March 14, 2014 at 9:00 pm

John Niyo

Michigan offense continues to bail out defense

Indianapolis — They needed a stop, and for once, actually got it.

But if Michigan wants to keep going, they better keep shooting. And scoring. Because they’re not going to be able to survive or advance very far in the postseason if their offense can’t carry the load.

Top-seeded Michigan escaped with a 64-63 victory over No. 9 Illinois in its Big Ten tournament opener Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, moving on to face Ohio State in Saturday’s semifinals.

And yet it was, as sophomore Caris LeVert admitted, “kind of a step back” for a team that’s still in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Even in victory, that was probably true, as Illinois offered countless reminders of Michigan’s defensive shortcomings before coming up short on its own in the end.

“We’ve shown at times where we can really defend,” Michigan’s Nik Stauskas shrugged afterward, “and then we’ve shown times where we can’t defend at all.”

This time, it was much closer to the latter, as the Illini guards had little trouble getting dribble-drive penetration and getting to the rim. That led to too many layups, too many fouls — center Jordan Morgan picked up his fourth with 10 minutes to play — and a game that, in the end, was too close for comfort.

Even on the game’s final possession, the Illini got where it wanted to go, as Tracy Abrams drove past LeVert — “I thought the ball screen was coming,” LeVert said — and pulled up for a floater in the lane.

“When that ball was in the air, everybody kind of held their breath,” Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III said. “He got a great look at it.”

Luckily for Michigan, Abrams pulled the string on it and the ball was short off the rim. Unlike the baby-hook layup Morgan scored with 7.9 seconds left — “I’m not sure what you call that,” he laughed — to rescue the Wolverines.

“We needed that,” Morgan said, exhaling in the postgame locker room.

They did because their shots weren’t falling the way they usually do, stymied by an active 2-3 zone Illinois coach John Groce employed with great success after halftime. Right up until the final two possessions when he inexplicably switched back to a man-to-man defense and got his team beat in the process.

“Hindsight is always 20/20 on decisions like that,” Groce said.

Defense still needs work

But it was pretty clearly a mistake, even at the time, as Stauskas got to the foul line on the first possession, then hit Morgan rolling to the basket off a high screen on the final play.

Before that, Michigan had attempted just four two-point baskets the entire half. And though they did knock down some big 3-pointers — Derrick Walton’s made it 61-61 with 3:10 left — the Wolverines were 4-for-17 from beyond the arc in the half.

“They’re such a rhythm team,” said Groce, whose team lost by 31 at home to Michigan 10 days ago. “They’re so good on offense. … They execute as good as any team I’ve seen on film all year in the half-court.”

At the other end, it’s a far different story, though. While few teams can match the Wolverines offensive efficiency, Michigan’s conference-worst defense came in ranked 159th nationally in effective shooting percentage allowed.

“Everybody’s been doing the same thing against us lately,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “They’re just taking advantage of the rules and drive it right at you.”

Or through you, as Illini guard Rayvonte Rice did to Spike Albrecht to give Illinois its first lead with 4:57 left. And then again to make it 63-61 with 2:33 left, weaving through LeVert and Morgan like they were pylons on his way to the hoop.

“We’ve got to do a better job of guarding their guards,” Beilein said. “It’s stuff we work on like crazy. But we didn’t do very well with it today.”

'Too many easy baskets'

In their defense, they did it as well as they could on one critical possession late, when Morgan and Walton dismantled a high ball screen and forced a shot-clock violation. But defensive possessions like those were the exception, not the rule.

Mind you, that old rule about defense winning championships doesn’t really apply in college basketball. Last year’s Michigan team was proof of that, in fact. But even that group found a way to get locked in en route to the Final Four, thanks largely to Mitch McGary creating havoc in the middle and vacuuming up opponents’ misses.

This one’s still searching for something, or anything, really.

“Right now, we’re giving up way too many easy baskets,” Beilein admitted. “We’ve just got to keep working at it.”

And keep scoring, just to be safe.

Nik Stauskas gets past an Illini defender for a finger-roll in the first half of a Big Ten tournament semifinal in Indianapolis on Friday. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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