At this point in the season for the past three or four years, Michigan has faced must-win games down the stretch in order to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. This year, there’s no question the Wolverines will get in; the question is whether the Wolverines will win the Big Ten and finish well enough to earn a No. 1 seed. On Sunday, a team comes to town in the very position Michigan is happy not to be in this season.
Illinois has enough quality wins to earn a bid to the big dance, but the Illini can’t afford to slip up down the stretch. The rough spell in January that saw Illinois lose six of seven – and eight of eleven from Dec. 22 to Feb. 3 – nearly wiped out the Illini’s chances. But that all changed when a beautifully executed inbounds play at the buzzer shocked No. 1 Indiana. It sparked a string of five straight wins and the Illini now find themselves as the hottest team in the Big Ten.
John Groce’s squad comes to Ann Arbor looking to avenge a 74-60 loss to the Wolverines in Champagne on Jan. 27. That win propelled Michigan to the No.1 national ranking, but it also came at a cost, as Michigan lost Jordan Morgan to an ankle injury. He hasn’t been 100 percent since then and Michigan has gone just 3-3 since then.
Illinois surrendered 15 turnovers in the first meeting and Michigan dominated the paint with 42 points, even without Morgan for much of the game. You can bet Groce will aim to prevent that again, especially given the struggles that Michigan’s freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III have faced over the past few weeks. The two had good games against the Illini last time out, scoring 14 points and 12 points, respectively, but have not fared well during Michigan’s rough patch, and Groce will want to force them to beat his Illini.
Star guard Brandon Paul has had his own share of troubles as of late, scoring 10, three, and eight points against Minnesota, Purdue, and Northwestern. He shot just 6-of-22 in those three games, but the Illini won all three. That’s a good sign for Groce because it means others are stepping up – most notably D.J. Richardson. The senior guard has averaged 17.3 points per game over the last nine and 18 points during the five-game winning streak while shooting 46 percent.
As a team, Illinois shoots just under 43 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from three. The good thing for Michigan is that the Illini have the conference’s second worst scoring defense, ahead of only Penn State, the third-worst field goal percentage defense, and the second worst three-point percentage defense, so Michigan should be able to score often. Illinois is also not a great rebounding team, so the Wolverines won’t be overmatched on the boards like they were against Michigan State.
Michigan is still struggling to regain the top form that carried it through the first half of the season, while Illinois is soaring with momentum. The home crowd will benefit Michigan, but as the Wolverines saw with Penn State last Sunday, they can’t sleep on anyone. Expect a dog-fight to the end and a great guard battle between the combos of Trey Burke-Tim Hardaway Jr. and Paul-Richardson. Michigan’s ability to score inside should determine the outcome. Prediction: Michigan 77 – Illinois 73