ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan basketball hasn’t had many off nights this season, but on Tuesday night against Illinois, the Wolverines packed several games’ worth of regression into 40 ugly minutes.
Illinois was playing without Ayo Dosunmu, one of the best players in the country and the undisputed leader of its offense. Meanwhile, Michigan had a chance to clinch the Big Ten regular season title, and put away any possible doubt about its legitimacy.
Yet still, it was the Wolverines who came out with little energy, settling for contested shots and getting destroyed on the offensive glass. A team that had only lost one rebounding battle in its first 19 games got beat on the glass 42-26.
Yes, Kofi Cockburn is a monster inside, but it was mostly the Illinois guards and wings beating Michigan defenders for put-backs and backbreaking second-chance points. Those are the hustle plays that Michigan has made all season, but on this particular night, they looked a step slow.
Five of Michigan’s top six players -- Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith, Hunter Dickinson and Chaundee Brown -- might have had their worst games of the season.
Wagner looked every bit a lottery NBA draft pick the last two games, but against Illinois, he made just one of his nine shot attempts and finished with two points.
Dickinson, who’s been dominating Big Ten bigs as a true freshman, went just one of eight while battling foul trouble.
The best of Michigan’s starting five was Eli Brooks, who scored 11 points on three of eight shooting.
But even Brooks, one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, couldn’t find his defensive footing against the Illinois backcourt. Freshman Andre Curbelo roasted Brooks and Smith off the dribble, immediately turning a small Illinois lead into a double digit blowout when he entered.
Even when Michigan has had rough stretches this season, it’s been able to rely on defense. But that wasn’t the case Tuesday.
When Illinois wasn’t getting to the rim, Trent Frazier was drilling jump shots. When he missed, it was a sea of orange jerseys on the offensive glass.
It was a rare disaster for a team that’s served up that same dish to so many others this season. At one point, a shellshocked Michigan team trailed by 28, and the deficit never got back below 20.
So now, Michigan is in a rare position where it needs to put an ugly performance in the rearview mirror and bounce back. It’s not going to be easy, with in-state rival and rising NCAA Tournament contender Michigan State coming to town.
Wednesday is the only day off for Michigan to assess the damage, lick its wounds and try to get back to playing the way it has for 13 of 15 conference games.
What seemed an insurmountable lead in the Big Ten standings is now a little more tenuous. On Thursday, we’ll see how Juwan Howard’s team responds to that very public, very thorough beatdown.