ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Midway through the second half of No. 7 Michigan’s 71-58 win against Illinois on Sunday, Joseph Bertrand took off for a dunk from the right side of the lane before being fouled hard by Michigan’s Jon Horford.
Bertrand landed hard on the floor and was in pain before limping to the Illinois bench, where athletic trainer Paul Schmidt attended to him.
Bertrand eventually returned to the game and his prognosis going forward is positive.
“We do have six days between games, that gives us a chance to get Jo Jo healthy — he kind of landed there on his hip — which will be good for us,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
The six-day break before hosting Nebraska is the longest Illinois has had between games since taking a week off between games against Missouri and Auburn in late December.
With eight players getting the bulk of the minutes, Groce is looking forward to the break in competition.
“It’s great this time of year, I think it’s great for us. We’ll get some guys who have played some heavier minutes some rest, clean up some things,” he said. “It gives us time to actually practice a couple of those days and not just worry about the opponent so we have a little longer of a period of time and can worry more about us and I think that can be really beneficial.”
Michigan had a week off before Sunday’s game against Illinois.
When he was coach at Ohio, Groce secured a commitment from 6-foot-5 guard Caris LeVert. When Groce took the Illinois job, LeVert re-opened his recruitment and landed at Michigan.
The freshman went 16 minutes Sunday, finishing with eight points and two rebounds. He was pressed into duty early when Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. left the game with a bloody nose.
“I think he’s getting better. He stepped right in and did a great job, made a couple big shots,” Groce said. “Looks like to me he’s getting better defensively, his body’s changing. He’s a great kid, great family, I wish him nothing but the best.”
LeVert grew close with Groce and Illinois assistant Dustin Ford during his recruitment .
“It’s kind of strange. (Groce) and Coach Ford are great guys,” LeVert said. “They just said ‘good game and good luck’ to me afterward.”
When Illinois was in control in the first half, it was strong on the offensive glass. The Illini had eight offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes, leading to 13 second-chance points.
Illinois had none after the break.
“We had eight offensive rebounds in the first half. I thought we were all over the glass,” Groce said. “Second half, zero. They were great on the glass in the second half but in 20 minutes, you’d think we’d be able to maybe fall into one. Rebounding, loose balls, screening, execution, precision, I thought they were better than us in all those areas in the second half.”
Another issue Illinois had Sunday was taking care of the ball. The Wolverines forced 13 Illinois turnovers and turned them into 27 points.
“We made some bone-headed turnovers, which allows a good team like Michigan to get out in transition,” D.J. Richardson said. “They’re one of the best teams in the country in transition and every time we turned it over, they basically scored.”
In the teams’ first meeting, Michigan scored 22 points off 15 Illinois turnovers.
“We had a lot of live-ball turnovers. When you turn the ball over against them, it’s a dunk or a three,” Groce said. “I didn’t think we took care of the ball great. Uncharacteristic of our guys, we came out of a couple time outs and didn’t execute. We’ve been really good in that area lately. We missed a couple screens there on some actions that you can’t miss against them, they’re too good.”
According to Dan Dakich, who calls Big Ten games for ESPN and worked Sunday’s, the Big Ten has lived up to its billing as the nation’s best conference.
“The games have been great. I said earlier in the year there were three teams that were kind of going to determine it: Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Illinois obviously has been terrific of late, Wisconsin is Wisconsin and Minnesota has fallen off. But, overall, I think the depth has been great, the players have been terrific and the games have been off the charts. The games have been ridiculous,” said Dakich, a former Indiana player and coach.
Dakich watched as Illinois went through a rough patch to start the conference season, losing seven of nine. The difference, he said, is the same things Groce had been preaching during the five-game win streak: defense.
“I think they’ve really improved defensively. Their schedule, they did what they needed to do, they beat teams they were supposed to,” Dakich said. “The three games prior to their winning streak, they gave up 74, 80 and 74 points. Now they’re in the 50s and they’ve got to continue that.”
What he’s also seen is the leadership reach a new level. It’s no surprise Groce has maintained his energy throughout the season. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Illinois’ veteran roster has upped its sense of urgency.
“I give John, I give Richardson and I give Paul great credit,” Dakich said. “You’ve got to know this year in the Big Ten, you’re going to have a tough stretch. Michigan just went through it and Indiana is kind of going through it to a certain degree. You can either go away, or you can get stronger and it’s incumbent on leadership and I think they’ve done a great job. They should, they’ve got seniors. If they don’t have leadership now, when are they going to have it. They’re getting done what they should be getting done.”
— Marcus Jackson