Wednesday afternoon, Michigan coach John Beilein told assembled media that nothing was a given for his 15-0 Michigan team and that Illinois had all the makings of a difficult opponent for his Wolverines in their second Big Ten road trip of the season. Beilein was correct, as No. 2 Michigan had to battle missed shots and turnovers against Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s pressure-based defense, but the Wolverines prevailed, 73-64 to match the best start in program history at 16-0 (5-0 Big Ten.)
“We expected that… I was pleased that we scored 39 in the first half and gave it back to them 11 times.” John Beilein told FS1’s Bill Raftery after the win. “They sped us up and we threw them the ball and you just can’t do that.”
Boosted by the return of Isaiah Livers (back spasms) the Wolverines opened the game as if they were shot out of a cannon. Livers checked in for Charles Matthews after an early offensive foul by the senior guard, and the Kalamazoo native made the most of his opportunity. Seeing game action for the first time since Binghamton on December 30th, Livers scored the Wolverines first basket and went on to score seven of the team’s first 17 points, helping Michigan build an early advantage.
From that point, for about seven minutes, Michigan found itself in a tightly contested dogfight as the Illini whittled away at the Wolverines lead. Missed shots and an uncharacteristic number of turnovers allowed Illinois to get within three points before Michigan managed to build up another advantage. The Wolverines claimed their first double-digit lead of the night off a pair of Jordan Poole free throws when Illinois coach Brad Underwood was charged with a technical foul late in the first half for throwing his suit jacket behind the bench in frustration at a no-call. Michigan carried a five-point advantage into halftime 39-34.
As the second half began, much of it played out like those seven minutes of the opening period. Michigan held a lead of several possessions, but Illinois would make enough plays to reduce that deficit to four or five points, forcing Michigan into a response. One area where the maize and blue adjust properly was ball handling. After committing 11 turnovers in the first half, it took Michigan 13:46 to commit one in the second half when Simpson gave up the ball on the offensive end. The Wolverines finished the game with only 14 turnovers. Taking care of the ball aided Michigan as it took home the win considering the Wolverines were on pace to break their season-high for turnovers in a game after 20 minutes (16 against South Carolina.)
“We played with a little better composure and then our defense tightened up in the second half… Just really pleased we could get that win because I knew it was gonna be one of those ones where we grind it out all the way” Beilein said postgame.
Simpson was also responsible for icing the game with just over five minutes to go, and no, it wasn’t through one of his trademark skyhooks. Simpson hit a pull-up three in transition with 5:10 to play to put Michigan up 66-56 and the Wolverines did not look back from there. Simpson proved to be Michigan’s most vital player on the floor Thursday night, scoring a team-high 14 points to go with 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Jon Teske chipped in a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds along with 4 blocks. It’s fitting that Simpson and Teske shined the brightest at State Farm Center. They were both freshmen when former Illinois forward Maverick Morgan made his comment two years ago about Michigan being a “white collar” basketball team. Since Morgan’s remarks, Michigan has undergone a renaissance and become one of the most successful teams in the country over portions of three seasons. Teske and Simpson were coy as to if they still thought about Morgan’s remarks, but suffice to say, Michigan’s first trip to the State Farm Center since Morgan made those comments may have provided a little extra fuel to the pair’s competitive fires in Champaign. Thursday’s win required a blue collar, hard-fought effort from the team in blue uniforms, and that is just what the Wolverines provided, led by Simpson and Teske.
“He’s coaching our guys up, he made a big three today, he has worked so hard, we just love the young man. Since he has been our starting point guard, do the math on what our record is, that is pretty darn good.” Beilein said regarding his junior point guard’s strong outing.
Michigan now returns to the friendly confines of Crisler Center for its first rematch of the season as the Wolverines host Northwestern (10-6, 1-4 Big Ten) Sunday night at 7:30. That game will hold extra significance beyond the Wolverines sneaking out of Evanston with a 62-60 win one month ago. A win will give the Wolverines a 17-0 start, and let the 2018-19 team create its first record in the program’s sizable history book with the best start in school history. As John Beilein has insisted all year, Michigan isn’t worried about the record it has, but rather about going 1-0 in its next game.