If junior guard Stu Douglass had put just a tad more oomph into his left-handed desperation shot as the clock expired on Feb. 16 in Champaign, Friday’s Big Ten Tournament matchup vs. Illinois would have far fewer implications for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
At the end of the Wolverines’ lone game against the Illini in the regular season, Michigan had the final possession with a two-point deficit, 54-52. From the top of the key, freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. dished to fellow rookie Evan Smotrycz on perimeter, who launched a 3-pointer from the left corner with six ticks left.
The shot missed off the glass and Douglass grabbed the long rebound. While falling back, he released a shot from just beyond the arc with his left hand. The ball clanked off the front rim and the team trudged off the court in frustration.
Sophomore point guard Darius Morris needed some more time to recover — he fell to his knees, reflecting on just how close the Wolverines (9-9 Big Ten, 19-12 overall) had come to one of their biggest wins of the season. Had they won, it’s very likely that Michigan’s NCAA Tournament at-large bid would be taken care of by now.
Instead, Friday’s matchup is critical for both teams’ postseason aspirations.
“I think it’s just something we’ll definitely be able to learn from,” junior guard Zack Novak said Tuesday. “We’ve been pretty successful in the second time around playing teams. We’ve don’t a good job of learning from our mistakes.”
Indeed, after losing to Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota in the first half of Big Ten play, Michigan beat all three squads on the back end of the conference schedule.
And the Wolverines probably like their chances against the Fighting Illini (9-9, 19-12) this time around. Their shooting could only improve from the last meeting. Michigan shot under 40 percent from the field and just 2-for-18 from 3-point range.
“We feel like there’s a lot of plays that we took off in that game,” Hardaway Jr. said Tuesday. “We were lackadaisical in our ball-handling and our defense in general in the first half of the game. In the second half, we were more furious and more intelligent with the basketball. We just have to play like that for the whole 40 minutes.”
Friday’s contest will feature an exciting matchup at point guard, as Morris and Illinois senior floor general Demetri McCamey are two of the best in basketball. Both are top 10 in the country in assists per game, and usually when they play well, their teams fair well.
The last time out, Morris finished with a solid line — 11 points, seven assists and six rebounds — and was crucial in the closing minutes to bring the Wolverines within two. He also turned the ball over only once.
“He’s much more consistent with what it takes to win,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “He has so much passion to win, and he’s got such strong pride in his ability. He’ll get headstrong at times, and you just have to reel it back in … He understands his strengths, and he’s working at the things he wants to improve.”
McCamey finished that game with game-high 18 points, hitting multiple contested shots, including four buckets from beyond the arc. His team didn’t shoot particularly well and he was the only Illini player to hit a shot from 3-point territory, while Illinois was 4-of-18 on 3-pointers.
Down low, Illinois has a considerable size advantage. Between seniors Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole, the Fighting Illini frontcourt boasts as much depth as any team in the nation.
In the last meeting, Michigan starting center Jordan Morgan found himself in foul trouble and only played 25 minutes.It opened many scoring opportunities for Tisdale in the post, who finished with 12 points.
“We can’t go 2-for-18 from three again, that’s for sure,” Beilein said. “They get points just from the (7-foot-1 Tisdale) factor inside. Their high-low game was very effective last time.”
With so much uncertainty in the postseason, both Michigan and Illinois should consider this matchup a must-win. For both teams, a victory on Friday would all but secure an NCAA Tournament berth, while a loss would make the chances of that berth a bit dicey.