Mar 1, 2012, 10:18 PM EDT
Tim Hardaway Jr. finished with 25 points. Trey Burke went 7-13 from the floor. Zach Novak was a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line.
Neither of these three players were the Wolverines most important player tonight.
While his impact will not be strongly reflected in the box score it’s Michigan’s starting big-man, Jordan Morgan, who should be considered as tonight’s star of the game.
Winners of their last three on the road, the Wolverines extended that streak tonight with a comfortable 72-61 win over Illinois – the program’s first victory in Champaign since 1995.
Nursing a minor shoulder injury and playing with a bit of foul trouble Morgan logged only 20 minutes tonight, finishing with seven points and seven rebounds, but and it was his time off the court that showed just how valuable he may be to this team for post-season play.
With Morgan sidelined for much of the beginning of the second-half, the Fighting Illini went down low to Meyers Leonard. The big-man went to work, taking full advantage of his size and skill advantage against Wolverine reserves Evan Smotrycz and Colton Christian.
It’s shrewd coaching on Bruce Weber’s part, but also sort of a no-brainer strategy, as Leonard scored six points in about 90 seconds.
This brief portion of the game showed just how crucial a healthy and able Morgan is to Michigan, a player whose presence on defense limited good looks for Illinois, and that’s something no other player on this team can provide.
John Beilien’s club has plenty of perimeter players. What they don’t have is anyone who can really defend a true big man other than Morgan.
After a fairly unproductive freshman campaign, the sophomore has progressed at a steady pace this season. He’s in better shape, is a better defensive player, and is slowing coming around with a more polished post game.
With the victory the Wolverines stay alive for a share of the Big Ten regular season title, and hang on to an outside chance of stealing an NCAA Tournament two seed if they can win at Penn State Sunday then win a few games in next weekend’s conference tournament.
Regardless of their standing come Selection Sunday, a full-strength Wolverines team is a very dangerous ball club.
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