Sometimes you just have to chalk up a half of basketball to Murphy’s law.
Michigan turned the ball over 12 times in 36 first half possessions against Illinois. The Wolverines were whistled for six fouls on offense and their leading scorer was on the court for 67 seconds before being called for his second personal. On the other end of floor, a 25% 3-point shooter make his first two looks from deep and suddenly the Wolverines were down 8 points on their home floor before they’d be awake on a summer Saturday.
But Michigan battled through those mistakes, whistles and turnovers and made it to the locker room down just 3 points at halftime thanks to timely bench minutes from Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole. The game wasn’t won at the half, but that 8 minute stretch to close the first half allowed the Wolverines to take control of the game for good before the first media timeout in the second.
Michigan fixed its mistakes in the second half, turning the ball over just three times, and coasted to a comfortable 10-point victory with six different Wolverines in double figures.
Michigan had more turnovers (12) than made field goals (10) in the first half and managed to score just .87 points per possession. The Wolverines made poor decisions, missed tough shots at the rim,. and looked completely flummoxed against Illinois’ extended defensive pressure.
The Illinois game plan was to take Michigan out of its actions, but whatever halftime adjustments Beilein and his staff made in the second alleviated the pressure. As bad and disjointed as everything looked in the opening 20 minutes, it was nearly flawless.
“They really put on a clinic against us in the second half,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood admitted after the loss.
Michigan scored 48 second half points in 34 possessions — 1.41 points per trip — and only turned the ball over 3 times (8% of possessions).
Some of the offense came easily in transition, but the Wolverines also figured out solutions in the halfcourt. This isn’t the same ball screen offense as last year, but Michigan won a few possessions in a row of ball screen chess midway through the second half.
First the Wolverines rejected several ball screens for easy layups which forced Underwood to adjust to a switch-every-screen defense. Michigan attacked the switch with a pair of layups for Moritz Wagner over a point guard. Then Illinois went to a 3-2 zone to nullify any ball screen action and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman hit a three to push the lead to 12 points. The lead never dropped to single digits again.
Michigan’s defense Illinois to .99 points per possession which qualifies as yet another solid performance. The Illini are a flawed offensive team who still runs good stuff. The good stuff led to a handful of backdoor layups, but Michigan denied those looks more often than it allowed them. Illinois made their fair share of twos (57%) but couldn’t hit threes (21%) and turned the ball over on 24% of their possessions. All of the preview talk was about Illinois’ ability to forced turnovers, but Michigan turned 17 giveaways into a 17-9 advantage in points off of turnovers.
Most importantly, the Wolverines got the job done on the defensive glass. Illinois rebounded 33% of its misses but 3 of its 10 offensive rebounds came on the final possession of the game which only mattered to the degenerate gamblers among us. Scratch those from the record and the Illini only rebounded 26% of their misses — that’s an impressive defensive rebounding performance against the No. 7 offensive rebounding team in the country.
Michigan has won seven games in a row and has started to gel over a tough, but manageable, stretch of schedule. Now, life in the Big Ten gets real. The Wolverines host Purdue on Tuesday night before traveling to East Lansing on Saturday. These two teams are the class of the Big Ten, but Michigan isn’t going to get a better shot at a statement win this season than Purdue at home. (Michigan has won its last four home games against Purdue, dating back to 2012.)
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson earned his first start since before Maui and ended up playing all 20 minutes in the second half. Beilein wouldn’t say that Simpson is cemented as Michigan’s point guard, but it is tough to argue with right now. He wasn’t perfect, but he’s Michigan’s best point guard by a pretty wide margin. Simpson handed out 7 assists (with a less ideal 5 turnovers) and didn’t make another shot after a strong and-one drive to open the game. I loved his lookahead transition assist to Wagner and his hands lead to two or three turnovers per game at this rate. The 3-of-6 free throw shooting certainly leaves something to be desired.
- Charles Matthews: Matthews continues to have three or four moments where he just appears to shut down mentally. Michigan went to him on the first possession of the game and he got stripped and then committed a foul out of bounds. The next foul call was a tough break, but he needs to learn not to pick up these kind of calls. Fast forward to the second half and he picked up his third personal for grabbing a cutter before the first media timeout. He did make an impact in the second half with a great pick and roll drive, a transition oop and a corner three, but he needs to play smarter and more consistently to reach his ceiling.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner has just been trying to find his way back into the flow of live game action and his second half was an important step with a tough week coming up. Wagner had a game to forget on defense — I had him down for allowing at least three backdoor buckets — but he hit a three and made 5-of-6 shots inside the arc in his best finishing game in quite a while. He ran the floor for a layup, attacked a closeout for a layup, made a three and grabbed seven defensive boards.
- Isaiah Livers: Livers picked up where he left off on Tuesday night and scored 12 points on an efficient 5-of-7 shooting. Livers knocked in 2-of-3 triples and added a pair of dunks. There’s nothing complicated about what Livers does — catch and shoot threes, back-cut dunks, transition looks — but the energy that he can provide has really changed the last two games for Michigan.
- Jordan Poole: My favorite aspect of Poole’s 12 points night was that his first shift he missed a three and made a defensive mistake, was pulled from the game, and then bounced back and played significantly better. Poole hit his free throws (5-of-5), hit a pair of threes and was 5-of-7 from the floor. Yes, he’s rough around the edges and probably makes some decisions that make Beilein squirm, but he’s learning how to rein than in and was critical in Michigan’s ability to stay afloat in the first half.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Michigan’s senior guard had a bit of a slow start, but scored on an array of difficult semi-transition floaters in the lane. His previously mentioned 3-pointer was also a big shot that helped put the game away late. His defensive presence was noticeable as he was credited with 2 steals and a block and did a great job of breaking up several ball screen passes as the help man.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson made some critical early baskets in the mid-range when Michigan’s offense couldn’t get anything going and finished 3-of-3 inside the arc. He also struggled with his perimeter shot once again (1-of-5). For the second game in a row, John Beilein put him into the game when the opponent was playing zone defense, ran a set to get him an overload corner three, and he missed it. Those are the shots that Michigan just needs him to start making.
- Jon Teske: Teske didn’t make a shot, but he had two assists, a block and a steal and is clearly Michigan’s best defensive big. His ability to pass out of the high post means that Michigan doesn’t need a lot from him offensively and the defensive improvement when he’s on the floor is very noticable.
- Ibi Watson: Watson picked up some first half playing time as Matthews battled foul trouble, but he missed three open jumpers and a drive into traffic. Right now, Watson is the ‘next guy’ off the bench if Poole makes a few early mistakes, but he’s struggling to make an impact.
- Eli Brooks: Brooks is struggling with his confidence and came in off the bench with a rough shift. He was “thinking a little too much” per John Beilein and it showed. Eli missed two layups and turned the ball over in 4 minutes while getting beat on defense a couple of times. He didn’t see the floor again as Beilein went with Simmons late in the first half and Simpson in the second. Brooks has made just one shot in the last six games and that leaves Michigan in a tough spot at the backup point guard.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons had an opportunity to play in the first half and had a few nice passes and a strong take that drew a foul, but then his shift started to deteriorate. He got beat on defense, missed a wild drive to the basket and then was stripped as midcourt. He didn’t see the floor again in the second half.