Kind of a strange way to begin this piece, I know, but then again it's been a strange year. Ever since the start of the year Michigan has played the role of the upstart. Their horrific 1-6 start to the Big Ten Conference season put them in the role of spoiler. Then, following a few wins, they were in position to go to the NIT with a respectable showing, Then they were in position to fight for a Tournament invite. Then they were close, but on the wrong side of the bubble. As tip-off approaches they sit, at least according to the prognosticators, on the right side of the bubble.
If you listen to the prognosticators, for the first time this season Michigan is going into a game with something to lose. Something that can be taken away from them. And how that will effect their play is the great unknown.
Even though we as fans and the media have them "solidly" in the Tournament, what the hell do we know? No invitation has been extended. Michigan's resume is good, but not a lock for inclusion. No one is talking about seeding, they're only talking about making it. Put simply, it ain't a done deal yet.
That's why today's game is such an opportunity for this young Michigan squad. They've been written off once before this season, and they certainly don't want to allow anyone the opportunity to do that again. This is an opportunity to erase a two point loss to the Illini earlier this season. It's an opportunity to show just how good they are. The opportunity to get to the next level years ahead of where even the most optimistic Michigan fans thought it would take. The opportunity to carve their ticket to the Dance in stone.
It won't be easy though. The Illini are in a similar position. The teams sport identical records (19-12 [9-9]). They play similar styles. They love to run and they love the jump shot. Unlike Michigan, Illinois has several seniors on it's roster and as their Senior Center Mike Tisdale and Senior Point Guard Demetri McCamey go, so go the Illini. Tisdale and McCamey had their way with Michigan a wew weeks ago, combining for 30 of Illinois 54 points. For McCamey, it was a revival moment; saving, to some extent, his senior season. For Tisdale, it was business as usual. The 7 foot, 125 pound center routinely knocked down open shots and was a pain in the ass in the paint.
For Michigan to come out on top, they're going to have to shut down at least one of these scorers. They're also goign to have to eliminate the mistakes they made in Champaign. During their visit the Wolverines converted a very un-Michigan-like 37% of their shots. Many of them were forced due to Illinois' defense, but a good portion of them were related to not working the offense to it's fullest. If Michigan can avoid Stu Douglassgoing 2-11 and Tim Hardaway Jr from shooting 4-12, Michigan will be in business. But to seal the deal, the Wolverines are going to have to continue to get production down low from Jordan Morgan and off the bench from low-post hydra of Evan Smotrycz, Blake McLimans and Jon Horford. That combined with a better showing from Darius Morris should give the Wolverines an opportunity to advance.
And that's what it is. An opportunity. An opportunity to do a lot of things. Now it's up to them to take advantage of it.