'You're still trying to win games'

'You're still trying to win games'

CHAMPAIGN — Michigan simply doesn't turn the ball over.

At least not often.

The second-ranked Wolverines entered Thursday night's game at Illinois ranked fifth nationally in defensive turnover percentage, coughing up the ball on just 14 percent of its possessions.

That percentage was more than doubled in the first half as Illinois — which ranks in the top 10 in forcing turnovers — bothered Michigan into 11 turnovers.

"With them pressing us and their gap principles, it's going to be difficult for any team," Michigan guard Zavier Simpson said. "They're going to try to wear you down."

Michigan found some ball security in the second half, though, turning the ball over just three times. Meanwhile, Illinois doubled its turnovers from the first half and finished with 14, too.

"They didn't take the ball out of Zavier's hands," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "Everything became a high ball screen. They made a nice adjustment. ... The ball basically never got out of Zavier's hands. If they did, they threw it to (Jon) Teske and threw it right back to him. He controlled things."

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Underwood employs a deep rotation. Ten different players got time against Michigan. The Wolverines' "rotation" was essentially their starting five and then Isaiah Livers off the bench, with Austin Davis and Eli Brooks getting minimal run in the first half.

Coach John Beilein's instructions from the bench just ahead of the under 8 minute media timeout in the second half basically spotlight what he wants from his starters.

"We've got a timeout coming up; suck it up," Beilein hollered.

All five of Michigan's starters finished in double figures. Livers had nine points and five rebounds after missing the last two games with back spasms.

"We obviously missed him," Beilein said about Livers. "Having him coming off the bench is huge for us to make those points and get the rebounds. We need him on this team. He's been a real secret to our success."

Illinois' bench didn't produce the way Underwood wants. Andres Feliz, Da'Monte Williams and Adonis De La Rosa had just six points total.

"I care about what goes on with the bench and the productivity off that, but we're young there," Underwood said about his bench. "I'm trying to get (Tevian Jones) back in the flow, yet you're still trying to win games."

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Illinois' previous home game before Thursday's against Michigan coincided with an important official visit.

Five-star center Kofi Cockburn also saw an Illini loss to Florida Atlantic, but it didn't sway him from committing to Underwood and Co.

Four-star center Antwan January, who committed to Illinois in mid-November, watched the Illini square off against the No. 2 team in the country on Thursday night.

Underwood can't discuss recruiting specifically since neither January nor Cockburn has signed and won't get the opportunity to until April, but the second-year Illinois coach is pleased with the direction the Illini's recruiting is taking.

"I love what we're doing," Underwood said. "I love the guys we have on staff and what they're out evaluating and looking for. I think momentum can go both ways. I think we're headed in the right direction and we're finding the pieces as we continually evaluate what we need to and obviously (we're) still actively involved in that process."

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Michigan has rebuilt its defense the past two seasons — under assistant coach Luke Yaklich's influence — into one of the best in the country. The way the Wolverines defend might not line up with Illinois' scheme, but how they defend lines up with what Underwood wants from his team.

"Every time the ball moves I look for five guys moving at the same time, and they have that," Underwood said. "That means you are in sync. We talk about chemistry a lot. Chemistry on offense is fairly easy. Having great chemistry on defense is very, very challenging.

"These guys execute. ... They have great size, they have great length and they make very, very few mistakes. You always sees them pointing. You always sees them talking. We have a saying, 'Quiet teams lose,' and they're not quiet. They're very vocal and very dialed in and have great chemistry together."

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The Illini understand the importance of playing locked-in defense.

"Our defense is what helps us stay in a game and get back into it," sophomore guard Trent Frazier said. "The way we pressure and guard the ball, there could be a five-minute stretch where the team doesn't score because of our defense. That's what gives us a better chance with any team in the country to compete with them."

The concept that defense feeds the offense is one De La Rosa said "dudes are starting to get."

"Even if we have a breakdown on the other end, if we just play D we'll get that back somehow," the 7-foot center said. "We're a team that causes a lot of turnovers and always keeps teams on their heels. Even if we're not going great on the offensive end, we can definitely make something happen on the defensive end."

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Underwood wants Williams more vocal on the defensive end to match how active he is at that end of the court. That will help the 6-3 sophomore guard and the Illini.

Offensively, Illinois is trying to take advantage of the aggressive nature of Williams' game.

"Da'Monte's got great strength," Underwood said. "He's a very, very strong young man. Finding ways to utilize that strength along with his ability to drive the basketball has been something we're looking for. We want him driving it. We want him being able to exploit that. Getting to the foul line 10 times and getting offensive rebounds, those are things he's very, very good at."

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Illinois has stayed positive even while Frazier has battled some confidence issues in himself during the current five-game losing skid the Illini are on.

Frazier is a leader of this team, but he's not the only one.

"I don't think we're a team that is one guy that just leads us," Underwood said. "I think we're a collective group in the locker room. Giorgi (Bezhanishvili's) got a dominant personality, and it's hard with him to ever be down because he's a glass half-full guy and always revved up. That's positive. That's good when you're growing and learning, and Giorgi might understand that better than anyone else.

"I don't think it's just Trent. I think it's a group of guys leading us. These guys are passionate, they care and they continually keep working. We've had a well-described tough road, but they've continued to grow from it and learn from it."

SCOTT RICHEY

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