Considering a number of different factors and variables, Illinois wasn’t supposed to walk out of the Crisler Arena Tuesday night with a victory.
In it’s 115-year history, the program had never beaten a top 2 ranked opponent on the road. The Illini were still without Ayo Dosunmu, its best player and Naismith Player of the Year candidate. Michigan hadn’t lost in nearly two months and hadn’t lost on its home floor inside Crisler Arena in 370 days. After nearly a month-long pause this season that ended on Feb. 18, Michigan had already defeated two ranked opponents on the road and demolished a Top 10 program in Iowa before this matchup. Illinois was entering Ann Arbor on its fourth game in an eight-day stretch.
Nothing about this highly anticipated matchup should’ve resulted in a one-sided development for the road team. And yet, that’s exactly what transpired inside Crisler Arena as Illinois established itself as the power program of the Big Ten Conference with a 76-53 statement win at No. 2 Michigan.
“It’s special. It’s special to see what kind of basketball team we are,” Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier said. “I can’t even tell you about the energy we had out there tonight on the road. We were connected out there for 40 minutes. We had fun out there tonight.”
Without its best player and a player Illini head coach Brad Underwood continually refers to as “the best player in college basketball”, Illinois’ defense hailed supreme Tuesday night as they systematically took one of the nation’s best offenses apart in every form.
By doing so, Illinois recorded its highest ranked road win in program history. The previous two were wins at No. 3 Indiana on March 5, 1989, and at No. 3 Kentucky on Dec. 5, 1966. llinois handed Michigan its third-largest loss ever at Crisler Arena and the 23-point win is the largest margin on the road against a No. 1 or No. 2 team by any school in 26 years when No. 15 Villanova won 96-73 at No. 1 Connecticut on Feb. 18, 1995.
Illinois' 23-point win is the Illini’s largest margin of victory against a top-5 team since a 110-83 win vs. No. 2 UCLA in Assembly Hall in Champaign on Dec. 4, 1964 in the season opener of that season.
After watching his team dominate in Ann Arbor for the better part of 40 minutes, Underwood declared the win easily the most impressive by any school in the 2020-21 season.
“I would be challenged to find a better win in college basketball this year, a better road win anyway,” Underwood said. “I would think this makes a pretty solid statement. To beat a team that is No. 1 or 2 in a lot of analytical statistics and do it without the best player in college basketball is a pretty big statement.”
For the first time this season, Michigan’s offense, which came into Tuesday night ranked No. 6 nationally in KenPom.com, to a season-low 53 points and to just two three-point field goals on a season-low seven attempts.
Without Dosunmu, who is still being ruled out after suffering a broken nose injury and what Underwood confirmed Tuesday night is also concussion symptoms late in the loss to Michigan State last week, Illinois (19-6, 15-4 in Big Ten Conference) opened the game by forcing Michigan to miss 17 of its first 23 shot attempts.
“We wanted to make a statement,” Frazier said. “We’re the hardest playing team in the country. That’s our statement. Even without our best player, we got a lot of guys on this team and we’re loaded.”
Michigan senior wing Isaiah Livers didn’t have a field goal in the second half and finished with just seven points on 2 of 7 shooting with the same amount of made baskets and turnovers.
Franz Wagner, who was coming off back-to-back 21-point efforts, was limited to a career-low two points on 1 of 9 shooting thanks to the superior defensive coverage of a pair of Illinois veterans wing players Jacob Grandison and Da’Monte Williams.
“The way we tend to guard ball screens is we’ll sometimes give up some twos in order to contain the threes and tonight we did a heck of a job at that,” Underwood said. “I do think tonight was very solid and sound defensively but we’re growing in that area and becoming more physical.”
Frazier, who has seen his scoring increase recently with Dosunmu out of the lineup, posted a game-high 22 points and 16 of those coming in the final 20 minutes of action. Frazier was instrumental in the Illini’s defensive effort by shutting down Michigan point guard Mike Smith to just five points, no assists and just one three-point field goal in 27 minutes of playing time.
Andre Curbelo, who has been bitten by a turnover bug in recent games, found his offensive rhythm early and often Tuesday night for a 17-point explosion that also included six rebounds and only two giveaways. When the blowout was clearly decided late in the game, the freshman guard jumped into a bear hug with his head coach as Michigan (18-2, 13-2 in Big Ten) suffered its first 20-plus point loss in over three years.
The Illini’s eight road wins are most among high-major conference teams and they’ll try to make it nine when they finish off the 2020-21 regular season when they play at No. 7 Ohio State on Saturday for a 3 p.m. tip on ESPN.