The undermanned Michigan Wolverines played extremely well Thursday, defeating Illinois 73-55 to extend their season into the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals where they will play the top-seeded Wisconsin Badgers at 11 a.m. CT in Chicago.
After struggling through the season without their deadliest scorer in Caris LeVert, the junior whose promising season ended with foot surgery after only 17 games as the leader of John Beilein's club, Michigan's youth now has an even bigger task on its hands to keep dreams of an NCAA automatic bid alive.
Six-foot-six freshman Aubrey Dawkins played the role of LeVert in Thursday's contest against the eighth-seeded Fighting Illini, as he put up a game-high 18 points -- an incredible scoring performance when you consider he only played 24 minutes. Freshman guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman contributed 15 points, the young Wolverine's best performance since a February 1 overtime loss at rival Michigan State. Sophomore guard/forward Zak Irvin added 14 points and also dished out six assists to go with six rebounds.
The ninth-seeded Wolverines (16-15, 8-10 Big Ten) also played superb perimeter defense against the Fighting Illini's shooters, holding the team to an abysmal 7.7 percent from behind the arc. Illinois was only able to knock down one shot from long range.
Michigan could definitely cause the Badgers (28-3, 16-2) problems with the emergence of scoring threats from Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman. The scorer the Badgers need to keep in check the most, however, is Irvin. Irvin is an adept shooter from long range and has a tendency to take mid-range jumpers often. The Badgers will likely line Sam Dekker across from him, as Dekker has proven to be a proficient shot defender, and he can use his long arms and quick instincts to counter Irvin's dead-eye shooting ability. Although only shooting 35.1 percent as opposed to his 42.5 percent as a freshman last season, Irvin has more confidence in his long-range jump shot and is shooting almost seven 3-pointers per game, making 2.4 per game on average. Wisconsin would be smart to place Dekker in front of Irvin, as Nigel Hayes has demonstrated his lack of speed against players out on the wing.
Wisconsin 69, Michigan 64 (OT), Jan. 24 in Ann Arbor
The Badgers entered Ann Arbor very confident after a 32-point bludgeoning of Iowa at home the previous game, but didn't leave Michigan with a swift, easy victory as they expected. Wisconsin needed an extra five minutes to take out the sneaky good Wolverines, who were already without LeVert but were able to constantly put up points and hang around against a usually stout Badgers defense.
As usual, Frank Kaminsky led the way for the Badgers, scoring 22 points and almost coming away with a double-double, as he grabbed 9 rebounds. Dekker and Bronson Koenig added 15 and 13 points, respectively, and Hayes posted 10 to round out the Badgers scorers in double digits.
Michigan's leading scorer in this game was Derrick Walton Jr., who shot 7-of-8 at the charity stripe and dropped 2-of-5 shots from downtown, including the game-tying one that sent the game into overtime. Michigan had not lead at any point in the second half until then. Irvin contributed 12 points and, along with Walton, played 40 out of 45 possible minutes. Walton has since been injured and is not likely to play Friday.
The Wolverines fielded a very balanced scoring attack overall as they received quite a bit of offensive support from the bench as well. But Wisconsin immediately took command in the extra session.
Michigan is currently on a two-game winning streak and will head into the United Center tomorrow very hungry after losing to the Badgers earlier in the season. If the Badgers are able to continue their efficient scoring and solid defense in this game, and not look too far ahead to the NCAA Tournament, then they should be able to take out the Maize and Blue rather easily. Expect Bo Ryan to have his troops ready tomorrow, as it is essential for the Badgers to win the Big Ten Tournament in order for Wisconsin to be in competition for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, along with some help from other conference tournament results.