U-M has lost three straight Big Ten games -- including two road losses at Michigan State (76-66 OT) and Indiana (70-67) – but haven’t been able to win. They’ve been close, but the end result has been the same – a loss. P> Does Michigan (13-11, 6-6 Big Ten) have a legitimate excuse behind its losses? Well, maybe, after all the Wolverines have been playing their past four games without starting point guard Derrick Walton Jr., who has been out with a foot injury. U-M is 1-3 without Walton Jr.’s 10.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game production.
U-M’s excuse is legit.
However, Michigan isn’t making any excuses. They’ve continued to play without Walton Jr. They’ve also been without star guard Caris LeVert, who is out for the season with a foot injury.
But to get a win at Illinois (8 p.m. top-off), someone is going to need to make the crucial play that in the end of the game when the Wolverines need it the most. A play that Walton Jr. and LeVert have been known to make.
“We’re 6-6 in the Big Ten,” Spike Albrecht said. “We’re a few possessions away from being 9-3. We’re right there; we just have to figure out how to get it done late.”
Freshman Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins have replaced Walton Jr. and LeVert respectively in the lineup. Both have learned on the job, and recent road experiences shouldn’t have either of them rattled when they play at Illinois today, says U-M coach John Beilein.
“I think that we have been out there enough,” Beilein said. “That Michigan State and Indiana are certainly the ones I would say are at the top of the list for places that are difficult to win. I haven’t seen us, whether you’re a veteran or not – back down. We’ve stayed pretty focused.”
Illinois (16-8, 6-5) will be without starters Rayvonte Rice (broken hand) and Aaron Cosby (eye), who are both also suspended indefinitely. But in their absence, sophomore’s Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have picked up the scoring slack.
Hill is averaging 14.8 points per game, while Nunn is at 11.5. Both of them are shooting over 41 percent from behind the arc.
“Hill has really played well,” Beilein said. “Nunn didn’t have a great game against us (in December). It may have something to do with the minutes, the shots, the plays. Those two are really playing.”
And if Michigan can pull of the victory, it would be a NCAA tournament resume building win versus an RPI top-50 team.
“Being an ex-mid major coach, we didn’t get these opportunities late in the year,” Beilein said. “You had one opportunity: Win the tournament. Now, this is like a tournament before the tournament.”
“I just know that every game is really important, and we’ll take any win we can get. Because we need them,” Albrecht said.
Walton Jr. Update
Walton Jr. has missed the past four games due to an injured foot/toe. And it appears a return from injury may be imminent.
“He’s making progress right now,” Beilein said. “I’m still not sure. But everyday We’re just trying to get him to, whether it’s just walking without a boot. Whether it’s just a different type of rehab. And he’s been getting better every day. But certainly not ready yet.
“When he can run pain-free, he’s going to get back out there.”