CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Improbably and almost inconceivably, Michigan had a chance to take the lead.
Fewer than seven minutes remained in a game that, on paper, coach Juwan Howard’s team had no business winning. Not without the team’s best player, Hunter Dickinson, or its backup center, Brandon Johns Jr., both of whom were ruled out less than an hour before tipoff at State Farm Center. Not without a normal practice for more than a week as the Wolverines, whose previous two games were postponed due to COVID-19, were unable to field enough players for five-on-five drills.
Yet here was Michigan emboldened by its dire circumstances, scrapping with one of the best teams in the Big Ten. The ball landed with point guard DeVante’ Jones following an Illinois turnover, and the transfer from Coastal Carolina sliced toward the rim.
But Jones’ layup spun in and spun out, twisting off the rim agonizingly. The Illini pushed the ball the other way and found star center Kofi Cockburn for a powerful two-hand slam that ignited the crowd, reclaimed momentum and kneecapped the undermanned Wolverines. Cockburn’s dunk sparked a late 7-0 run that propelled Illinois to a 68-53 win on a night U-M showed more fight than at any point this season.
Cockburn finished with a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds while taking advantage of Michigan’s undersized front line. The Illini hit five 3-pointers while U-M hit none in the second half. Jones led the Wolverines with 17 points and six rebounds.
Any excitement surrounding Michigan’s return to the court after a pair of postponements (against Michigan State and Purdue) was snuffed out roughly 20 minutes before tipoff when word arrived from the athletic department that Dickinson and Johns were unavailable to play.
Both players traveled with the team after testing negative for COVID-19 but needed additional time to regain their stamina. All players must pass a cardiovascular test to receive full medical clearance. Johns participated in pre-game warmups for the Wolverines, while Dickinson remained in the locker room until moments before tipoff.
The circumstances surely were tormenting for Dickinson, who expressed his excitement for another crack at the Illini as early as mid-October, during Big Ten media day, when he lamented his six-point effort in a 76-53 loss at Crisler Center last March. Dickinson told reporters Illinois fans bombarded his Twitter and Instagram accounts with messages reminding him of the poor performance — a byproduct of high-level sports that Dickinson, the team’s leading scorer (16.1 points per game) and rebounder (8.8 per game), said he finds amusing.
Friday’s game was billed as a marquee matchup between the league’s two best centers in Dickinson and Cockburn, who entered the game averaging 22 points and 12.5 rebounds per game with eight consecutive double-doubles. Instead, the Wolverines were left with just one scholarship player to defend the 7-foot, 285-pound behemoth.
That responsibility fell to freshman Moussa Diabate, whose listed weight is 210 pounds. But Diabate was fearless and attacked Cockburn on Michigan’s first two offensive possessions, scoring down the right side of the lane after tossing up an air-ball from the left. It was on the defensive end where he lacked the girth, strength and breadth of shoulder to keep Cockburn, the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer, from working his way into dangerous spaces. Cockburn scored eight of his team’s first 12 points as Diabate was whistled for two fouls in the first five minutes.
Diabate’s early foul trouble prompted the Wolverines to improvise, first by bringing in walk-on Jaron Faulds to play backup center and then, in a move that personified Juwan Howard’s mantra of “all hands on deck,” turning to sparsely used small forward Jace Howard as an emergency option. At 6-7 and 225 pounds, Jace Howard clawed for every inch against Cockburn while fronting the Illinois star to deny entry passes, all while the coaching staff pleaded for three-second violations. Each successful defensive possession prompted an eruption from the U-M bench, which pulsated with energy as Michigan relished its role of short-handed underdog in a raucous environment.
That impassioned defense kept Howard’s group afloat while the teams combined to miss their first 12 shots from 3-point range. Unusual lineup combinations and raw aggression from Michigan disrupted the Illinois offense, which settled for difficult shots and neglected Cockburn at times in the latter stages of the first half. The Illini shot just 40% from the field and missed eight of nine 3-pointers en route a 26-22 lead at the break. Jones accounted for 50% of U-M’s points with floaters, layups and a timely 3-pointer.
With the second half came an encouragement to run whenever possible as the Wolverines, whose half-court offense was understandably disjointed, attempted to manufacture points on fast breaks. Ever the matador, Howard waved his team up the floor following each turnover or missed shot by Illinois, and his players obliged: a floater off the glass by Jones; a transition layup for Diabate, who beat Cockburn to the rim; a coast-to-coast layup by freshman Kobe Bufkin; a transition foul drawn by Jace Howard, who sank both free throws to pull U-M within 43-41 with 8:57 remaining.
But without Dickinson, the offense lacked direction in critical moments, and Michigan turned the ball over four times in the final six minutes. For the Wolverines, who gave everything they had, an inspiring effort fell short.