CHAMPAIGN Michigan coach Tommy Amaker has leaned hard on the main pillar in the construction of his program aggressive man-to-man defense.

Paul Wong
Illinois 7-foot-2 freshman NIck Smith was one of the Illini”s big men that gave Michigan trouble.<br><br>LESLIE WARD/Daily

But for the second straight game, this pillar crumbled to the ground, as the Wolverines allowed another opponent to shoot nearly 70 percent from the floor.

Illinois” 68 percent clip (an identical 17-25 mark in each half) broke a 30-year Assembly Hall record and came just short of the school record of 69.1 percent that the Fighting Illini shot against Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1985.

“I think we have a ways to go obviously,” Amaker said. “It”s still a work in progress.”

In the Minnesota game on Jan. 9, the Golden Gophers victimized Michigan”s in-your-face defense with their penetration and remarkable outside shooting. Minnesota shot 81 percent in the second half and had 44 points in the paint.

On Saturday, the Fighting Illini beat up the undersized Wolverines down low.

Amaker expected Illinois to “exploit” its size advantage and said Michigan”s only chance was to pressure the passer and make it difficult to throw the ball into 6-foot-10 Brian Cook (20 points), 6-foot-11 Robert Archibald (19 points) and 7-foot-2 Nick Smith (seven points).

But the mixture of the Illini”s stellar ball movement dishing out a season high 28 assists on 34 field goals and the smaller Michigan post players led to Illinois” 46 points in the paint.

“There was no back-side help because they were throwing the high-low from the top of the lane, and there was no wing that could have possibly helped because they were denying the help,” said Michigan center Chris Young, who is the only Wolverine with significant playing time taller than 6-foot-8.

But no matter how many easy dunks, back-door cuts or alley-oops Michigan gave up, Amaker stuck with the man-to-man defense for most of the game, preaching goals for the “long haul.”

“We made a decision to play the way we want our program to be known for and we”re going to continually do that,” Amaker said.

Late start: The Wolverines caught a break before the opening tip, as Illinois” All-America guard Frank Williams didn”t start for the first time in his career for reasons other than injury.

“I was kind of a little late today,” said Williams, who arrived at Assembly Hall at 2:35 instead of 2:30 for the Illini pregame routine. “They decided that everyone had to be on the floor at the same time, so I had to sit out.”

Williams came into the game with 4:01 elapsed, and ended with 14 points and seven assists in 27 minutes.

Self esteem: Illinois” coach Bill Self approached Michigan junior LaVell Blanchard after the game and told the forward how much he thinks the Wolverines have improved since last season.

“I think they”re a better team,” said Self, who was impressed with how Michigan took Minnesota “to the wire” last Wednesday. “I think (Bernard) Robinson, Blanchard and Young can be considered the best players in the Big Ten at their particular positions.”

Not perfect: After a sizzling start from the free-throw line during Big Ten play, Robinson and Gavin Groninger finally missed their first free throws in four conference games.

Robinson had made 16 consecutive free throws and 14-of-14 in the Big Ten entering Saturday. Groninger was 11-for-11 in the conference and had not missed in 13 straight attempts.

But Robinson went 4-for-6 and Groninger 3-for-4 from the line against Illinois. Both are still shooting nearly 90-percent from the charity stripe.

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