One of the teams that played Tuesday night in Ann Arbor could win the whole thing next month in Indianapolis.
Even without Ayo Dosunmu for the third straight game, No. 4 Illinois (19-6, 15-4 Big Ten) traveled to Michigan (18-2, 13-2 Big Ten) and dominated the No. 2 Wolverines — a ranking Juwan Howard’s squad has held for less than 48 hours. A suffocating defensive effort and a balanced offensive attack fueled the Illini to a 76-53 victory, the program’s first-ever over a top-two team on the road.
“I would be challenged to find a better win in college basketball this year,” said head coach Brad Underwood postgame via Zoom. “And to do that without college basketball’s best player is a pretty big statement.”
What exactly was the statement?
“We’re the hardest playing team in the country,” said senior guard Trent Frazier.
In a highly anticipated game between the Big Ten’s best, the start was as slow and as sloppy as could be. In fact, the pair of top-5 heavyweights went into the under 16-minute media timeout tied at just 2-2.
But without Dosunmu for the third straight contest, a defensive battle favored the National Player of the Year less Illini.
“I thought our defense would really set the tone early,” Underwood said.
Both Illinois and Michigan typically shoot as well as any team in the country, but they started the game a combined just 8-of-32 from the field, good for a 10-10 tie midway through the first period.
The Illini’s offense received a much-needed jolt when reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week Andre Curbelo hit the floor. The freshman notched a quick pair of buckets and an assist to get the scoring going for Illinois.
“Curbelo came into the game and was so good in the first half,” Underwood said. “He lived in the paint.”
Over the past week, Curbelo has filled in for Dosunmu admirably, and that case remained true on Tuesday, as he scored 11 of the Illini’s first 15 points, and finished with 17. The freshman also added six rebounds and two assists.
Tuesday’s contest also featured arguably two of the Big Ten’s best bigs. Kofi Cockburn and Hunter Dickinson were deadlocked in a physical battle down low — leading to both players picking up their third fouls early in the second half. Much like the rest of the night, the Illini’s Cockburn had the better night, with 12 points and seven rebounds.
The Illini took a strong 11-point lead into the break, holding Michigan to a season-low 22-points in the first half. And they didn’t stop there.
The story of the second half was Trent Frazier’s unconscious shooting effort. He got hot in the second-half, leading Illinois to a 27-7 second-half run and finishing with 22 points — 16 of which came in the second period.
“He’s such a great player,” Underwood said. “And he does it on both ends.”
The senior had trouble putting his feelings into words postgame.
“I can’t tell you the feeling that I’m feeling right now,” Frazier said. “It’s special. We’re not done.”
The Illini still need to beat Ohio State on Saturday and have the Wolverines lose before the regular season ends to clinch the Big Ten regular season title — but a dominant effort on the road without their best player certainly speaks wonders about who the best team in the Big Ten is.
“We wanted to make a statement,” Frazier said.
ILLINI STIFLE WOLVERINE TRIO
The Wolverines rank among the NCAA’s best in almost every major offensive category, so defending the prolific offensive attack was no easy task for Brad Underwood and the Illini. What makes Michigan so difficult to defend is that the scoring could come from anywhere.
The Wolverines entered Tuesday’s contest with three players (Senior Isaiah Livers, Freshman Hunter Dickinson and Sophomore Franz Wagner) averaging over 14-points per game. The usual lethal trio combined to shoot just 4-of-24 and combine for just 15 points — their lowest output of the season, by far.
“Very, very proud of our guys, especially on the defensive end,” Underwood said. “You’re talking about a team that in every analytical category is in the Top 3. I thought our defense really set the tone early.”
In fact, Wagner (two points) was held to his lowest point total of the year, while Dickinson (six points) and Livers (seven points) were held to their second lowest point total.
“The goal is to do more than beat Michigan,” Underwood said of the defensive scheme he implemented two years ago. “The goal is to win a national championship.”
- The Illini held Michigan to 22 points in the first half, the Wolverines’ lowest first-half output of the season. The Wolverines scored just 53 in the game, also their lowest total of the year.
- Andre Curbelo notched his fourth straight game in double-digits.
- Trent Frazier picked up his third 20-point game of the year.
- The Illini are now on a three-game winning streak against Michigan and Juwan Howard still hasn't beat Illinois.
- This is Michigan’s first loss since a 75-57 loss to Minnesota on Jan. 16.
- The Illini won their fifth game against a ranked opponent this season — picking up their NCAA leading 9th QUAD 1 win.
- The Illini won their first game against a top-5 team since.... last season against No. 5 Michigan.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Y’all think they’re having fun?
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Classic 10-dribble side-step, stepback three from Adam Miller pic.twitter.com/eArmSKPGOn— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) March 3, 2021
TWEET(s) OF THE GAME
Never forget this game is a month overdue.
Reminder to any @umichbball fans out there who are tempted to say something like "ah, that's too bad, I wanted to play Illinois when they were at full strength": you could have.— Riker Beta (@RenkesTom) March 2, 2021
HE SAID IT
“There’s no rivalry,” Trent Frazier on the Illini/Michigan battle.
The Illini have clinched a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament that begins next week, and have a chance to win the Big Ten regular season title as they close out the regular season on the road at No. 7 Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 3 p.m. on ESPN.