It wasn’t the toughest road game on Michigan’s schedule, but there are no bad road wins in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines rode a career-high 26-point, nine rebound performance from Mark Donnal and a dominant, yet seemingly routine, 22 point and 10 assist outing from Caris LeVert to their first win of the conference season.
If Michigan is the team that it wants to be, it should have beaten Illinois soundly. After a few first half jitters it did just that in the 78-68 victory. For a team that lost its final five Big Ten road games last season it had to feel pretty good to open the season with a win at Illinois.
Michigan’s offense sputtered in the first half, continually shooting itself in the foot with turnovers, but bounced back for a strong second half performance. The Wolverines scored only .93 points per trip in the first half, but notched 44 points in 34 second half possessions for 1.29 points per trip in the final 20 minutes.
There was no secret adjustment at halftime, the Wolverines just started doing the things they usually do. The one thing that you can count on about this team is that it will value the basketball and hit open threes. Michigan fixed its turnover woes (14% in the second half vs. 27% in the first) and started hitting threes (7-of-14 in the second half vs 3-of-10 in the first).
Mark Donnal’s play was arguably the most encouraging aspect of the game. He finished drop-off pass after drop-off pass from Caris LeVert and even stepped out for a three. His four offensive rebounds were also helpful in a game where neither team generally goes after second chances. The Wolverines outscored the Illini 13-8 in second chance points on the night. Much will be made about three-point shooting in this game, but Michigan made 18-of-29 shots at the rim in addition to its 10-of-24 long range shooting.
It’ll still be interesting to see how this front court plays against much better opponents because the Illini interior defense is going to be one of the worst in the league. Michigan doesn’t need much from the five-spot other than: catch, finish, box out and make help side rotations on time. Donnal did all four of those things today and was a primary reason the Wolverines were able to pull away.
The numbers say that Michigan’s defense was pretty good, holding the Illini to their worst offensive output of the season and below a point per possession, but there were still plenty of red flags. The Wolverines’ pick-and-roll defense wasn’t great and they lost Finke several times in the pick-and-pop action, he just missed those open chances (1-of-5). But the biggest problem with Michigan’s defensive effort was one that we’ve seen all year: tracking and closing out on shooters. Jalen Coleman-Lands and Kendrick Nunn hit 7-of-15 three-pointers and had a ton of open looks.
Michigan’s defense also turned out to be a lot better when its offense didn’t leave it at a disadvantage. The Wolverines were outscored 14-4 in points off turnovers in the first half, the majority of which were live ball run-outs which led to layups or open threes. In the second half, Michigan stopped giving the ball away and points off turnovers were a net even at 4-4.
Also on the positive side of the ledger, the Wolverines defended well on the interior against the Illini. Illinois made just 10-of-19 shots at the rim (53%) and Michigan dominated the defensive glass, rebounding 82% of Illinois’ misses on the night. Illinois is the worst offensive rebounding team in the Big Ten, but it was still nice to see the Wolverines clean up and push the tempo.
Next up is a Penn State team that is giving Maryland everything that it can handle in College Park as I write this recap. The Nittany Lions are known for their sound interior defense and mediocre shooting ability, but play a tough, slow-tempo physical style of basketball that could test the Wolverines.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal had shown signs of steady improvement over Michigan’s last few games, but this was a breakout showing (albeit against a lackluster frontcourt). 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting is impressive no matter how you slice it, but the four offensive rebounds, three blocks, two steals and a drawn charge might be even more impressive. Donnal played with fire and energy and gave the Wolverines a massive lift on the road. Is he ready to battle Isaac Haas and AJ Hammons in a couple weeks? Probably not yet, but it was a critical step in the right direction.
- Caris LeVert: I pointed out in the preview that Illinois was horrible at defending isolation drives and it appears that the Michigan coaching staff picked up that point as well. After a few possessions, Michigan realized it didn’t need a ball screen to break down the Illini defense and simply isolated LeVert. LeVert routinely got past the first Illinois defender and scored over the help defender or passed around him (10 assists). LeVert accounted for 19 of Michigan’s 30 made baskets in the game and looked every bit like the All-Big Ten (or better) player that Michigan needs him to be.
- Derrick Walton: Derrick Walton almost snuck in a double-double while LeVert and Donnal shared the headlines, finishing with 9 points and 9 boards in the win. His only made three was a late (ugly) bank shot that iced the game away, but I thought he brought a lot of poise to the Michigan offense overall. His putback (plus the foul) early in the second half was critical to Michigan gaining control of the game and also happened to be his first offensive rebound of the season.
- Zak Irvin: Zak Irvin doesn’t necessarily have a great reputation as a defender, but he’s done a heck of a job against Malcolm Hill throughout his career. Hill scored 11 points and had as many turnovers (3) as made shots (3-of-11). Irvin also had 8 points and two rebounds in the win, including a pair of assists and a pair of made threes. He had a few triples go in-and-out as well, but looked more confident in general offensively.
- Duncan Robinson: This was the first time that Duncan Robinson was held to 2 or fewer made threes and single digit scoring output since Michigan was in the Bahamas, but he hit 2-of-5 attempts and scored on a nice post-up against Coleman-Lands to start the second half. Robinson had a few defensive breakdowns, especially in transition, but he also threw a few nice passes as well.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman played eight minutes off the bench and missed his only shot (a wide open three), but he grabbed three rebounds and played solid defense while he was on the floor. That’s all Michigan needs from him in a game like this.
- Aubrey Dawkins: For Dawkins, the battle is putting consistently strong possessions together. On the bright side, he hit a huge second half three and played three or four of the best defensive possessions of his career with Robinson on the bench with four fouls. On the negative side, he double-dribbled the ball in a straight forward fast break and fell asleep defensively a few times to give up open threes.
- Ricky Doyle: We can talk about how the majority of Mark Donnal’s offense was simple, but it wasn’t simple for Doyle tonight. His hands betrayed him around the hoop (0-2 from the floor) and he struggled defensively against the stretch five look that Illinois provided.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner continues to be Michigan’s second big off the bench, but he was beaten badly in pick-and-roll defense (first on a hedge to the middle of the floor and second on a split) and didn’t see the floor in the second half.