At half time of Thursday night’s game in Champaign, No. 2 Michigan (15-0, 4-0 Big Ten) will reach the halfway point of its 2018-19 season. With a win against Illinois (4-11, 0-4 Big Ten) the Wolverines will tie the best start in school history with a 16-0 record. The last time Michigan went 16-0 was the 2012-13 season, that team reached the national championship game before falling to Louisville in Atlanta. Michigan is feeling confident ahead of its second conference road tilt but knows the Illini, and coach Brad Underwood’s relentless offensive and defensive system will bring challenges for the Wolverines on both sides of the ball.
“You can’t prepare for Brad’s team in just two days. Hopefully, we have been preparing for it since last July.” Beilein said when asked about what Michigan has done to try and counter what Illinois brings to the game. “You gotta be ready to go into a fight, they’re not gonna let you run things, and you gotta be able to respond.”
Underwood’s offense is built around lots of spacing and hard cuts. Michigan has seen it at its most effective when Underwood’s Oklahoma State team lost to Michigan in an opening round NCAA Tournament game 92-91 in a tightly contested matchup in Indianapolis. The Illini defense has been an asset this season, per KenPom, Illinois is eighth in the nation in defensive turnover percentage at 24.4 percent. Conversely, Michigan is 115th at 20.2 in that same stat. The Illini reached their defensive nirvana back in November against Gonzaga, forcing 22 turnovers while only committing 13 on the offensive end. The Illini defense is allowing nearly 75 points per game.
“We’re gonna see a unique defense again that brings so much pressure on the ball. Pressure on passes, everything.” Remarked Beilein. “You go into this game thinking you might be able to do something, and you won’t be able to do it. They’ll take you out of what you want to do.” Zavier Simpson said the team will have to adjust to the pressure the Illini bring, “Just expect that it is coming, expect that we may have some turnovers we (normally) may not have, but just stay disciplined, and stay locked in and we will be fine.” Concluded the junior guard.
Underwood has had challenges trying to get his offensive system functioning for the Illini. Illinois ranks 143rd per KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency metric (Michigan is 22nd.) Sophomore Trent Frazier and freshman Ayo Dosunmu make up the Illini backcourt and also are the team’s top two scorers. Frazier is averaging 14.9 points per game but has been inconsistent in Big Ten play, scoring 9, 18 11, and 6 points through four games. Notably, his two double-digit outputs came against ranked Big Ten opponents in Ohio State (18) and Indiana (11) we’ll see if he makes it three straight games against ranked Big Ten opponents. Dosunmu has been the more consistent scoring threat as of late, in his last three games, the freshman out of Chicago has 21, 20 and 18 points. Frazier and Dosunmu will need to shoot the lights out early and hope Michigan has a few early turnovers if the Illini are to build a lead against the Wolverines.
The Wolverines may get a boost from the return of sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, who has missed the past two games with back spasms. “Isaiah practiced yesterday to somewhat degree, and we are very hopeful. I can’t tell you he is gonna go, but it seemed like he was out of a lot of the pain he was in before.” Beilein said of the sophomore’s status. If Livers has to miss a third straight game, seeing a healthy dose of Brandon Johns Jr. will not be surprising after his breakout performance Sunday against Indiana. The freshman had eight points and eight rebounds in 13 minutes on the floor and may be used in that Livers role again Thursday.
As for sitting at 15-0 and being one win away from tying the best start in school history, the coach and the players are being somewhat coy, insisting the system that has worked so far has been ignoring the past and living in the present. “It’s a blessing to be 15-0, but at the same time, we could be 15-0, and we could lose the next five, so it is important we stay focused on our next opponent.” Responded Simpson when asked about the team’s level-headedness after starting undefeated. “We’re pretty grounded in that area.” Said Beilein. “We talk about let’s have a great practice, let’s have another great practice, then let’s go play the best we can. We look at the future from a holistic point of view; we don’t look at the past that way.”
On paper, Michigan is its own worst enemy coming into this game. If the Wolverines come out sluggish as they have against lesser opponents in recent games, it could be tough sledding until they adjust (as the team has in every other game.) On the other hand, Michigan can come out and make a statement by getting out to a strong start in a conference road game, something that will give them a boost with trips to Madison, Bloomington and Iowa City in the coming weeks.
“The mental challenge is this is not an 0-4, whatever their team is. They (Illinois) have played a very difficult schedule,” said Beilein. “They’ve played 11 high major teams, and I think we have played eight. We wouldn’t be undefeated if we played eleven high major teams, some of them on the road. They are not their record. If we are not mentally on this game, we will not win.”
While Illinois could give Michigan trouble, the expectation is the Wolverines should improve to 16-0 and 5-0 in Big Ten play. Beilein admitted he knows his team will lose at some point, adding it has been 43 years since the 1975-76 Indiana team went undefeated, and he doesn’t believe that feat will be replicated by any team, let alone his own.
Thursday’s game is an 8 PM tip-off in Champaign, Illinois and will be broadcast on FS1.