Cook) and myself, and (freshman) Nick (Smith) when he was in there.”
On the Wolverines” end, the offense struggled. There were points in the second half when Michigan was shooting about 24 percent from the field compared to Illinois” 75 percent. Without significant minutes from point guard Avery Queen, Michigan notched only nine assists while Illinois racked up 28 on near-perfect ball movement. Junior LaVell Blanchard led the Wolverines with 17 points and eight rebounds. Junior Gavin Groninger shot 3-of-10 from behind the 3-point line, ending the game with 12 points.
Michigan”s shot selection wasn”t horrible. Especially in the first half, many long-range shots seemed to rim-out of the unfriendly Assembly Hall baskets. In the second half, the Wolverines improved from a 30 percent first half to 45.5 percent. The scoring margin in the second half was just five points, and although ordinarily a team like Illinois might take its intensity down in a blowout and a coach like Self might yank his top players off the court, Saturday”s game was hard-fought from beginning to end.
“We never stopped playing hard,” Young said. “We never stopped battling on loose balls. Until the final horn sounded, we were constantly getting in there and mixing it up.”