In its first action since Jan. 4, the shorthanded Michigan men’s basketball team returned to the court following a pair of COVID-19 postponements. The Wolverines fell to No. 25 Illinois, 68-53, while playing without All-American center Hunter Dickinson and forward Brandon Johns Jr., who are both dealing with conditioning and stamina issues, per the FS1 broadcast.
With the loss, Juwan Howard falls to 0-4 against the Fighting Illini — the only Big Ten team he hasn’t beaten since becoming Michigan’s coach in 2019. The Maize and Blue Review breaks down three takeaways from the Wolverines’ third conference loss in four games:
Michigan finds promising small-ball lineups
Without Dickinson (7-foot-1) and Johns (6-foot-8), the Wolverines were forced to play a handful of small-ball lineups. Terrance Williams II made his first career start at the ‘4,’ while Moussa Diabate slid over to the ‘5.’
Dickinson offers a dominant post presence, but his absence allowed Michigan to find ways to space the floor. Though the Wolverines shot just 1-of-7 from deep in the first half, they generated open looks from the start. Much of that stemmed from the athleticism of Diabate, whose face-up game gave Michigan new looks. He beat Illinois star center Kofi Cockburn off the dribble multiple times, which put the Illini in uncomfortable defensive rotations and opened up scoring looks for other Wolverines.
Jace Howard also saw time at the ‘4,’ while multiple three-guard lineup combinations included Eli Brooks, DeVante’ Jones, Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins.
Energy and effort were at a season-high
Even without a starter and key rotational piece, Michigan looked as motivated as it has all year. Hoping to avoid falling to .500 through 14 games, the Wolverines’ energy and effort stood out.
Despite a lack of chemistry among new lineup combinations and different rotations, Michigan played like its season was on the line. The team is squarely on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble looking in at the moment, and if losses continue mounting, it’s difficult to see that changing. For a team that started the season ranked No. 6 nationally, that’s a deflating confidence dent.
Still, Friday’s demeanor showed a team with character. And if the Wolverines are going to fight for a spot in the Big Dance come March, they’ll need more of that as they return to full strength.
Poor 3-point shooting continues against Big Ten opponents
In three Big Ten losses, the Wolverines have seen a common denominator: dismal 3-point shooting. They missed 15 of 18 attempts against Minnesota, 12 of 15 at Rutgers and then nine of 10 in Champaign on Friday.
After losing Isaiah Livers, Chaundee Brown, Mike Smith and Franz Wagner to the professional ranks, many expected Michigan’s outside shooting to take a step backward. But so far this season, the Wolverines have looked inept from beyond the arc at times. Simply put, they’re shooting themselves out of games. And as cold spells continue, defenses feel more comfortable collapsing on Michigan’s interior threats.
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