Two Sundays ago, the Michigan Wolverines found themselves on the road facing a hostile crowd in the Big Ten. A win in that game against Ohio State would have secured the top national ranking in that Monday’s polls after the number one team in the country, Duke, fell to North Carolina State the day prior.
Tonight, Michigan finds itself in an almost identical position as the Maize and Blue travel to Champaign to take on the Fighting Illini (6pm on BTN) with number one on the line after Duke was trounced by Miami on Wednesday.
Illinois got off to a hot start this season with new head coach John Groce leading the ship, and Groce certainly had the Wolverines’ number last year after coaching his then-squad, the Ohio Bobcats, to a first-round upset in the NCAA Tournament. Here are a few quick keys to the game for Michigan as they battle with plenty on the line:
- Defense, Defense, Defense: In Thursday’s win over Purdue, Michigan again struggled on the defensive end of the court, allowing the poor-shooting Boilermakers to take a one-point lead into halftime after leaving countless players wide open from downtown. Illinois’s offensive profile is very similar to Purdue’s in that the guards will account for the vast majority of the shooting and scoring and they are not afraid to let it fly from deep. Senior Brandon Paul is the star for the Illini, scoring 18 points per game on slightly more than 13 shot attempts, half of which are from downtown, where he makes just 34.1 percent of his looks. Backcourt mate and fellow senior D.J. Richardson has surprisingly shot more threes this year than Paul with a ridiculous 141 attempts (to Paul’s 132), which comes out to more than seven bombs per game. Unfortunately for Groce, Richardson is really struggling from deep, making fewer than one in every three heaves, and his 37.4 percent connection on all shots is downright cringe-worthy. The third amigo in the backcourt is sophomore Tracy Abrams, who scores 11.4 points per game and leads the team with 3.2 dimes a night while shooting a horrendous 28.3 percent from deep and turning the ball over nearly three times a game as well.This Illinois team is certainly not going to scare anyone off with their 43.1 percent and 33.6 percent marks from the field and three, respectively, and they settle for far too many triples for their own good, but when they do get hot, they become very dangerous very fast. In wins versus Butler, at Gonzaga, and over Ohio State at home, Illinois shot 48 percent or better from the field all three times and 40 percent or better from long range twice on at least 25 attempts. In their five losses, however, Illinois only shot better than 36 percent from the field once (38.8% against Northwestern) and shot worse than 15 percent from downtown three times. It’s obviously very difficult to defend a team that doesn’t miss, but Illinois is not that team. Michigan needs to focus on closing out hard and getting a hand in the face of every shooter.
- Box Out: When a team starts the season winning 18 of their first 19 games, there is never much to harp on, and rebounding the basketball has certainly not been an issue so far for this Wolverine squad. The Illinois team will present a slightly different challenge in that category, however, as nearly half (48.8%) of their misses on the season are threes, which can clang off the rim and end up anywhere. John Beilein will certainly stress boxing out in this game so that all of Illinois’s rebounding options are covered, and man defense should be played almost exclusively. One thing the Orange and Blue do very well is rebound as a team. None of their players particularly stand out in cleaning up the glass, but they rarely get beat on the boards and seven different players average between 3.5 and five rebounds per game, not unlike the Wolverines and their rebound-by-committee outlook.
- Quiet the Crowd Early: Michigan only has one loss so far this season. That loss was on the road, in the Big Ten, and played with a raucous home crowd yelling as loud as possible in hopes of upsetting one of the best teams in the country. As you may recall, the Wolverines struggled to get out of the gates in that game, ceding a 20-plus point deficit early on and letting the crowd play too big a role. By the time Michigan finally caught Ohio State in the second half, they had spent too much energy to complete the comeback. Tonight, the Orange Krush will be giving everything they have to help propel their team to a huge upset, but if Michigan can get out to a hot start, which they have failed to do in recent games, the crowd should largely be taken out of the equation. If Michigan enters the break down, like they did against Purdue, their chances of being best in the country come Monday will be in severe danger.
Prediction: While this is certainly a young Michigan basketball team, they have already gained a bevy of invaluable experience and should rely upon their memory of that Ohio State game to help them get out on the right foot and run away from the home team in the second half, as opposed to catching up to them. The Wolverines simply have too much talent for Ilinois to handle, and Beilein is certainly not going to let Groce hand him a tough loss two seasons in a row. Trey Burke shows Brandon Paul who is boss in the Big Ten as Michigan rolls, 73-62.