By DAVID MERCER
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Possible No. 1 ranking? Yeah, that’s nice, Michigan’s Trey Burke said Sunday outside the locker room at Illinois’ Assembly Hall.
But after the win that should give the No. 2 Wolverines their first top ranking since the 1992-93 season, the sophomore guard wanted to talk defense and what a team does when one of its big, defensive rocks goes down.
If you’re Michigan (19-1, 6-1 Big Ten), you plug in a couple of other big guys. And you win — in this case 74-60 over the Illini, most of it without 6-foot-8, 250-pound Jordan Morgan. The starting forward limped to the locker room less than two minutes into the game with a sprained right ankle and didn’t come back.
“Coach (John Beilein) calls him the minister of defense,” Burke said, crediting the Mitch McGary, John Horford and Max Bielfeldt, the three big men who picked up the slack.
“I say this every game,” Burke added, “but it just starts with defense. I think that started in the first half.”
And that No. 1 ranking, which will likely be Michigan’s after Duke’s lopsided loss to Miami earlier in the week opened the door when the AP poll comes out Monday, doesn’t mean much yet, Beilein was quick to remind.
“You compete for a Big Ten championship, then you go on you compete for a national championship,” he said. “That’s the number one you want down the line.”
Illinois (15-6, 2-5) and first-year coach John Groce, whose team has been doomed by cold shooting since mid-December and shot 37.1 percent Sunday, could do little but marvel at the Wolverines.
“I give Michigan a lot of credit,” Groce said. “You make one mistake and they exploit it like that.”
Burke scored 19 to lead Michigan. Nick Stauskas scored 14 points and Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. added 12 each.
Brandon Paul led Illinois with 15 points but had five of the Illini’s 15 costly turnovers.
Beilein said he didn’t yet know the severity of Morgan’s sprained right ankle but said he couldn’t have returned to the game even if baldy needed.
The Wolverines hardly missed him — they seemed to have an answer for everything Illinois offered.
The Illini fought back to within seven points with just over nine minutes to play when a Richardson steal set up Joseph Bertrand for a soft jump shot that floated into the bucket.
The wave of noise that rose from the crowd trying to will the Illini back into the game didn’t last long.
First, with 8:40 to play, Mitch McGary pulled down the rebound off a miss by Burke and dropped the ball into the bucket.
Then Burke scooped the ball up off a Paul turnover at the other end and, with a dunk, put the Wolverines back up by 11 at 59-48. With 8:21 to play and shooting just 37.1 percent on the night, Illinois couldn’t find a way back.
Morgan appeared to roll his right ankle as he came down under the Wolverine basket, but Michigan lost little if anything inside without the 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward.
McGary, Bielfeldt — a redshirt freshman with strong ties to Illinois — and Horford picked up most of Morgan’s minutes, and his slack.
McGary, a 6-10, 250-pound forward, hasn’t started a game this season but averages 16 minutes a night anyway. Bielfeldt, though, plays less than six minutes a night, and was all nerves in his first minutes on the court. The 6-7, 245-pound forward badly missed his first free throw, at least a foot right of the basket, and the crowd, well aware that the athletic administration building on the Illinois campus bears his big-donor family’s name, let him have it.
So did his teammates, Beilein said.
“It was not a great initial debut with the air ball. That’s one of the first things we made fun of,” the coach said. “All his teammates were on him in the locker room.”
But with another chance at the line minutes later, Bielfeldt sank both shots, finishing with four points in six minutes.
Horford had seven points and five boards in 17 minutes while McGary had six points and eight rebounds.
“It gave three guys the opportunity to play that (don’t) get as much as they like, Beilein said of Morgan’s injury. “I’m really impressed with the big guys and how they stepped up there.”
Illinois’ big-man combination of Nanna Egwu, Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey wasn’t much of a match for them. The Wolverines scored 42 points in the paint.
Groce said his big men weren’t bad, just not as good they’d like to be, especially McLaurin, the 6-8 grad-student transfer he called his team’s defensive Kevin Garnett
“I really have a high regard for Sam’s intelligence and ability to execute our defense, and I think we’ll look at the film and he wasn’t on his Ps and Qs like normal,” said Groce, who last faced Michigan as the coach at Ohio, leading the Bobcats to a second-round NCAA Tournament upset last spring.
Michigan took the lead for good with 15:21 to play in the first half when Burke hit a jump shot to go up 8-7. With a 9-0 run that ended only with a 3-pointer by Paul with 10:52 left in the half, the Wolverines were up 15-10.