Balanced No. 5 Michigan hits road to face Illinois

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The fifth-ranked Michigan basketball team doesn’t have a go-to scorer. The Wolverines’ starters take a committee approach on offense, and now the bench is increasing its production.

The versatile Wolverines will seek their first Big Ten road win of the season at Illinois on Wednesday in Champaign, Ill.

In their conference opener on Friday, the Wolverines defeated visiting Iowa 103-91 without a 20-point scorer. Freshman forward Franz Wagner led the way with a season-high 18 points, and each of the remaining members of the starting five had at least 13 points.

Forward Brandon Johns Jr. gave the team a boost off the bench with a season-high 12 points and eight rebounds, and another reserve forward, Austin Davis, added eight points.

“We have a really good team,” Johns said. “I think a lot of people kind of put us down for how much depth we have. But I think we have a lot of depth on this team. Everybody can play. I believe in us.”

First-year Wolverines coach Juwan Howard believes he’s got enough options to keep the starters on their toes.

“They all are competitive,” Howard said. “And if you’re OK with not playing, then maybe we need to give that spot to somebody else.”

The Wolverines (8-1, 1-0 Big Ten) have been one of the pleasant surprises in the first few weeks of the season. They came into the season unranked despite having three starters — point guard Zavier Simpson, center Jon Teske and forward Isaiah Livers — who played prominent roles on a team that reached the Sweet 16 last season.

Victories over North Carolina and Gonzaga in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas vaulted the Wolverines to No. 4 in the rankings. Top-ranked Louisville handed them their first loss, but they bounced back against the Hawkeyes.

“We’re a good offensive team,” Wagner said. “We have a lot of weapons.”

The Illini (6-3, 0-1) faced another top-5 team in their conference opener and nearly pulled off an upset. They gave away a 15-point, second-half lead and lost 59-58 at then-No. 3 Maryland on Saturday.

A steal and a free throw in the closing seconds allowed the Terrapins to stave off Illinois.

“It was an ugly game, and I couldn’t be prouder of my guys,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said. “There were a lot of tears in there (the locker room), there was a lot of hurt, and that makes me feel good. I know we’re on the right page.”

Illinois held Maryland to 33.3 percent shooting but had its own offensive struggles (39.3 percent).

“I know if we can come in here and do that to this Maryland team, then we’re going to be in a nice position,” Underwood said. “We grew up (Saturday). If you tell me we hold a team to 33 percent, I’m going to be happy most nights.”

Seven-foot freshman Kofi Cockburn leads the Illini in scoring (15.4 points per game) and rebounding (10.7 per game).

Then-No. 2 Michigan defeated Illinois 79-69 in the teams’ lone meeting last season, with Simpson contributing 16 points and eight assists while Teske delivered 13 points and 11 rebounds.

–Field Level Media

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