On Saturday afternoon, the Illinois Fighting Illini went on the road and traveled to Ann Arbor to face the Michigan Wolverines. Illinois was 10-6 heading into the matchup and Michigan was 13-3 overall. It figured to be an intriguing league matchup.
However, while many expected Michigan to roll over Illinois, that wouldn’t be the case. The Illini jumped out to an early lead and it was 34-31 at halftime. Kipper Nichols played really well for Illinois and scored 17 points during the afternoon.
But as the game extended into the second half, Michigan took control thanks to some big performances from Isaiah Livers and Moritz Wagner. The two combined for 26 points on the afternoon. Michigan won by a final score of 79-69.
Let's see what we learned from the game.
What We Learned
1. Michigan sets itself up for monster week.
Since early December, it’s hard to argue with Michigan’s play. The Wolverines had won six in a row heading into Saturday and added a seventh against the Illini. As a result, Michigan improved to 14-3 overall and 3-1 in Big Ten play. The team is easily in NCAA Tournament consideration at the moment.
However, a huge week now sits on the docket for the Wolverines.
Next week, Michigan will get Purdue (No. 4 on KenPom) at home on Tuesday and Michigan State (No. 1 on KenPom) on the road on Saturday. These are two of Michigan’s three biggest remaining games on the docket and both come this week. This is the kind of stretch that can completely change the direction of a season.
Although the Wolverines will be underdogs in both games, Saturday’s win against Illinois sets the team up for a blockbuster week. So, grab some popcorn and tune in.
2. Michigan still has point guard questions.
One of the key factors in Michigan’s improved play over the last month has been the team’s more productive backcourt play. Eli Brooks transitioned from a point guard that looked hesitant into a player who could initiate the offense and Zavier Simpson transitioned from an inconsistent player into a defensive force.
However, Michigan saw mixed results on Saturday.
During the first half of Michigan’s matchup with Illinois, Brooks and Simpson combined for just four points in 16 minutes and committed a handful of mistakes. The third-string option wasn’t all that encouraging, either. Jaaron Simmons entered the game and made a few nice plays, but followed that up with defensive lapses and a turnovers.
These issues aren’t anything new for the Wolverines, but it remains a concern. This is especially true in situations like Saturday, when players like Charles Matthews have to exit the game with foul trouble. This will bite Michigan more this season.
3. Things should get easier for the Illini.
Don’t get me wrong, Saturday was not a good result for Illinois. Anytime you squander a lead in a marquee opportunity, it’s not going to be positive news. The Illini hadn’t locked up anything, but the team was in position to steal a win and blew it. The loss dropped the Illini to 10-7 overall and 0-4 in Big Ten play.
However, fans shouldn’t give up just yet. While the NCAA Tournament is probably out of reach at this point (barring a crazy Big Ten Tournament run), the schedule lightens up in the days to come. Illinois will face Iowa at home on Thursday and beatable Nebraska and Wisconsin squads on the road thereafter. Wins are there.
Illinois still has a lot of work to do to make this a positive season, but seeing a young roster losing on the road to teams like Michigan and Minnesota isn’t exactly embarrassing. Illinois will regroup and should find some success very shortly. As such, Illini fans should hold on for at least a little longer.
4. Youth movement continues to lead Illinois.
Before Saturday’s game, I expected the most important battle would be upfront. Illinois seemed to have a mismatch with Leron Black and I figured that much of the game would come down to how and/or whether the Wolverines could slow down Black from scoring on Duncan Robinson and Wagner.
However, it wasn’t Black that kept Illinois in the game with Michigan. It was the team’s efficient guard play. Freshmen guards Trent Frazier and Mark Smith finished with 16 combined points on the afternoon. Moreover, they were really effective on the defensive end of the floor, forcing Michigan into bad looks.
Reasonable fans understand that this is a rebuilding season for the Illini. However, with players like Frazier and Smith, that rebuilding process probably won’t take all that long.
While few thought Saturday’s contest would be a nail biter, it was an entertaining game that showed some strengths and weaknesses on both sides. Michigan scored an important win that should propel it into a huge week. Illinois might have lost, but the Illini can learn from the game and improve for an easier slate.
Michigan will now move on to face Purdue at home on Tuesday and Illinois will face Iowa at home next Thursday. Both games figure to be competitive.