Ann Arbor -- Michigan needed this win Sunday, a 71-58 victory over Illinois at Crisler Center that kept alive its slim Big Ten title hopes and surely restored some confidence just in time for March.
And as they generally do, the seventh-ranked Wolverines needed Trey Burke to win it. He finished with a game-high 26 points — 19 in the second half — and eight assists against only one turnover in 39 minutes.
"He's just a really special player," coach John Beilein said, happily stating the obvious when asked to afterward.
Obviously, it's Burke who makes the Wolverines special. Everyone can see that. When the sophomore point guard doesn't have the ball in his hands, Michigan's offense looks lost and the scoreboard typically agrees.
But the same could be said for the Wolverines' defense without Jordan Morgan, the 6-foot-8 junior forward who has been hobbled by an ankle injury for nearly a full month. And if the team's recent struggles — it's allowed 70-plus points in four of its last five outings, three of them losses — weren't enough evidence, Sunday's effort bolstered the case.
Ignoring a banked-in 3-pointer by the Illini's Brandon Paul just before halftime, Michigan outscored Illinois by a whopping 45-17 margin when Morgan was on the floor. And it was Burke eagerly handing out another assist after the game, giving the nod to a guy who didn't make a basket Sunday for making "a very big impact off the bench."
"Jordan Morgan looked like he was about 99.9 percent today," Burke laughed. "So that was good."
Taking the lead
Morgan had played only sparingly, if at all, since going down in a heap early in the Wolverines' Jan. 27 win at Illinois. And the truth is, he's probably not close to 100 percent yet. Or even 99.9 percent, though Morgan does say he's past the stage of grin-and-bear-it pain now, at least.
In fact, even with a much-needed week of rest between games, Beilein still didn't know what to expect from Morgan on Sunday. He'd been held out of practice during the week, and working with the scout team when he was on the court. But with the Wolverines scuffling early against Illinois — and getting embarrassed on the defensive boards — Beilein turned to his veteran.
"I said, 'We're gonna use him and see what he does,'" Beilein said.
"And right from the get-go," the coach added, Morgan did what he'd hoped he would do.
He led, basically.
"There's gotta be a guy that tells everybody where to go and knows where to go," Beilein said.
"Jordan knows that. Is he faster than other guys? I don't think so. Is he taller, does he block shots? No. But he anticipates much better than the young players do."
Turning the tide
It shows on the court. And Sunday, it showed in the most critical moments for the Wolverines, who were sluggish again at the start and found themselves trailing, 21-13, when Morgan first checked in with 8:15 left in the half. By the time he headed to the bench again, the Wolverines had their first lead of the game following a 12-3 run.
Less than a minute into the second half, Beilein called on Morgan again, after freshman Mitch McGary — making his second start of the season — picked up his third foul. What followed was a 13-3 run — including a nifty no-look feed from Morgan to Glenn Robinson III for a dunk — that gave the Wolverines a nine-point lead they'd never relinquish.
That's nearly 10 minutes of action with Morgan helping quarterback the defense — hedging on ball screens and scrambling to recover, calling out switches and corralling missed shots — and the Illini managed just two field goals in that span.
"What I tried to do was come in and just provide energy," said Morgan, who finished without a shot attempt but added six rebounds - three on the offensive glass - to go with two assists and a steal in 17 minutes. "Being able to see what I have to do in my job, and also being able to tell others what they need to do, that just comes from experience and seeing the game. So that's nothing against our younger players. It's something that develops over time."
Over time — but sooner rather than later — they're going to need more of those kind of minutes from the younger players. McGary again showed flashes of his pick-and-roll potential Sunday, while Robinson eventually woke up and was more active after another sleepy effort in the first half. But the Wolverines are going to need much more than that from those two to knock off Michigan State and Indiana at home the next two weekends.
They've got Burke, whose offensive efficiency borders on the ridiculous at times, scoring 26 on 11 shots Sunday to become only the seventh true sophomore in school history to reach 1,000 points for his career. And that's enough to beat the Big Ten's lesser teams.
But if the last month has proved anything, it's that the Wolverines aren't going to beat the best without a go-to player on defense, too. On Sunday, Morgan made just one point, but it was clear: He might be that guy.