CHAMPAIGN — When Brad Underwood saw Michigan guard Zavier Simpson two years ago in the NCAA Tournament while Underwood was coaching at Oklahoma State, Simpson played for two minutes and scored no points.
That Simpson is long gone. Now a junior, Simpson dominated at every turn in No. 2 Michigan's 79-69 win over Illinois at the State Farm Center on Thursday. The loss kept the Illini winless in Big Ten play, and sent them to their fifth consecutive loss.
Simpson scored 16 points, had eight assists and only had a pair of turnovers. He, in large part, was the reason the Wolverines, after turning the ball over 11 times in the first half, finished with just 14 turnovers in the game. Michigan kept the ball in his hands and when it needed him to ward off Illinois' final rally, he did it with a big 3-pointer with 5:10 left in the game to re-extend the Michigan lead to 10 points — as close as the Illini got the rest of the way.
"Zavier Simpson, in my opinion, is the MVP of the league to this point," Underwood said.
Illinois (4-12, 0-5) freshman Ayo Dosunmu tried to propel his team to a stunner over a Michigan team that appears destined for another deep run in the NCAA Tournament after finishing as runner-up last season.
Dosunmu hit 20 points for the third time in his last four games, and did so in a variety of ways. He hit reverse layups and layups in transition, buried open 3-pointers and kissed a 3-pointer off the glass to end the first half. He finished with 23 points and seven rebounds while adding a pair of chase-down blocks on Simpson.
"He’s playing above his years as a freshman," Michigan coach John Beilein said of Dosunmu. "If you’re going to win and you need freshmen, they better play above their years."
The Illini weren't fazed by seeing the second-ranked team in the country.
“I felt like it was the Big Ten," Dosunmu said. "Really, the rankings don’t mean anything. Every night we’re playing against a good team. It was fun, but at the end of the day, the rankings don't mean anything."
Giorgi Bezhanishvili said: "We play everything the same — as hard as we can and execute what coach tells us to do. It doesn't matter who we play."
Every time Michigan (16-0), one of two undefeated teams left in the country, looked ready to assert itself and break away, Illinois answered back — until the final run.
Twice in the second half the Wolverines extended their lead to 10 points, and twice Illinois climbed back within single digits.
The first run came early in the second half. After trailing 49-39, Illinois put together a 5-0 run capped off by an Aaron Jordan 3-pointer before the Wolverines struck back with six points on an assault of layups.
Again, Illinois answered back with its final big push of the game. Trent Frazier, who has battled with his confidence recently, hit a 3-pointer, and finished with 13 points, and Andres Feliz hit a layup to climb back within seven, 63-56, with 5:26 left.
Then Michigan put Illinois away once and for all with a 3-pointer by Simpson, which was followed by a one-handed thunderous transition slam from Isaiah Livers to extend the lead to 12 points. The Illini never got back within single digits.
“This Illinois is going to really be good," Beilein said. "We were successful in here tonight. I don’t think a lot of teams will be successful this year."
There was too much talent and too much balance on Michigan. All five Michigan starters were in double figures, led by Simpson. The Wolverines only played eight players, with just six playing more than 20 minutes, but all six had an impact. Jon Teske was a presence in the post, with 13 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and four blocks. Charles Matthews dunked away Illinois’ hope, scoring 11 of his 14 points in the second half.
“I think they showed tonight why they’re a pretty good basketball team when you have just about everybody in double figures and another guy with nine," Underwood said.
Illinois had the chance to wither in the first half, trailing by 11 points and on the wrong end of a 7-0 Michigan run. Dosunmu, though, had other plans.
He scored 13 of the final 15 Illinois points in the first half in a 5:31 span that was capped off with a pair of 3-pointers, the latter of which banked off the backboard before falling through the net to trim the Michigan lead to five points, 39-34, at halftime.
"Has he touched his ceiling? Not even close," Underwood said of Dosunmu.
In the last three games Illinois has ditched the scoring droughts that have hurt it in the past. Those lopsided runs that other teams would go on to essentially bury the Illini? Gone. The last thing left is to get over the hump with a win, but there's no surefire remedy for that, especially with a young team.
“I can’t tell them when that’s coming," Underwood said. "I wish I could snap it and say, ‘Hey, it’s going to happen tonight.' You'd find the definition of winning as hard, and you look at our team and winning is very, very hard."