Illinois hosts Michigan on Tuesday night in a game that could wrap up the Big Ten title race and give the Wolverines their first outright regular season championship since 1986. Michigan leads both the wounded Michigan State Spartans and the charging Wisconsin Badgers by two games, so only an unlikely 0-2 finish can open the door for the Wolverines’ opponents now.
Here are some thoughts to keep in mind for tonight’s battle in Champaign.
Make it a half dozen: Illinois is one of the few teams that Michigan has dominated easily under John Beilein. In fact, the Wolverines ride a five-game winning streak against the Illini into tonight’s game, including victories in Champaign each of the past two seasons.
Just a few weeks ago, the matchup with Illinois looked like a cakewalk. The last-place Fighting Illini had lost 10 of 11 games, including five straight at home. Now, Groce’s team seems to have found its groove and boasts a three-game winning streak after shocking Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday.
In order to get its sixth win in a row over Illinois, Michigan can’t take this game lightly. Illinois considers Michigan its most hated conference rival and would like nothing more than to delay the Maize and Blue’s conference championship celebrations.
Groce found little satisfaction in facing Michigan during his first Big Ten season, as Beilein’s crew spanked Illinois by a combined 27 points in two games. That’s not the only experience the 42-year old boasts against Michigan, however, as his upset win as the coach of the Ohio Bobcats in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament essentially landed him the job at Illinois.
Stop worrying about the offense: Ever since Michigan’s loss in Iowa City two weeks ago, the team has struggled to play inspired basketball from the opening tip. Slow starts have become the Wolverines’ proverbial kryptonite after six straight games began with double-digit deficits.
Settle down, everybody, Michigan is going to be just fine.
Remember that despite those difficult first halves, Michigan finished the stretch 4-2 with wins over both Michigan State and Ohio State. The ability to come out of a stretch that featured four top-25 teams that led the Wolverines by 10 or more with two victories says more about the team’s potential than it does to reveal some fatal flaw.
What seems to be the problem? Early in games Michigan thinks too much about the offense. Many possessions early in the game look pre-constructed and lack flow. During the 10-game winning streak that put Michigan in position to win the conference championship, the offense essentially ran itself. Over-examining its performance on the offensive end puts Michigan on its heels defensively, and players like Denzel Valentine and Lenzelle Smith Jr. take advantage of wide-open opportunities.
Michigan’s offense features explosive players like Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert, two guys that possess an inherent ability to score. They should focus on stopping Illinois on defense and let the offense come naturally.
Run, and don’t stop for 40 minutes: No matter how well Illinois played in its last three games, the season statistics don’t lie: Groce’s offensive strategy simply doesn’t work. Illinois ranks outside the top 300 nationally in points per games and field goal percentage. For a Big Ten team with a 17-12 overall record, those statistics are absolutely staggering.
Heading into tonight’s game against Michigan, Illinois has scored more than 70 points just one time in the past 14 games (an 81-74 loss to Iowa on Feb. 1). In the three Big Ten games in which they scored more than 70 points, the Fighting Illini own a 2-1 record with both wins coming in the first two conference games of the season.
Michigan, on the other hand, eclipsed 70 points 10 times in its first 16 conference games, including a seven-game stretch in which it more than doubled the number of times Illinois accomplished the feat in just 25 days (Jan. 5-30).
Clearly, Illinois can’t compete with Big Ten competition when the score approaches this height, and as a result, Michigan represents a tough matchup on Tuesday. If Michigan pushes the tempo and makes Illinois play a high-scoring game, it can exploit the thin offensive arsenal of Groce and run all the way to an outright Big Ten championship.
Prediction: Michigan’s golden opportunity to shock the Midwest comes to fruition on Tuesday night. While Illinois has won three straight games against potential NCAA Tournament teams coming into the only matchup of the season, too much is at stake for Michigan to overlook the 6-10 Fighting Illini. The Wolverines will make things official with a 73-60 Big Ten championship-clinching win.