Tate: Upset wasn't in the cards

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.

Youth movement
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 ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Green Shirt wrote on January 28, 2013 at 7:01 am

We knew coming into the season that ball handling was a significant weakness.  Tracy is only a fair ball handler and Brandon is weak (his passes are consistently either lackadaisical, risky or worse).  The B1G teams have only served to expose what we already knew - we lack ball handlers.  The only solution (as Ron Zook used to say) is to "recruit, recruit and recruit".

aaeismacgychel wrote on January 28, 2013 at 10:01 am

I actually thought we played pretty well though perhaps I'm in the minority. Our main problem again, like it was last year was our inability to make open shots along with untimely turnovers giving the opponent easy points. I mean, we can analyze this all we want, but it's as simple as that. It seems that for the past 3 or 4 years now that's been the main difference. When you can't make open shots and the other team can, you're probably going to lose if you have similar level talent. In this game, we got beat by a better team playing at a high level. There's no shame in that. In fact, I liked what I saw for the most part. Tyler Griffey had one of his best games as an Illini as far as I'm concerned even with the missed wide open threes. He played with a lot of energy and toughness, and he didn't get lit up on defense. In fact, for the most part he held his own. Richardson didn't have a great game but he held his own, and Brandon and Tracy had up and down games, but not terrible by any means. They had some really untimely turnovers when pressured with the ball, but that's not anything new. I know people scream and cry and moan and call Abrams and Paul terrible ball players who need to benched ad infinitum, but those people don't get it. You can't make players something they're not. You can't scream and holler and boo and suddenly Brandon Paul has the ball-handling and passing skills of Trey Burke. Brandon Paul has been terrific this year and if he were playing his natural position instead of at point, he'd have far less turnovers and be just as effective (maybe even moreso) at scoring. We need a point guard. Brandon's not it, and that's okay. I just hate seeing our fanbase get on his case when really, he's been nothing but a positive for us this year. We basically need him to be a 25pt, 10reb, 5assist, 5steal, 3block, 1 turnover guy each night just to win, and it's completely unfair to put him in that position and hold him to those standards. No college kid deserves that. We just need to keep playing hard, and if we play like we did last night every game the rest of the season, we'll pick up several wins. I was okay with our performance last night. Sometimes you just run into a team that's more talented than you and playing good ball.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: For me the most important thing about a team I cheer for is not the wins and losses. Those come and go. But is this a team that plays hard and I team I can get behind and support. The team that came out against Northwestern was unacceptable to me. But the team that came out last night? I was proud of the way they played. So, they lost at home to what will be the #1 team in the country. That happens. But the played hard and did make a game out of it even though the final score said they lost by 14. I was happy with how we played, and hopefully we play as hard and as energetic as we did last night the rest of the season. Good job, guys, and let's play just as hard @ MSU later this week.

OrlandoIllini wrote on January 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm

I tend to agree with aaeismacgychel.

Though there were too many occasions when the ball was not protected, I thought they played hard and were well coached.

The difference was that at every position, Michigan had better talent. On rare occasions the lesser talented team can pull one out, but rare is the word.

It would be nice if the Illini could shoot well and rebound consistently, but that's not going to happen routinely with these players.

The Illini were more comptetitive than I expected. I felt bad for them that they lost, but there's no shame in losing to a nationally top rated team.