ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan coach John Beilein summed up his team’s 71-58 win over Illinois with the first sentence of his news conference.
“I’m thrilled with that second half that we played today,” he said.
And he should’ve been. The seventh-ranked Wolverines scored 43 points, including 16 off turnovers. Michigan established a flow, and despite the Illini keeping it close for much of the second, the Wolverines controlled the pace and tempo of the game, looking like a top-10 team.
So thrilled is how Beilein should’ve been. But it’s the first 20 minutes that fall short of that mark.
The slow, sloppy start against Illinois looked like it would doom the Wolverines and their perfect record at home. Michigan players let the ball slip through their hands, through their legs and fly out of bounds. Despite impressive play from Trey Burke (26 points, 8 assists, 1 turnover) and him trying to make everything work, the transition game never really got going.
It wasn’t until the final minutes of the first half that Michigan even took its first lead of the game.
“I don’t want to say it’s just how the team plays, it’s just we come out and we try to get a feel for the game,” Burke said. “We’re continuing to try and get better in that area to when we come out and we go on an 8- or 9-0 run and I think once we get to that point we’ll really be dangerous.”
The problem of late? It’s taking Michigan a while to get to the point where it is dangerous. Last week against a Big Ten-winless Penn State squad, the Wolverines never really broke away. In losses at Ohio State and Michigan, the Wolverines started slow, too.
Burke didn’t really have an answer for why it keeps happening. He seems to come out strong every game, but the team doesn’t. Youth could be a factor, though it’s not an excuse, Burke clarified. Junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. didn’t have much of an answer either. He joked that maybe they had warmed up too long or something.
“I don’t know what it is, but we did have a week off, and maybe we were in practice mode. We weren’t really in game mode and that really played a big part,” Hardaway Jr. said. “It was great to get back in rotation after halftime and come out with a win.”
Hardaway Jr. said Michigan spent halftime discussing rebounding and defense, a reminder of what it hadn’t done well in the first half. And then it all just happened to come together in the second.
The Wolverines did hit their rotation, and looked more like their old selves as the clock ticked away.
Defensively, they held Brandon Paul -- who had 10 first-half points -- scoreless in the second. Rotations looked crisper and players had more energy. Because of that, they out-rebounded Illinois 17-10 on the glass in the second half (including a 4-0 advantage on the offensive boards).
A big part of UM putting it together in the second half was redshirt junior Jordan Morgan. He only played five minutes in the first half, but his 12 second-half minutes proved pivotal as he helped clean up the glass and get the Wolverines second-chance points. He provided a surge and presence that just wasn’t felt with freshman Mitch McGary in the game.
In the end, a solid 20 minutes was enough to propel Michigan to its 10th conference win. But it knows that with home games against Michigan State and Indiana on the horizon, it will have to start much stronger and play a complete 40 minutes if it wants to hang with the Spartans and Hoosiers.
What was enough against Illinois likely won’t be enough against those two teams.
“They were smarter and tougher than us in the second half and that was the difference in the game,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “They had more of a physical disposition than we had in the second half and in this league that’s a recipe for bad stuff.”
And that’s something Beilein and the Wolverines can be thrilled about.