The stage was set. It had all the makings.
The band was blaring and the popcorn was hot. In the north end zone were seated some of the best high school athletes from Illinois and Indiana, all waiting to be impressed.
Smelling an upset against the nation’s projected No. 1 team, the cheerleaders were jumping a little higher and a packed house cheered ... literally pleaded for the improbable.
But this wasn’t Upset Evening at the Assembly Hall. John Groce’s Illini played hard but were no match for swift, slick Michigan, falling 74-60.
It remains to be seen whether the Michiganders can hang onto No. 1 in their next three road games against Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but they certainly appeared capable Sunday.
Reaching 19-1 overall and 6-1 in the Big Ten, the Wolverines broke down the UI defense with passes and penetration. This allowed them to maintain their season-long plus-50 percent field goal accuracy, and their quick leapers added key putbacks on 12 offensive boards (Illinois actually had more, 16).
Whirlwind guard Trey Burke took another step toward Player of the Year honors, directing action and scoring 19 points with five assists. But the most impressive aspect of Michigan was its overall teamwork, and the way these speedy athletes mesh.
Close (in) counts
Percentages don’t mean much unless you know the quality of shots. When the Wolverine lead reached 52-39, they had 30 points in the paint.
They finished with 42, most of which were point blank.
Michigan set ball screens to force the switching Illini into unfavorable defensive situations — bigs guarding smalls and vice versa — and repeatedly worked inside for easy opportunities. Nik Stauskas got them rolling with two early layups, and they broke free, 15-7, never to trail from that point. Ahead 35-27 at the break, Michigan surged to 50-37, the last two baskets in the spurt coming on Peorian Max Bielfeldt’s putback off a fumbled rebound and a steal by Burke off Brandon Paul.
The Illini seniors, called on by Groce to show the way, weren’t up to it.
Paul’s 15-point game was marred by critical turnovers (five) that resulted in Michigan scores. D.J. Richardson, coming off a 30-point game, missed eight of his first nine shots and zeroed in much too late. Tyler Griffey ran his string of three-point misses to 20 as Illinois displayed more erratic shooting (6 of 26 for 23.1 percent) from the arc. And Joseph Bertrand, who was recruited with that group, was silent before cashing two late baskets.
The remarkable part is that Michigan, which lost junior Jordan Morgan with a sprained ankle in the first minute, is counting so heavily on freshmen.
Stauskas, a rookie from Canada, was outstanding on a 6-for-10 night that accounted for 14 points. Freshmen Glenn “Little Big Dog” Robinson III and Mitch McGary combined to go 8 for 14 from the field with 15 rebounds. Clearly, Michigan is here for years to come even if, as expected, sophomore Burke turns pro.
“From an efficiency standpoint, Michigan is the top team in the country,” Groce said. “When we started to cut into their lead, they hurt us with jailbreaks. We had some live ball turnovers, and you can’t guard those. They are terrific in transition.
“We are diagnosing this and that, and it comes down to the fact that we got some shots we wanted and we didn’t convert. But give Michigan credit. We held them to 5 for 15 on threes, and yet they shot 53 percent, and we shot 37 percent. We can’t beat that team when we shoot like that. They have a lot of weapons.”
The Illini haven’t lost this season when they shot at least 45 percent, but this marks the fifth of seven conference games in which they came in under 39 percent, and they’re 2-5.
And mark down another game in which Illini turnovers were too frequent (15) and assists too few (seven). Those aren’t numbers sufficient to win in a power-packed Big Ten this season.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.